For many of us in the U.S., our idea of Indian culture is limited to Bollywood, what we see on the news, or American comedians like South Carolina native Aziz Ansari. But at Charlotte’s 22nd annual Festival of India, visitors realize there’s much more to Indian traditions than saris and naan bread (although you’ll find those there, too).
Part street festival and part theater performance, Festival of India takes place Saturday and Sunday along Tryon Street, where vendors sell food, jewelry, dresses and souvenirs in a bazaar-style market. Inside on Belk Theater’s stage, 3,000 years of traditional dance forms come alive every hour and a half. Arts exhibits are also on display throughout all three levels of Belk’s lobby.
While cultural festivals are often a way for transplants to reconnect with tradition while sharing it with friends, Festival of India is aimed at exposing non-Indians to the culture.
“The fundamental reason we do the festival is to propagate Indian culture in the community. ... As I tell my Indian American friends, ‘You guys know about Indian culture. The festival is for the rest of Mecklenburg County,’ ” explains Lal Vishin, who has managed the volunteer-run festival for 20 years as the Indian population has grown from 4,000 to 30,000.
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“Cities like San Francisco feel multicultural,” says Vishin, who moved to Charlotte in 1980. “You walk around and see Bangladeshi, Indian, Spanish, Chinese. Here you don’t get much of a flavor of it being an international city.”
He would like to see that sort of diversity here, and says educating and exposing each other to a variety of cultures is key. In time, he hopes Indian culture can be adopted in the melting pot of American culture the way others have.
“We want the American mainstream to understand our social norms, our cultural norms,” he says. “When the Irish came here, they were different. But now I drink green beer on St. Patrick’s Day. An Irish person is not an exotic thing.”
He never wants his children or grandchildren, who were born in Charlotte, to have to answer the question, “Where are you from?” just because they look different.
“You don’t ask that of a German or Polish immigrant because ethnically they look the same,” he says. “That’s the dream, and the current political phenomena makes it difficult. I’m a realist. Stereotyping comes because you haven’t taken the time and energy to understand each other. ... The burden is on us to educate people, so there is no misunderstanding.”
Festival of India
When: Noon Saturday and Sunday.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St., and the block along Tryon.
Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.