Mamta Trivedi has tried to maintain a sense of kinship between herself and others of her native culture ever since she moved to Naples.
“When I see someone with my Indian attire, I stop and talk to them,” she said.
Her efforts to maintain ties with her homeland led to the creation of the annual Naples India Festival, held last Saturday afternoon inside of the Golden Gate Community Center. Since 2009, the festival has been a private affair among locals of Indian origin. There are about 300 people involved in Mamta Trivedi’s network, and about 200 of them attended or participated in the festival throughout the day.
Its main purpose is to impart elements of the native culture to its younger American-born generations, some of whom have never been to India.
“It’s like a dying art we want to explain,” said Ketan Trivedi.
The women on stage and in the audience wore fabrics of varying colors, from vivacious shades of aqua and mint green to more austere tones of navy and maroon, decorated in gold and silver brocaded patterns.
Vendors displayed beaded bracelets for ankles and wrists made with wood or glass beads and sparkling gemstones. One table had intricate earrings and matching necklaces of gold with dangling jewels. Guests snacked on samosas — vegetable stuffed pastries topped with a tangy tamarind syrup that has hints of curry and spice — and onion bhaji, which are savory, round vegetable fritters.
Wherever possible, event organizers tried to seamlessly blend traditions.
After singing both the Indian and American national anthems, the events opened with a Hindu prayer dance to an idol of Ganesh, the deity of wisdom and prosperity. Then, performers of all ages presented different choreographed dances representing the old and new, the East and the West.
Young children played a central role in the performances, which is another way to “bind everybody together,” according to Ketan Trivedi.
“That way the parents will come. We want them to be family and community oriented,” he said.
Bina Gajjar, who is the mother of two young sons, said the festival allowed her to make connections with people she would not have been able to make otherwise.
“You can meet at the grocery store but don’t really know them. Once they come here you get to know them and their kids,” Gajjar said.
The opportunity to express Indian culture outside the home helps children build pride, according to Gajjar. Through dance, the children learn to blend cultures and work together. During the Jai Ho dance, a group of 3- and 4-year-old children jumped and wiggled to upbeat Indian music while dressed in Western-style clothing. For a moment, the music grew soft and the children knelt, put their hands up in unison and started to sway.
Other children, dressed in more traditional attire joined them, and the entire group swayed together until the music ended.
Learning to balance the two frames of perspective is encouraged to the children but is not mandatory.
“You give them a choice,” Gajjar said. “There are many kids who are not interested and that’s OK.”
Dr. Rasik Mehta, who is considered to be the patriarch of the Naples Indian community, moved to Naples almost 40 years ago from the United Kingdom. He studied medicine in Scotland and has worked with Naples Community Hospital system.
As more generations are born in America retaining ancient customs becomes paramount, but Mehta said they are not interested in snuffing out American influences.
“We do not want to align as an ‘American’ or an ‘Indian’ — rather, infuse them,” Mehta said.
Mehta believes multiplicity and openness are fundamental parts of Indian society. Ideas such as plurality and secularity are not shunned, but rather, encouraged.
“We try to tell children to be broad-minded and also remember (their) culture,” Mehta said.
Indian culture is not homogenous, either. Although most people are aware that India is densely populated — about 1.2 billion people are estimated to live there as of 2011 — the diversity within the country is less widely acknowledged, according to Mehta and others.
India is divided into 28 states, and those states are unofficially grouped into culturally distinct regions that differ in everything from language to fashion.
“How a sari is folded and worn can almost tell you where someone is from,” Ketan Trivedi said.
It’s this fusion of the different Indian and American influences that helps younger generations forge their identities.
Jasna Gopalan, 21, has lived in Naples most of her life, but still identifies strongly with her Indian roots. She says her parents are from the state of Kerala in the southern region of India. Although she has lived in Naples for most of her life, Gopalan has been exposed to the customs of her parents’ country since birth.
“My parents did a great job instilling cultural values,” she said.
Gopalan is trained in classical Indian dance, an art form that is more than 2,000 years old. She is also proud of her American culture, which is why she choreographed and performed a fusion dance that combines the traditional with the more modern, western-influences found in India’s “Bollywood” films.
It’s not a “struggle” to identify as Indian-American because she believes that many other Americans have to blend differing cultural identities.
“Being American, that’s part of it,” she said.
Indian traditions can be American traditions because there is an underlying universal theme to them both, Gopalan said.
“The morals are not just representative of our culture. I think it’s what a lot of people value,” she said.