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Indian origin entrepreneurs bet on innovative ventures to tap into demand for Indian culture

Young overseas Indians clamouring to connect with their country's heritage have opened up business opportunities for a few in the diaspora.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jan 19, 2014, 10.33 AM IST
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Young overseas Indians clamouring to connect with their country of origin's heritage have opened up business opportunities for a few in the diaspora
Young overseas Indians clamouring to connect with their country of origin's heritage have opened up business opportunities for a few in the diaspora
Aron Ashitosh Prasad, an enthusiastic percussionist, regrets that there are no institutions teaching Indian classical music in Suva (Fiji), his hometown. The 20-year-old engineering student, a fifth-generation person of Indian origin (PIO), plays the dholak and tabla at the local Hindu temple and attends a Ramayana class every week.

Like Prasad there are thousands of youngsters spread across the Indian diaspora who yearn to stay connected to their Indian roots. And it is this gap that a few enterprising entrepreneurs of Indian origin are trying to fill. They have started dance and language classes and musical and cultural troupes to tap into the growing demand for Indian culture among young PIOs.

BALLE BALLE ALL THE WAY

Take for example Deepa Gupta, 37, a Kathak dancer who has trained under such luminaries as Birju Maharaj. She moved to Sydney in 2003 and now runs Sanskriti, a dance academy. "Members of the Indian diaspora here [Sydney] are very conscious of their cultural heritage and they also want the younger generation to learn about it and not just about Bollywood," she says.

At Sanskriti students are taught, besides Bollywood jhatkas, Indian classical and folk dance forms. They are exposed to the Indian concept of taal, expressions and body movements. "Not only girls, boys and women of Indian descent but we have students from other nationalities coming to learn Indian dance, many of them as form of exercise to stay fit," she adds.

It is this desire to stay connected to their Indian cultural roots that is fuelling different innovative ventures, says Sujata Sudarshan, CEO of the Overseas Indian Facilitation Centre, a public private initiative of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and Confederation of Indian Industry.

"During our various interactions with Indians overseas, we found there was a growing need among the young to connect with their Indian roots and many Indians are making investments in ventures related to Indian culture, language, education and heritage. From classes to teach Indian languages to music and dance schools, social and cultural entrepreneurs are striking gold in many countries with large PIO populations," she says.

And it is often a passion for Indian roots that drives many of these ventures. "For young Punjabis, who were born overseas, there is only a tenuous link with the land of their forefathers. Music and dance, particularly Bhangra, is the best way for many of us in the UK to go back to our heritage. It is not only enjoyed by the Punjabis but also by people from other ethnic backgrounds," says Harnaik Singh, co-founder of the popular Bhangra group Ankhile Putt Punjab De.

He and his teammates, Harpal, Amrik and Bobby, are all in their 20s and second-generation Punjabi immigrants. "We all have other jobs but our Bhangra classes, compositions and shows are things we are passionate about," says Singh, whose day job is with a bank in Birmingham. The group, which conducts Bhangra classes in Birmingham and has held shows in the US, Canada and Europe, makes enough money, especially during the festival season, to cover costs.

BOLLYWOOD THE BLOCKBUSTER

But it's Bollywood music, with its associated glamour and sex appeal, that is the biggest bridge between PIOs and India. And it is this wave that many smart social entrepreneurs are riding. Mona Sampath Khan and Amrita B Shastri, both in their late 20s, gave up their lucrative tech jobs in Silicon Valley and followed their passion for dance when they set up Mona Khan Company in 2009 in the Bay Area. The gamble has paid off for them.

"We started in a modest way offering dance classes at the Indian Community Centre in Milpitas. Within a few months of setting it up, our students did very well at "America's Got Talent" show. We were also invited to perform at Obama's inaugural party," says Shastri, creative director of the dance school.

While Khan was a choreographer and dancer during her college days in Mumbai, Shastri learnt classical dance growing up in Bangalore. Both went to the US as students and met in the Silicon Valley. "It took a lot of grit and determination to give up our comfortable IT jobs and set up the dance academy. It is not easy for immigrant Indian women to start their own ventures," Shastri says. But they did just that and have no regrets.
 
Today Mona Khan Company conducts over 80 dance classes every week, across the Valley for Bollywood enthusiasts; their dance troupe holds performances across America, which include shows with visiting Bollywood stars and performing at Indian weddings. "We do a lot of shows and have nurtured a number of talented Indian dancers in the US. Many of them have day jobs in Silicon Valley, but are great professional dancers as well. We have plans to expand across the US," adds Shastri.

In its own small way the company is doing its bit for the Indian community in the area by having dance classes for the elderly and children with developmental disorders. "Our dance company has become an integral part of the Indian community in the Bay Area and we are proud of our success as cultural ambassadors," says Shastri.

BEYOND DANCE

But it's not just about dance and music. Nandini Mukherjee, a successful restaurant entrepreneur, has branched out into education. In 2012 she set up BoloBoloKids in Manhattan, New York. Bolo-BoloKids uses songs, art, games and yoga to teach Hindi to mainly children of Indian origin.

Designed with inputs from linguists, early childhood education specialists, speech therapists, Montessori teachers, yoga instructors, dancers and musicians, Bolo-BoloKids is an innovative way to introduce Hindi to both heritage and foreign language learners. "There are more opportunities available now than ever before as Indian culture is becoming mainstream as a growing number of locals take interest in it; be it through clothes, food or movies and TV shows to cater to the growing Indian population in the US," says Mukherjee adding that the interest in learning Mandarin significantly increased since China opened its doors to the global economy.

Starting with Hindi, BoloBoloKids has plans to include Bengali and Urdu and expand to other languages as per demand. "As South Asian parents, my partner and I wanted to introduce our children to our language and culture. In the absence of a programme that taught Hindi in a fun, interactive and effective way we decided to create one utilizing our experience and skills," adds Mukherjee. They launched a low-risk venture putting together a team of consultants and experts. "We started off on a small scale and ploughed the profits back into the business. Our main risk is protecting our intellectual property," she says.

Over the years culture has been regularly used to bind people together as well as to reach out to other nationalities. "I have been involved in Indian arts and have performed around the globe for almost two decades. I find that the whole world is seduced by Indian heritage and culture and India needs to tap into this soft power," says Raghunath Manet, a Pondicherry-born, France-based Bharatnatyam dancer, veena player, composer and choreographer.

Events based on the India theme, such as the India Day Parade held in New York City to commemorate India's Republic Day, too become prominent platforms to showcase Indian culture and heritage.

"This event provides a huge opportunity for not just NRIs but also PIOs from the Caribbean countries to connect with India culturally through music, food and other activities. We have performances from all across India and the event is getting bigger every year. Besides the cultural connection, it also provides a platform for various Indian ethnic entrepreneurs in the US to showcase their brands and reach out to a huge target audience," says Ankur Vaidya, a businessman in New Jersey who is president of the Federation of Indian Associations (Tri-State), one of the largest nonprofit Indian-American organizations in the US.

The organization has been holding the India Day Parade for the past 33 years in the streets of Manhattan to promote and project India in mainstream America. The New York Police Department (NYPD) had estimated that about 200,000 people had gathered last year on either side of Madison Avenue and at the cultural programme venue.

And that's a captive audience for the cultural entrepreneurs to tap into and flourish.

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