Festival of India

League: Voter Participation -- Not Just Registration -- Crucial

The McLean County League of Women Voters (LWV) Saturday offered voter registration at the Festival of India on the Illinois State University campus quad, as well as assisting with NAACP registration at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church on Bloomington’s west side.

Registration will continue next Saturday this month at the church, and Sept. 27 is a communitywide volunteer Registration Day, co-sponsored by the League with Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal

“The more people we get out to vote, the better our leaders will be prepared to know what we want and what we expect out of them,” LWV’s Phyllis VerSteegh said during the Twin Cities Indian community's annual event. “If we do not to events like this, people will not be aware of what they need to do, how they need to register, where they need to go to vote, how they vote, etc.”

NAACP registration efforts launched earlier this month at Mt. Pisgah, with volunteers also canvassing the area around the church, according to LWV’s Katie Pratt largely to spur community voter awareness.

In addition, the League next month will sponsor mock elections at Bloomington Middle School and Normal Community High School, as well as registration efforts Oct. 4 at Normal’s Unity Community Center, 632 Orlando Avenue. LWV participated as well as the recent Heartland Community College Fall Fest, and VerSteegh noted a local elementary school teacher’s aide has requested voter material, arguing “it’s never too young to start getting people engaged in and aware of political activities.”

Pratt stressed Twin Cities university students can vote either absentee or locally. Voter info is available at the Illinois State Board of Elections website (www.elections.il.gov/), the McLean County Clerk’s office site (www.mcleancountyil.gov), through the ISU student portal, at my.illinoisstate.edu.

Early registration ends Oct. 11 – after that, individuals must register onsite at area election authorities.

“It isn’t enough to register – people have to get out to vote,” VerSteegh emphasized. “They can start voting early Sept. 29 (see above list of sites).”


Culture on The Quad, Communities Commingled

The Illinois State University quad came alive Sunday with dance, color, and camaraderie both among Bloomington-Normal’s diverse but united Indian “communities” and between the cities’ Indian and non-Indian neighbors.

This year’s fifth annual Festival of India buoyed McLean County India Association (MCIA) President-Elect Archana Shekara, an ISU assistant professor of graphic design. But for Shekara, whose academic and personal worlds cross many cultures, the fun and fellowship are prelude to what she hopes to be an expanded outreach to and understanding with the community.

The first festivals were held at first the McLean County Museum of History and then Miller Park, “but since I teach here, I thought it would be so nice if we could do it here,” Shekara related.

“It’s a great collaboration between this university and the Indian community, the McLean County India Association,” she said. “People learn from each other – we’re having fun at this festival, but they’re also learning.”

The festival officially kicked off with the traditional Deep Prajavalan ceremony (see top photo at right) – the lighting of a lamp fashioned from flowers by Bloomington’s Krishna Flowers and Gardening -- led by 2015 MCIA President Uma Kallakuri, Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner, ISU’s College of Fine Arts Dean Jean M.K. Miller and Provost Janet Krejci, and Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal leader and Hindu Temple of Bloomington-Normal board member Mandava Rao.

In addition to onstage music and dance from throughout the subcontinent, the event featured Indian fashions, crafts and decorations, and spiritual, health information, and educational booths, as well as face-painting, a “bounce house,” and balloon animals. Representatives of the Twin Cities’ Hindu temple were joined by  members of Bloomington’s International Society for Krishna Consciousness – a local Hare Krishna group.

The festival also showcased Indian art including rangoli -- patterns created on the ground or floor traditionally using materials such as rice flour and often placed at the doorway of a temple or home, “welcoming people and warding off evil,” said Shekara, an ISU College of Fine Arts Service Award recipient.

Visitors feasted on a hefty “lunch thali” combination plate featuring either paneer masala and or vegetable biryani (a rice dish) or samosas (savory pastries) – according to Shekara, all vegetarian to bridge the various dietary/cultural traditions of India’s diverse regions. The festival drew Indian-Americans, temporary Indian workers, and others from at least 14 Indian states – an impressive feat of coordination a myriad of customs, preferences, and attitudes designed to “celebrate our diversity and our unity.”

“The first thing that we tell people is that ‘we are Indians -- leave those cultural differences aside,’” Shekara stressed. “We all come together and celebrate India as a country, and celebrate the similarities. We all speak different languages -- Uma and I speak a different language at home. Uma speaks a language called Telugu, and I speak Kannada. And we speak English -- that’s what unites us. It’s a ‘foreign’ language; it’s not even Indian.”

But the Festival of India also is an invitation to the non-Indian community. “More and more” Twin Citians from other cultures have dropped by for a new experience or to meet their neighbors or coworkers, reported Shekara, who canvassed “every organization I could think of” to promote the festival.

A long-time MCIA volunteer who originally “was just having fun doing it,” eventually recognized “all these little gaps that are there in the community.” The Hindu temple provides a focal point and “an identity” for the cities’ disparate Indian communities, but events like the festival provide a way both to “connect those dots” and to reach out to the community in which Bloomington-Normal Indians live, work, eat, and shop, but from which some may feel disconnected.

Shekara and the MCIA are working to connect the microcosmic Indian community with the community at large. She recently attended Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal’s annual strategy planning meeting, and has provided cultural training and certification for local day centers “trying to understand their customers who leave their children.”

“The festival is bringing a lot of non-Indians onto the quad and trying to help everyone understand a little bit of Indian culture,” Shekara said. “But more needs to be done.

“When I teach my students about cultural identity, my students tell me I’m the first Indian that they’ve interacted with, let alone teach. And then I teach European graphic design – Swiss graphic design – and I teach it with an accent. I kept thinking about all this, and I thought, ‘Maybe as a president-elect or as a president next year, I need to do something more than the festival.

“I invited (NIOT:B/N’s) Mike Matejka to come and talk to my class. If I’m a minority and I start talking, they’re going to think, ‘Oh, she’s just complaining.’ But when you bring in a Caucasion who starts talking about diversity issues, that’s when people just start listening – it’s different. Just a person’s color completely changes everybody’s attitude and mentality.

Archana Shekara signing prints. (Photo by ISU College of Fine Arts)

Archana Shekara signing prints. (Photo by ISU College of Fine Arts)

“So then I thought I needed to start going and meeting people in the community. That’s when we start having conversations. These conversations bring us together, and then that’s when we realize we are not the ‘other’ – we are all the same. We are just all so caught up in how we look that we forgot, and then we are self-conscious. But we are the same – we have the same heart, we have the same thinking. But there’s a little bit of a gap in the community – we see that especially in the workplace.”

Festival of India: Tradition Through Dance

Below, the Indian Classical Dance troupe, directed by Guru Uma Kallakuri, performs during Sunday's Festival of India on the Illinois State University quad. The annual festival brings together cultural, spiritual, artistic, fashion, and culinary traditions from across the various Indian states. The event is co-sponsored by the McLean County India Association and designed both to unite Indians and Indian-Americans throughout the Bloomington-Normal area and to introduce Indian cultures to Twin Citians.

More highlights from the festival, along with reflections from major festival coordinator, ISU graphic arts instructor, and McLean County India Association President-Elect Archana Shekara tomorrow here at Twin Cities Stories.