India Day festival shines spotlight on community's cultural heritage

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For local surgical assistant Pankaj Dave, yesterday's India Day festival in Towson was a chance to reconnect with Indian-Americans in the Baltimore area.

For city government employee April Harper, the annual event celebrating India's independence gave a her a glimpse of a co-worker's culture.

And for 6-year-old Nikita Shah, India Day meant the petite dancer was allowed to wear a swipe or two of glittery eye shadow and mascara.

"That's her favorite part," said her mother, Nipa Shah, who was in town from Rockville for the event.

Dressed in bright-orange Indian garb, Nikita Shah joined about two dozen other young people to perform patriotic Indian songs and traditional dances as about 200 spectators sampled Indian food - and fumbled with umbrellas during the sporadic rain showers.

Fewer than 1,000 Indian-Americans live in Baltimore County and perhaps 10,000 in the entire Baltimore region, government officials estimate. But it's a growing population, particularly in Timonium and Towson, where organizers moved the two-decades-old India Day festival three years ago.

India Forum sponsors the event with the Baltimore County Office of Fair Practices and Community Affairs.

"We've got a really mixed culture here," said Adrienne A. Jones, executive director of the Baltimore County office. "It's nice to reflect that."

Jones watched while girls as young as 3 swirled barefoot across a makeshift stage in front of the County Courts Building, swaying their hips in time - more or less - to songs from popular Indian movies, such as Devdas and Lagaan.

"Everyone's so pretty," 17-year-old Jocelyne Harper whispered to her mother, April Harper, as young women smoothed their skirts and helped apply lipstick to their even-younger fellow performers.

The two city residents said they attended yesterday at the suggestion of April Harper's co-worker, Pushpa Sokhey, who is chairwoman of India Forum.

After a 30-minute downpour yesterday afternoon, the festival began with renditions of the American and Indian national anthems. Next, a group of school-age children accompanied by a harmonium sang in Hindi a tune that was sung on the eve of India's independence 56 years ago.

Little girls dressed in orange and blue tried to imitate the dance moves of middle-school-age girls dressed in midnight blue and silver, and proud fathers stood with their camcorders as those little girls later performed a dance of their own. Both groups are students at the Kalanjali School of Kathak and Folk Dances.

Choreographer Priti Vasavada said the younger girls, who range in age from 3 to 6, learned the complicated routine in less than two months.

Across the courtyard, Pankaj Dave, the surgical assistant at St. Joseph Medical Center, sat with his 8-year-old son Shivam and sampled rice and curry from the Mount Everest Restaurant booth.

The elder Dave said he tries to take his Hunt Valley family to as many cultural festivals as he can.

Asked if any of his three children were singers or dancers at the India Day festival, Dave replied: "They like to perform, but they perform best on this." He held up a portable game system.

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