Chicago Heritage: Asian Indians in Chicago

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On September 15, 1893, Swami Vivekananda (front, third from left), appeared on a platform at the Art Institute of Chicago with (seated, left to right) Virchand Gandhi, a Jain scholar, H. Dharmapala, a Buddhist monk from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and other dignitaries at the World’s Parliament of Religions. (Courtesy of the Vedanta Society of St. Louis.)

The Early Years

Long before the Asian Indian population growth in the mid-1960s, some famous Indians visited and left their mark on Chicago. Some notable visitors included the great Hindu philosopher Swami Vivekananda and Bengali Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. After 1965, Indians arrived in large numbers and formed the first substantial Asian Indian population in Chicago. The selective nature of the 1965 immigration law gave initial preference to skilled professionals. But once established, these professionals sponsored their relatives and the community became much more diverse.

Family, Work, and Religion

During the 1980s and 90s, many Indian immigrants ventured beyond the institutions of their employers. They utilized their entrepreneurial energy, professional training, and global connections to establish international commercial and technical enterprises of their own.  

Chitra Ragavan joined John Calloway’s Chicago Tonight in 1984 and became the first Asian Indian on-air TV reporter in a major market. After 8 years at WTTW, she went on to become the first Asian Indian reporter on National Public Radio. (Courtesy of WTTW.)

When Asian Indians arrived in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s, they looked to their fellow Indian colleagues to fill the void caused by separation from their families. They gathered together to celebrate each other’s birthdays, religious events, and holiday festivities. International phone calls were prohibitively expensive, travel to India was out of the question, and long letters to and from home were read, re-read, and cherished.

Meena Pandey and Sanjiv Bhatia are greeted with an arati (devotional circling of wick and flame arranged on a platter) at the bride’s Burr Ridge home after their wedding in 1992. In a traditional combined family, the newlyweds move into the husband’s parents’ home, but in the U.S. most young couples live on their own. (Photo by Mukul Roy.)

Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, Hindus worshiped in homes under a broad Hindu identity. As their numbers grew in the following decades, they regrouped according to narrower preferences. The result is a proliferation of temples dedicated to different deities in the Hindu pantheon.

Water from holy rivers of India is poured on images as they are installed in a 48-day puja (worship service) during Kumbabhisekham or inauguration ceremonies for the Balaji temple in Aurora in 1985. (Photo by Mukul Roy.)

Tradition and Community

Classical music and dance performances, plays, independent art films, and exhibitions of visual art help strengthen traditions. They inspire new forms of expression that celebrate the vibrant and varied cultural life of Chicago’s Asian Indian community.   

Dancers of the Dilshad Academy perform Kathak at an India Tribune gala. Kathak, a glorious fusion of Hindu-Muslim arts from North India, is taught at area institutions including Kathak Nrityakala Kendra Academy in Elk Grove Village, established in memory of classical dancer Anila Sinha by Dr. Birendra Sinha. (Courtesy of India Tribune.)

The leading Indian political body in the city is the Indo-American Democratic Organization. Established in 1980, it has grown in influence by endorsing political candidates who seek the support of the Indian community, conducting voter registration drives, sending delegates to national political conventions, and teaming up with other ethnic groups to lobby on issues such as affirmative action, immigration, and discrimination.

At a reception hosted by Bell Telephone Company following the Naturalization Ceremony on July 26, 1966 at the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago, Surendra P. Shah (center), accompanied by his wife, Dorothie, was invited to say a few remarks on behalf of the 33 new citizens. (Courtesy of Dorothie Shah.)

Many Asian Indians who have prospered in the United States share their good fortune with others by volunteering and contributing generously to worthy causes. In addition to established mainstream institutions, which provide abundant avenues for service, a plethora of organizations addressing special needs and interests of immigrants has emerged as the population has grown. These organizations facilitate immigrant adjustment to America and American understanding of the distinctive heritage and customs of Asian Indians.

Indo-American Center (IAC) volunteers Lakshmi Menon, Indira Adusumilli, and Sushila Maker greet a visitor at the 1997 press conference inaugurating the City of Chicago Ethnic Neighborhood Tours. (Courtesy of Chicago Neighborhood Tours, Chicago Office of Tourism.)

To learn more about the Asian Indian community in Chicago, click here.

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