Indians in metro Detroit had a tradition in the '70s. For three days in the summer, a vibrant little India sprang up in the gray concrete expanse of Hart Plaza. The Festival of India was a spectacular event, filled with the rich aroma of Indian cuisine, the eye-popping beauty of sweeping saris and the highly energetic dance and music called bhangra.
Unfortunately, in the '80s the festival lost its luster, and was eventually phased out. As Detroit began to slip further into despair, Indians relegated their musical events and cultural gatherings to the suburbs.
But in 2005, after a hiatus of nearly 20 years, the festival was resurrected by a group of local Indians who wanted their kids to experience the same showy event that they had in their youth. It was a smash hit more than 18,000 Indians (and non-Indians) attended. It's happening again this weekend, and organizers are hoping to break the 30,000 mark.
A nonprofit group called the United South Asian Promotions was responsible for bringing the festival back; it was founded by Gurvinder Singh, Jack Sandhu and Raj Sanghvi, son of festival founders Jaydevi and Bharat Sanghvi.
"This is something we grew up enjoying as kids," Sandhu says, "and due to budget issues with the city it pretty much phased out."
So, USAP was formed, and organizers drummed up money via corporate sponsors (Daimler Chrysler is a big one) and other private donors, using their connections with Detroit's Indian community to spread the word.
Sandhu was thrilled that a new generation of young Indians can now experience the three-day spectacle, which includes dancing, a beauty pageant, food from local restaurants, a carnival area for kids and dozens of vendor booths.
"Last year, we had parents coming up to us and telling us they were so happy their children could see this and be a part of it," Sandu says, adding that many second- and third-generation Indians have never even seen their homeland.
"Most people can't afford to take their whole family to India, so their children may never get to see it. When you have cultural shows here, they give you a glimpse, but that's really all you get a glimpse. With this festival, it really feels like you're in India, because you're there for three days, seeing all the cultures, tasting all the flavors, seeing everything from all the different regions."
The state's Indian community has grown rapidly over the last decade there are now almost 100,000 Indians in Michigan, with most of them in the metro Detroit area. Large Indian populations can be found in Canton, Farmington Hills and Troy along with Indian groceries, dress shops, local Indian music shows on AM radio, and companies catering to the demands of an elaborate traditional Indian wedding.
But the biggest uniting move for the community came last December when Rakesh and Sonali Gangwani took over managing the SR Movies at Novi Town Center and began showcasing Bollywood films the wildly popular Hindi-language epic films that are produced by Bombay studios. From the outset, the husband-and-wife team imagined the theater as more than just a Cineplex.
"We wanted to be the central focal point of the Indian community, so people could come and see what's happening, whether it's a religious gathering or a music event."
Web sites such as Manchanda's and miindia.com and < ahref="http://detroit.indiagrid.com" target="_blank">detroit.indiagrid.com allow local Indians a way to network, list Indian businesses and post Detroit-area events. Anu Gopalakrishnan hosts her own Indian radio program in six languages on WPON (1460-AM) and runs miiindia.com, which began in 1999. She says there are 12,000 unique users who log in every day, and the site gets more than a million hits a month. She attended last year's event and was pleased to see more Indians venturing into the city proper.
"We tend to have our India Day celebrations in Southfield, and it was nice to have it in Detroit. I found more non-Indians participating, which is a refreshing change."
Gopalakrishnan thinks the smorgasbord-type approach of Festival of India makes it the perfect opportunity for non-Indians to explore the richness of the culture.
"Everything you need to know about India is there, in a nutshell. We've captured the culture and brought it back with us."
Organizer Sandhu is also excited about luring more Indians south of Eight Mile Road.
"There are Indians who haven't been downtown in 20 years, since the last festival, and it's not the downtown of 20 years ago," he says. "Last year, we had people coming up and telling us they couldn't believe how much Detroit has changed. It's nice to get them out there to see the waterfront and the beauty of Detroit."
And the festival organizers don't shy away from the grittier aspects of Detroit either.
"There are lots of homeless people who live at Hart Plaza," Sandhu says, "And when festivals come around they're all kicked out. So this year we're doing an outreach program for them Thursday before the festival. We've got food and entertainment set up for them."
"Because, really, we're coming into their 'home.' And we just wanted to do something to make them feel like they're part of society."
From Friday, Aug. 25, through Sunday, Aug. 27, at Hart Plaza, Jefferson at the foot of Woodward, Detroit; festivalofindiadetroit.com.Sarah Klein is culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].