NAMASTE Madison to Celebrate
Contributions of Indian Americans to the
Greater Madison Area
Cultural and Community Introspection
Event Organizers - Neeta Saluja (l-r), Lakshmi Sridharan,
Anjali Sridharan, Pratibha Antani and Amitha Domalpally
All of the committee members agreed that the food is an essential part of Indian culture and is what helps sustain people in Madison.
“I think one of the things that make it sustainable is that when we have been brought up on Indian food, it’s hard to let go,” said Anjali
Sridharan, a second generation Indian American who is an electrical engineer by education and now works as a project manager. “My uncle
recently joked that his daughter who is an MD Ph.D. and is now working and his son who is working in a hedge fund, they go all over the
country and stop in each of their houses and cook for them and then go back home.”
Neeta Saluja, who teaches Indian cooking, noted that not only does it sustain the culture, but it also is often the gateway to Indian culture.
“Often times, my son would ask if I could give him two extra,” Neeta said about packing a llunch for school. “He said that it was a good
bargaining thing and he could get something better from other people. One day my son wanted me to make lunch for 8-10 students. By the time I
started making the food, I don’t know how many kids came. In the end, I ran out of everything. I said, ‘Look, there’s some chicken curry and
rice.’ They said, ‘Okay, we’ll take that too.’ Food connects us so well and it really keeps us in perspective and everything, the food and
openness to people.”
And the food also was an entree to meeting Americans as well.
“We invited our neighbors over so many times for Christmas and summer parties,” said Pratibha Antani who retired from WPS. “They would
look forward to the Indian food. We threw parties for my husband’s colleagues at Edgewood College. They would ask my husband, ‘Is your wife
going to make certain Indian dishes?’ He would tell them yes. They would say, ‘We are definitely coming.’ We threw so many parties for the
faculty. And they loved it. Everyone said that Indian food is very, very famous. My neighbors were always waiting for the invitation.”
Another important tie to Indian culture is the music and dance, which are central to the education of any youth growing up in India.
“My mother’s side is very traditional people,” Lakshmi emphasized. “In that community, music has to be taught for every girl who is born and
raised. Many of them don’t have good voices and don’t have an interest in music. But they all have to learn. That’s how I grew up. The thing
was my father was in the federal government, so he used to get transferred. For most of my young adult time, we were not in our area in the
South. We were transferred to the North. They were not good teachers. However my mother would seek teachers and look for them. She would
talk to people. She would find someone who would come to our home and teach us music, my sister and I. The music is a part of our growing
up. When I came here, met Shree, got married and Anjali was born, always at the back of my mind was we had to have music and dance
taught and she has to learn them.”
And Anjali has carried on that tradition.
“I have two girls,” Anjali said. “I think it is easier with girls because they like to dress up more except when it is itchy. In fact, we have to go
through and do the whole test with Indian clothing. Is it itchy? Okay, we’re not getting this. Amitha is actually a very good choreographer.
Except for the first year when my older daughter was shy, my daughters have participated in almost every dance every year. My oldest
daughter is 12-years-old and she isn’t giving it up yet. They like to dress up. They like to wear the costumes. They like to dance to Indian music.
And they like to do something that ties them to something they know. They know that during the break, they get snacks. They like that. But they
also like hanging out with their Indian friends in Madison. It definitely ties them together. And they know the 3-4 big celebrations that happen in
Madison. They ask, ‘Are we doing a dance for that this year?’ It’s a ritual each year.”
Living in the same city as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a world-class university, also helped the Indian American community sustain
“The Southeast Asian Studies Department at UW-Madison gave a lot of opportunity,” Neeta said. “My daughter started learning dance when she
was five-years-old. They were teaching dance in the dance department. They just loved it. They had performances at the Madison Civic Center.
And my mother who is a musician, played sitar and was a vocalist. Whenever she came, she brought a tabla instrument and she would teach
the kids. They learned music from her. They wanted to learn it, but they didn’t want to show it off to their friends. But they never got connected
with the Bollywood part. I really wanted them to see the movies and all of that. They said, ‘No mom, don’t force us to watch these movies.’ But
they enjoy dance music and that kind of thing. We have been happy to see that they have connected in some ways.”
While food and dance are elements that define the Indian American community, they aren’t always the ties that bind, especially for couples
whose Indian heritage is rooted in different geographic parts of India. But there are ties nonetheless.
“My son doesn’t like Indian food,” said Amitha Domalpally, an ophthalmologist by training who is the director of a research lab.” It’s too spicy.
My daughter enjoys it. But she doesn’t like Indian clothes because they are too itchy. And my husband and I speak different languages, so we
don’t speak an Indian language at home. English is spoken, so both kids know nothing but English. I do worry. Will they forget their Indian
identity? We are in Middleton, which doesn’t have too much diversity. There are very few Indian kids in school. It is there at the back of my
mind. Will my children just give up on being Indian? And then, they discovered Bollywood. And Bollywood is Indian dance, music, fights, you
name it. Everything the kids want is there. And they are getting their Indian culture through Bollywood. We turn on YouTube and play music and
dance and watch movies and that is how they get it.”
The clothing is also an essential part of Indian culture, especially for the women.
“Part of why I like being Indian is you can get away with wearing bright colors and silk scarves every day,” Anjali said. “I have some of my
Indian silk scarves that I wear to work. I just wrap them a few extra times because they are much longer. The South is known for silk. There
are thicker kinds of silk and then there are thinner silks. In Tamil Nadu where my family comes from, there is a thicker kind of silk. And then the
other states where Bangalore is located, there are the thinner kinds of silk. Silk is always in. I would say they drape so beautifully. Depending
on what’s ‘in’ in India, all kinds of sarees you can wear with all different colors. I remember someone once telling me, ‘I think that sarees are
basically the absolutely most beautiful dress in the world. No matter what your shape, you can still look beautiful in a saree.’ Dressing up and
using all of the different kinds of fabric that flow beautifully, that can be embroidered or can be sewn on appliqué or even looking at the wool
that can be hand-sewn and knitted on, I think India has the most variety of fabrics that you can dress up in for all different temperatures. If you
look at the country, it has all different temperatures and climates.”
And the availability of Indian clothing is perhaps a symbol of the growth of the Indian American community.
“Lakshmi actually told me this story of when she first came here, in order to get an Indian sari, she had to get it from Japan because shipping
from India was not even possible, but shipping from Japan was,” Amitha said. “This is back in the 1960s. And today, I have people coming
every month to the apartment a block from my house selling saris and I can go there and buy. I can get them online and shipped from anywhere
in the world. But I can also get it shipped from women who do small business and sell these beautifully embroidered saris. I can take a photo
of my sari and send it to a woman in California and she will send me matching accessories. I can get whatever I want just from hitting my
phone button and I don’t have to go to Japan for them anymore.”
The Indian American community has grown and prospered and in doing so, has left its mark on Madison.
“Indian Americans had an economic impact of $489 million in 2015 in Dane County, directly and indirectly,” Anjali said. “It contributed 5,000
jobs directly and indirectly. Once we started putting numbers down, then we started seeing what we had done as a community. We have really
While the Indian American community keeps its ties to India, it has also made the Madison area its home. And by doing so, it has contributed to
the excellent quality of life that the Madison area enjoys.
Lakshmi Sridharan is a scientist who retired as a regional manager for four DNR programs in southeastern Wisconsin and is leading the
committee hosting the event.
By Jonathan Gramling
Ever since the first individuals from the subcontinent of India began coming to
Madison during the 1960s as students, there has been an Indian American
community presence in Madison, at first very small and relatively invisible
and then more visible with events on the Capitol Square celebrating India Day.
And while Indian Americans have always welcomed non-members of their
community to their celebrations and the Indian American community has grown
significantly over the years, the community has never taken stock, as a
community, of the Indian American community here and its impact on and
contribution to the broader Madison community — until now.
On May 8-15, members of the Indian American community — through a Library
Takeover Grant — informed the Madison community and themselves of what is
the Indian American community NAMASTE Madison.