When you speak of McLean County’s Indian “community,” you’re covering a wide swath – from Indian-American residents of long standing in the Twin Cities to university and college students to visa’ed workers and specialists in the U.S. seeking a community with which to temporarily share the cultures and traditions of their homeland. Bloomington-Normal is home to Indians representing a number of the subcontinent’s states and culturally diverse regions.
And Uma Kallakuri sees it as her mission to reach out and unite them all. Kallakuri is 2015 president of the McLean County India Association (MCIA), a group formed in the late ‘70s to support what she deemed a “handful” of Indian families across the cities. Now, McLean County is home to a reported 600-some families of Indian heritage, a new Hindu temple opened its doors last year at 1815 Tullamore Ave. in Bloomington, and a new priest was installed in December.
Kallakuri pledges to continue MCIA’s central goals of “bringing together the community and inspiring them to keep up their traditions and their roots, while at the same time helping them integrate into the community and give back to the community.” Kallakuri, a local classical Indian dance instructor and adjunct professor with Illinois Wesleyan University and, understands the need to keep fresh blood flowing through the community, and MCIA currently is focusing especially on younger members of the community.
That includes working to engage Illinois State and Wesleyan and, increasingly, Heartland Community College students in events and celebrations for the overall Indian community. Kallakuri hopes to foster a broader mentoring program offering youth the opportunity to develop professional and life skills and insights from established members of the community.
“Youth are our future, and we want to create a platform for them so that we can keep working on understanding better and then work more on diversity,” she maintains. “We are trying to bring them all together.”
With State Farm, two hospitals, and two universities to a growing retail/restaurant sector, McLean County suffers no dearth of Indian mentors. Through her local Nrityamala Dance Academy (NDA), launched in 1984, Kallakuri has helped keep classical Indian dance vividly alive and provided cultural insights for the broad community through local performances that often have helped support causes such as the Community Cancer Center, Children's Hospital, Red Cross, Salvation Army, American Heart Association, and Hindu temples. The academy has contributed as well to Hurricane Katrina and Asian tsunami relief.
MCIA is co-sponsoring a marrow donor registration drive this Sunday, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Normal Community Building, 1110 Douglas Street, while NDA students will perform at 2 p.m. March 21 at the Hindu Temple of Bloomington-Normal.
MCIA attempts to reach out to new members of the local Indian community, including temporary workers and employees, “to let them know there is a place they can call upon and come forward and connect with other Indians,” Kallakuri relates. MCIA also helps coordinate orientation/training sessions on the community for area businesses and agencies, and offers cultural education for area schools. Kallakuri points out that while many Twin Citians may be aware of the fall festival of Diwali, they may be unaware of Indian New Year, celebrated in March or April. The annual Festival of India, held on the ISU quad each September, offers a glimpse of Indian regional cultures, art, food, and folkways. While there are often significant differences in observances and customs across the various Indian states, MCIA sponsors generalized seminars, celebrations, and other events designed to bridge all subcultures.
“We do come together, especially at the Festival of India,” Kallakuri said. “Everyone enjoys coming together and watching one another. Each state and each region has its own way of cooking, its own way of dressing, its own way of doing things. But basically, there’s the same idea behind it all.”
Kallakuri finds Bloomington-Normal “generally, a good place to live.” She has taught not only at Wesleyan and ISU but also at other regional universities and in surrounding towns, and has found her fellow Illinoisans generally “encouraging.”
“I’ve had good experiences here – I love this place,” she said.
For more information on the Indian Community and MCIA, visit http://ourmcia.org/.