It’s a dinner party in Columbia. Or is it New Delhi?
Set in all its finery, the table is replete with heirloom china and polished sterling silver, passed down through generations and perhaps presented to the bride on the occasion of her wedding. Colorful fabrics drape the table and adorn the furniture, and guests arrive to a greeting of “namaste.”
Columbia realtor Bhavna Vasudeva and her husband, Rajeev, love to entertain by blending the best of Indian and South Carolina cultures. Their Columbia home is a showplace that marries customs and art influences from both where a seersucker suit is as common as a silk sari, and musical notes played on a banjo as normal as a sitar. References to Hollywood quickly transition to Bollywood, filled with the beloved contraction “y’all.” Those familiar with both the traditional South Carolina and traditional Indian cultures hint that much unites them.
“I actually have a reputation for dinner parties,” Bhavna says. “Sometimes we pick a theme. I love themes. We might just make street food or appetizers. Sometimes I bring in a henna artist or get my friends’ kids to do a dance performance or play music. I will do a signature drink. We would have a traditional greeting at the door. It’s not just about the food. We try to make it a cultural experience. People are interested in our cuisine and our culture, and we are really excited to share that with friends.”
Born in the capital city of New Delhi in the northern part of India, Bhavna’s family moved to Springfield, Illinois, when she was just 4. Six months later, the family moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where she spent most of her childhood. She has lived most of her adult life, however, in South Carolina.
“We were like the pioneers. No one knew Indian people when I was growing up,” she says. “When I moved here, I didn’t identify with any particular community. The people who are my age generally came to America later in life. My husband came here in his 30s, so he has had a different experience.”
Rajeev, a gastroenterologist with Consultants in Gastroenterology, says that while the national language is Hindi, English is the language primarily used in urban schools across the country.
Commonalities between America and India abound. Both at one time in their history were ruled by the British — while the United States won its independence from Britain in 1776, India gained its independence in 1947. Both cultures also are historically class conscious, though far less so today.
The Vasudevas don’t mind inviting friends who are kin to the Charleston Manigaults or the Punjab Singhs to indulge in unsurpassed food, another shared cultural passion. It’s no secret that Columbians love their barbecue. Well, so do Indian-Americans. Only they call it something else.
“We all know that barbecue is quite popular in the South. Well, tandoori is like Indian-style barbecue,” Bhavna says. And when she really wants to step things up, Bhavna breaks out all the accoutrements of elegance to enhance everyone’s dining experience.
“I like to set the table. When I got married, my family gave me sterling silver and china place settings,” she says. “That is a common Western tradition as well.”
Her two sons, Armaan, 27, and Ishaan, 23, adore their mom’s lamb recipe. It is a longtime family favorite. “It’s really easy for me to make,” Bhavna says. “It’s one of my go-to meals, and lamb is a treat. You don’t make it every day.”
Just like with many Carolina cooks, cuisine is largely a matter of experience and instinct, like playing music by ear rather than with sheet music. Bhavna decides what she will prepare after finding out what’s in season and available, using the harvest as her muse. And like most cooks in the Midlands, she learned to cook traditional foods by watching her parents in the kitchen. Many of Bhavna’s friends call her “the Rachael Ray of Indian cooking.”
Hima Dalal, who is from Mumbai, moved to the United States in 1981. She attended college and stayed in the Midlands until 1995 before returning to India. She subsequently came back to the Columbia area in 2002 and has lived here ever since. Hima and her husband, Nick, ultimately made their home in Lexington County. They assist their son, Sanket, CEO, in the management of Vital Energy Wellness and Rehab Center, a business owned by her mother, Tarunika Kansupada. However, Hima and her father, Chandrakant Kansupada, are primarily involved in real estate development — hotels, assisted living facilities, and other projects.
“I chose Lexington; it was a small area when I came here in 2002. Having someone from a foreign country here to offer a different concept in the health care field was very new,” Hima says. “I think the community was fearful at first, but then they became welcoming and accepting. Business grew by word of mouth. My experience has been very positive.”
Indian-Americans make up only about 2 percent of the population here, but their impact — culturally and economically — is vast. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 87 percent of Indian-Americans are foreign born, and 38 percent are considered recent arrivals who have been in the country for a decade or less. More than half (56 percent) of Indian-American adults are U.S. citizens. In fact, the United States is the third most popular destination for Indian immigrants worldwide, and their numbers continue to grow, nearly doubling each decade since 1980. Most Indian-Americans, like the Vasudevas and the Dalals, are prosperous, hold higher education degrees, are entrepreneurial, and have a strong work ethic.
The Midlands has seen great growth over the past decade in the available resources for the Indian-American community. Multiple restaurants serve Indian cuisine, and Indian groceries are available where connoisseurs can purchase authentic produce, spices, and other ingredients for their favorite Indian recipes.
Raj Aluri, who organizes the annual Columbia International Festival, has been in Columbia since 1976. Born in India, he came to the United States at age 24, already holding a master’s degree in political science. He came to study at USC, earning two more master’s degrees — one in international studies and a second one in media arts, plus he earned a doctorate in education.
“In Columbia and most of South Carolina, we have become as diverse as many other states and large cities,” Raj says. “I believe we may have as many as 200 nationalities represented in the Columbia area.”
Many Americans associate arranged marriages with Indian culture, and a significant majority of Indians today still support arranged marriage. Bhavna’s marriage to husband Rajeev, celebrated with a three-day traditional Indian wedding in Pennsylvania, was not arranged in the technical sense. While they did meet by chance, a family connection was also at play.
“I was living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and he was visiting his best friend for the weekend. Our families were friends, so we all went out for brunch,” Bhavna says. “In India, people do arranged marriages, and, with me being raised here, I wasn’t opposed to the idea. I was happy to meet people with a family connection. We just hit it off, and we’ll have been married 31 years this year.”
While American weddings focus exclusively on the bride, Hindu weddings celebrate the joining of two families, much of which is expressed in the pre-wedding festivities. Under a canopy called a mandap, the betrothed couple sits before a sacred fire while a priest recites a series of mantras. The couple’s garments are tied into a knot (hence the term “tie the knot”), and they walk around the fire four times. Families are invited to make offerings, such as ghee, into the fire. Then the couple says their vows, often in Sanskrit. Usually the following day an elaborate reception is held featuring traditional music and cuisine.
“Hindu wedding traditions are a huge thing,” Hima says. “There are seven days of pre-wedding rituals, and every detail has meaning. The first night is mehendi or henna night (when red mehndi stain is applied to the bride’s hands and feet in elaborate designs). Henna brings joy and peace. It is beautiful. It starts with good food and happiness. The second night is a music night.”
The lavish Jodhpur wedding of Indian-American actress Priyanka Chopra and singer Nick Jonas made global headlines recently. Traditional Indian or Indian-inspired weddings, in fact, are increasing in popularity in the United States.
Two of the most well-known festivals observed in India are “Holi,” the spring festival of colors, and “Diwali,” the autumnal festival of lights. The dates for both change from year to year based on the lunar calendar. During Holi, celebrants welcome the end of winter and beginning of spring. It is a time of dancing, laughter, forgiveness, and the opportunity to be carefree. Revelers wear bright colors or may throw powdered colors on one another.
Diwali is by far the biggest and most popular festival of Hinduism. In appearance, it looks very much like Christmas in America in that families adorn the inside and outside of their homes with lights — candles, tea lights, or oil lamps. The festival symbolizes the spiritual triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness. Families indulge in elaborate feasts, including lots of sweets, and people exchange heartfelt presents to show their love for one another.
“The whole city is lit up,” Bhavna explains. “It’s beautiful. Everyone decorates their homes, and it is a special time of year.”
One of Hima’s fondest childhood memories is the Homa or Yajna, a Hindu fire ceremony in which participants place sacrificial offerings such as rice, ghee, milk, flower petals, or incense into a fire pit. It is meant to cleanse all negativity from the physical body and the atmosphere.
“This tradition is very dear to my heart,” Hima says. “In India, the whole town is invited. So many people together change the vibration in the air. They are saying mantras. It’s a beautiful, beautiful way to cleanse the mind and whole environment. We all celebrate this in Columbia, too.”
“Religious stories are told through folklore and dance,” Sanket adds. “They put a lot of effort into it. Columbia has instructors teaching the dances.”
In 2012, Bhavna helped arrange for Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao to visit South Carolina, where she met with then-Gov. Nikki Haley — the state’s first female and the nation’s second Indian-American governor — and toured the state. The visit led to a USC-directed partnership in 2013-14 between India and South Carolina of a yearlong celebration of India. Bhavna was named co-chair of the project, which was dubbed “Carolindia.”
“The idea was to showcase what the world’s largest democracy and a potent force in the global economy has to offer the Palmetto State,” Bhavna says, “and how both India and South Carolina can work together in a mutually beneficial manner.”
Originally coined in the 1970s, “Bollywood” is the term that describes the films and movies of Indian cinema. Today the genre, which is characterized by family oriented, romantic musicals, has expanded knowledge and improved perceptions of India around the world.
About 10 years ago, Gov. Haley told her good friend Bhavna about a groundbreaking exhibit she had seen at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Titled “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” it proved extremely successful in raising awareness of Indian culture in the United States. Soon officials were asking the Smithsonian if the exhibit could travel to their states.
“It was so well-received that there was a waiting list for different cities. Nikki was governor at the time, had seen it in D.C., and put our museum on the waiting list,” Bhavna says. Bhavna volunteered to organize and lead the Midlands effort. “We waited for about two years for our turn, and we just blew it out of the water. I wanted it to be something Nikki would be proud of, that I could be proud of, and that the community could be proud of.”
The challenge, and a strong stimulus, was that most of the exhibit, by design, was curated locally. “The Smithsonian only gives you the basic building blocks for the exhibit, and you build it around your local community,” Bhavna says. “Every exhibit in every city was different and unique to Indian-Americans living in that locale. Everything was localized.”
With some basic content, signage, and an outline, Bhavna and her team approached members of the local Indian-American community seeking items with an India-to-South Carolina link to feature in the show, which opened on April 28, 2017, at the S.C. State Museum. “It took months to execute. We customized every topic relevant to our state,” she says.
A series of Indian music and dance performances, as well as a kickoff gala, cooking demonstrations, and cultural lectures, were set up in conjunction with the exhibit, which ran for nine weeks, refuting pop culture stereotypes and giving audiences a rich glimpse into the Indian-American experience. The show was a resounding hit.
“It was so endearing that my friends’ children were excited to be there because they really felt that they were accepted and that they belonged,” Bhavna says. “There was a huge sense of pride.” This pride in the Indian-American community, which has become such a vital part of South Carolina, is certainly well deserved.