Over July 4 weekend, when most Americans go grilling out, picnicking or just watch fireworks on television celebrating Independence Day, the Indian-American community engage in a serious business: reconnecting with their roots, their culture and tradition.
For the 2.4 million Indian-Americans, it is what is commonly referred to as the convention time during the weekend of July 4, when whole families from different Indian-American communities are off to the convention venues, usually in big cities, for a few days of immersion into their long-left culture and tradition that once nourished them while in India.
The exercise by common consent helps them revitalize and renew connections with their motherland and the diverse cultures and traditions of the different states in India they come from.
The routine is by and large the same — whether the Indians come from Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu — three or four days of mixing and interaction with fellow Indians from the same state, feasting on regional cuisine, and enjoying dance, music and other cultural activities unique to their states.
The conventions also organize literary and business seminars, and sometimes fundraisers for cause in their states. Longtime residents, most eager to inculcate “Indian values” in their children, are usually keen to have the younger generation get exposure to Indian culture and tradition and to get a glimpse of that in such conventions. An important crowd-pulling factor is the presence of celebrities and politicians of different hues. This year Immanuel Arnold, a Sri Lankan Tamil who is currently the mayor of Jaffna, was present at the Tamil Convention in Chicago, while Ram Madhav, BJP’s national general secretary, was the chief gust at the Telugu convention in Washington, D.C.
Nandita Dasgupta, deputy chairperson of North American Bengali Conference held during the July 4 weekend in Baltimore, said, alluding to the gathering, that it was always a weekend filled “with entertainment —music and dance, literature and art, drama and films, business and health — all in the quest forreacquainting oneself with one’s own diaspora identity.”
Sribatsa Das, president of the Odisha Society of America (OSA NY/NJ Chapter) and event co-convener of the 50th annual convention of the Odisha Society of Americas said the organization started in 1969 at MIT by a group of Odias to create camaraderie among this Indian diaspora in the U.S. and Canada “has built bridges for the next 50 years engaging our youth and the new arrivals.”
This year on the July 4 weekend Bengalis, Odiyas, Tamils, and Telugus held their annual conventions. More are slated to be held throughout the U.S. through July and a few even in August.
Between Chicago, Maryland, Washington, D.C. and New Jersey, an estimated 20,000 people gathered at various convention venues for their annual jamboree.
Anurag Kumar, minister, Community Affairs, at the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C., noted at the NABC conference that, “It is indeed a great achievement and it reflects the true diversity and rich culture and heritage of India that we see so many colorful people here today.”
While the conventions are generally looked at positively by the community as they reflect the diversity of India and yet its essential unity, there are some dissenting opinions a well.
Thomas Abraham, chairman of GOPIO and the founding president of National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA) notes that because of the proliferation of organizations owing primary allegiance to their states or regions, a sense of pan-Indian identity among Indian-Americans is gradually decreasing.
“Thirty years ago, there was only one Telugu organization in the U.S. and now there are probably four, and each holds annual conventions separately. This happens in other regional groups as well,” Abraham said.
“No wonder pan-Indian participation in meetings of organizations like NFIA has declined over the years. I think growth of organizations representing states rather than India as a country, is a problem that we must look into, although I am not against the communities holding their own state conventions. They can participate in both.”