Desi groups keep culture alive in foreign land

HT 2016
It has been nearly six years since I moved abroad and in these years my desire to learn more about India’s heritage, traditions and culture and celebrate them have only deepened. My discussions with friends reveal that I am not the only one who feels this way. Thankfully, there are Indian community groups across the UK that bring people of the Indian diaspora together through cultural celebrations and meet-ups and provide them with a sense of familiarity in a foreign land.

Apparently, there are hundreds of such local groups across the country and these are either run voluntarily by members of the community, or as a charity. Some charge a membership fee while most collect a small amount only for attending events. Almost all major festivals, from Durga Puja to Holi are celebrated by community groups with great zeal in the same way as cultural fairs are celebrated in India, complete with stalls selling Indian food, jewellery, dresses and handicrafts. Chants, Indian music and dances complete the show.

Connecting with your roots
Most of these groups were formed several years ago with the simple aim of bringing together Indians living in their local areas. Where I live, a voluntary group of local residents aptly named Prabashi to symbolise an Indian living outside his country, recently organised its seventh annual saraswati puja (a ceremony to worship Goddess Saraswati who symbolises knowledge and learning).

In the run up to the event, one of the members kindly hosted Bollywood dance practice sessions for children at her home. This reminded me of my growing up years in India where one of my mother’s friends in the neighbourhood would teach us kids to perform at local cultural gatherings.

The actual event saw participation from hundreds of Indians living in my locality and surrounding towns and made me feel festive and connected with my Indian roots. With a priest performing the religious ceremonies, women decked up in sarees and children performing saraswati  vandana, dancing on Bollywood songs and playing Jan Gan Man (India’s national anthem) in front of an audience, I forgot for a moment that I was in London.

By organising cultural events, community groups such as Prabashi play a pivotal role in passing on the knowledge of Indian culture to the children of first generation migrants.

Recreating India’s communities
Several groups go beyond celebrating festivals and serve a larger role in the community. For instance, there are groups that organise meetings for the elderly where passages from the Bhagvad Gita (Hindu scripture) are read and language related assistance is provided in filling forms. There are others that host monthly gatherings for women. Activities like yoga and meditation workshops are fairly common too.

To my mind, such initiatives help one feel at home in a new country. The greatest pleasure is simply in knowing that there is a familiar community that understands your culture, your yearning and will always be your home away from home.

(First published in Hindustan Times on 19 Feb 2016)

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