India’s Modi brings comedy game to big White House dinner in his honor


Washington (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought his comedy game to Thursday’s big White House dinner in his honor, cracking jokes about his lack of singing chops, the time President Joe Biden wanted him to eat even though he was fasting and how well Indians and Americans are getting along.

Not really known for having a sense of humor, the prime minister kept the nearly 400 guests in stitches as he toasted Biden and first lady Jill Biden before dinner was served.

“I know your hospitality has moved your guests to sing. I wish, I too, had the singing talent,” Modi joked. “I could have also sang before you all.”

He was referring to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who surprised guests when he got up onstage during a White House state dinner honoring him in April and belted out a rendition of “American Pie,” one of his favorite songs, to raucous applause.

Modi is on a state visit designed to highlight and foster deeper ties between India and the U.S. He said that with every passing day, Indians and Americans are getting to know each other better.

“We can pronounce each other’s names correctly. We can understand each other’s accent better,” he joked. “Kids in India become Spider-Man on Halloween and America’s youth is dancing to the tune of ‘Naatu Naatu,’” a catchy song from the Indian movie “RRR.”

Modi said Thursday’s dinner would give him a chance to make up for not eating during a banquet that he said Biden hosted for him in 2014. Modi was observing a religious fast at the time.

“I remember you were asking me and asking me again and again what I could eat during my fast. But it was not possible for me to eat anything and you were quite concerned about it,” he said. “Well today, I’m making up for it. All that you desired at that time with so much affection is being fulfilled today.”

Biden, who was less humorous in his toast, recalled that he said two decades ago when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the world would be safer if the United States and India “grew to be the closest friends and partners in the world.”

“I believe that even more today now that I’m president,” Biden said.

The leaders addressed each other before an audience made up of titans of business, fashion, entertainment and more, with the likes of designer Ralph Lauren, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan and tennis legend Billie Jean King rubbing shoulders with tech leaders from Apple, Google and Microsoft.

Shyamalan powered past reporters as he arrived, declaring it “lovely” to be at the White House. Lauren, who paired his tuxedo with gray New Balance sneakers, revealed he had designed the first lady’s off-shoulder green gown, calling her style “chic and elegant.” And violinist Joshua Bell, part of the after-dinner entertainment, said the evening was a “little different than anything I’ve done before.”

He said he would “skip out” of dinner early to practice. Bell played a rendition of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Summer.”

Saris — some thoroughly modern and including a Barbiecore hot pink one — and sequins were prominent among those lucky enough to attend the black-tie affair with a guest list heavy on prominent Indian Americans. Politicians of both parties also made the cut, notably including Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, along with Aruna Miller, Maryland’s recently elected lieutenant governor.

Other notables included social media influencer Jay Shetty, big Democratic donors like Florida lawyer John Morgan and civil rights activist Martin Luther King III. The CEO contingent included Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.

Guests dined on a plant-based menu of millet and corn salad, Portobello mushrooms and strawberry shortcake, catering to the prime minister’s vegetarian tastes. For guests wanting something more, roasted sea bass was available upon request.

Despite deep differences over human rights and India’s stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine, Biden extended to Modi the administration’s third invitation for a state visit. It included the state dinner, a high diplomatic honor that the U.S. reserves for its closest allies.

Biden hopes all the pomp and attention lavished on Modi — from the thousands who gathered on the White House lawn to cheer his arrival in the morning to the splashy dinner at the end of the day — will help him firm up relations with the leader of a country the U.S. believes will be a pivotal force in Asia for decades to come.

Guests rode trolley cars down to a pavilion erected on the White House south grounds decorated in the green and saffron colors of India’s flag.

Despite concerns about backsliding on democracy in India, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said she was attending to send the message that the nation of 1.4 billion people is important and “we must call out some of the real issues that are threatening the viability of democracy in all of our countries.”

A group of more than 70 lawmakers, organized by Jayapal, wrote to Biden this week urging him to raise concerns about the erosion of religious, press and political freedoms with Modi.

Pichai said he looked forward to the dinner as “an exciting time for U.S.-India relations.”

“I think we have two countries which have a lot of shared foundations, large democratic systems and values,” Pichai said earlier Thursday in an interview. He cited technology as one area of mutual interest between the nations. “So I think it’s an exciting opportunity. I’m glad there is a lot of investment in a bilateral relationship.”

Jill Biden enlisted California-based chef Nancy Curtis to help in the kitchen. Curtis specializes in plant-based cooking and said the menu “showcases the best of American cuisine seasoned with Indian elements and flavors.” Saffron risotto accompanied the mushroom main course, and dessert was infused with cardamom and rose syrup. She used millet because India is leading an international year of recognition for the grain.

Lotus flowers, which are native to Asia and featured in Indian design, were visible throughout the pavilion, along with saffron-hued floral arrangements that differed from table to table.

“We hope guests feel as if someone has set that table just for them — because we have,” the first lady said as she and her staff previewed the setup.

After-dinner entertainment also included Penn Masala, a South Asian a cappella group founded by students at the University of Pennsylvania, and the U.S. Marine Band Chamber Orchestra.

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