India “Influences” Come to SoCal

From the lovable ditz, Kelly Kapoor, of "The Office" to composer A.R. Rahman, who scored "127 Hours" and won two Oscars for his "Slumdog Millionaire" soundtrack, more and more Indian names and faces are wowing western audiences these days. And some mainstream American shows, like NBC’s "Outsourced" have even had one foot in Indian culture.

But if Bollywood has come to Hollywood, it’s just a small part of a growing cultural tidalwave that’s bringing Indian art, food and fashion to Socal’s laid-back lifestyle.

And more and more South Asians are popping up among us. Indians are now the third largest immigrant group in the U.S., after Hispanics and Filipinos, and they’re bringing the best of their culture with them according to Professor Gyanam Mahajan of UCLA.

"Everybody’s talking about India," she says.

The number of Indians living in California has jumped nearly 50 percent in the last 10 years alone, with San Jose, Fremont and Los Angeles leading the way. And then there’s Cupertino where the South Asian Indian population has nearly tripled since 2000.

Don’t believe it? Just take a stroll any weekend down Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia. Indians and non-Indians alike flood into the South Asian shops and cafes near the intersection of 183rd Street to stock up on exotic offerings, like the rainbow-colored imported fabrics and finery at "Frontier Heritage."

"We get all different cultures, all different clients, from Americans to Indian and Pakistani, to Chinese and Japanese," says the owner Neeta Asija, who was born in New Delhi and who models her own resplendent wares even as she flounces gaily among the myriad browsers.

"They walk in and usually they look at our mannequins and they say, 'This looks good, this looks good,'" Asija tells NBC4. "Most of them don’t have any idea if they want a sari or a churidar or a lehenga. They just get crazy to see our embroidery, the colors, the brightness."

A sari, she explains, is a flowing piece of unstitched cloth that is draped over the body in ways that often leave the midriff exposed. A churidar is a tight pyjama-like pair of trousers worn by both sexes, and a lehenga is a skirt overlaid with yet another that may be tie-dyed and often covers the midriff.

One shopper, a Cambodian named Jaqueline Tak, enters "Frontier Heritage" with her Sri Lankan fiance on her arm and begins trying on saris, looking for one that’s just right.

"I want a piece of his culture for the reception," she explains, finally settling on a flowing white sari with glittering gold embroidery.

The shop attracts many such brides-to-be, according to Asija, and they’re not just women like Jaqueline who’re marrying across cultures.

“I see Americans come in,” she says, "and one of the party themes is India, and they all dress up the Indian way. It’s a lot of fun and colorful and people really appreciate that."

Whether you’re looking for a sari or churidar or simply some Indo-themed cuisine, Artesia has it all.

Take Tava Lounge, an ultra-modern wood-lined brasserie with a full bar and plenty of American and Indian beer, located in a small shopping area just off Pioneer. It specializes in California food with an Indian kick.

"We’re taking traditional ingredients, rewrapping it into familiar dishes, quesadillas, burritos, tacos, making it more appealing to the American public," says owner Haresh Patel.

"People are kind of scared of eating new and different stuff," he adds, "but if they see a burger [whose] core ingredients are traditional Indian flavors, they might eat it and get comfortable with it, and start trying more traditional Indian food."

The fusion of Indian and American tastes celebrated each weekend in Artesia even extends to high-end bling, like the glittering, hand-crafted selection at Bhindi Jewelers’ local showroom.

"We’ve incorporated a lot of the traditional designs that are sought after, especially in items such as the mangalsutra, a traditional ornament that’s worn for wedding purposes," explains Ashwin Bhindi, the founder’s son, who now designs much of the shop’s jewelry himself.

The Hindi term mangalsutra translates as "an auspicious thread" and usually describes a gold chain and pendant, or a string black beads, sometimes perfumed with the herb turmeric.

"We’ve taken designs like that," says Bhindi, "and fused them with a little more modern style, New Age and western concepts, so that the jewelry is applicable to all sorts of ages and demographics."

Most Indian jewelry is "loud and ostentatious" with large stones, intricate designs, and "all sorts of dimensions and layers to them," according to Bhindi, while, in his view, western jewelry tends to be more "clean cut." He says his designs reach for the exuberant look of their Indian models.
"For the longest time," he says, "western earrings were just simple earrings that people would match with sets. We’re doing extremely ornate and decorative larger earrings, chandelier-type, that are being worn just on their own."

His experimentation apparently has attracted some impressive cross-cultural clientele.

"Madonna was one of our original A-list celebrities," he says.
In another corner of Artesia, Nakul Dev Mahajan owns and operates one of the largest studios in the U.S. specializing in Bollywood dance, that quintessential blending of fancy footwork from East and West.

"It is a fusion of Indian dance -- classical and folk -- with Western styles and forms such as hip hop, ballroom, Latin, jazz, all mixed up," he says. "It emerged from Hindi movies in India, which makes the most movies of any country in the world. It’s kind of pushed belly-dancing off to the side, which has been great for our people."

Indians have been reveling in variations of the Bollywood dance-style since the 1940’s, according to Mahajan, But lately, he says, it’s invaded American dance salons and competitions, in part because of its prominence in the wildly popular movie "Slumdog Millionaire."

"People were exposed to the Jai Ho song and dance at the end of the movie," he says, and were like, ‘Whoa, what is this?'"

Mahajan has capitalized on the dance’s growing popularity in the west and has been a choreographer of the regular Bollywood segment of the TV sensation, "So You can Dance."

"That show," he says, “has allowed so many people to be introduced to this style of dance. It just really kind of ignites a lot of interest in what this is."

The interweaving of Indian and American cultures isn’t limited to hot shows or niche enterprises like those that grace Artesia. The fusion phenomenon is even changing the way southern Californians take care of their bodies.

Sonal Patel, a licensed pharmacist in LA, is also trained in Aryuveda, the ancient Indian art of natural healing. She believes most patients, particularly in health-conscious SoCal, are now seeking natural remedies like those borrowed from Aryuveda to supplement their prescription medicines.

"Future models of medicine do look like more integrated models," she says.

Yoga may be the best known example of integrated Indian and western healing practices, and as Patel coils herself into a perfect lotus position, she reminds us that the yoga we do in the gym is less spiritual and disciplined than the yoga originated by Indian sages.
But, she adds, even the westernized variety strikes her as "beautiful" with a spiritual connection. “It is absolutely a dance between two cultures,” she says.

Meanwhile, at UCLA, Professor Mahajan says the students who take her Hindi-Urdu language classes, are learning to bridge the two cultures everyday.

"We encourage them to not only be proud of their own culture, but to be aware that they are Americans," she says.

Her program is one of the largest of its type at any university in the country, and is mostly attended by "heritage students," who are exposed to Hindi and Urdu at home. But, she says, cultural factors, including what she calls the "Slumdog Millionaire Effect," are bringing more and more non-South Asians to her classroom.

She considers "Slumdog Millionaire" a more nuanced presentation of South Asia life and culture than, say, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and as such, she says, "it fits better with who we are and who the other undergraduates are."

She also sees the increasing popularity of South Asians in western films and entertainment as aiding the cultural cross-fertilization that produced them in the first place.

In her view, anyone can thrill to the success story of Kal Penn, a onetime student in her UCLA classes, who now plays Dr. Lawrence Kutner on "House." And she says celebrities like Asif Mandvi on "The Daily Show" likewise help "both heritage and non-heritage students identify with South Asians in this country."

Add to this the increasing importance of South Asia in U.S. foreign policy, and she says it is inevitable that an increasing number of "non-heritage" people will be flocking to her classes, and heading out to Artesia to sample the fusion cuisine and other Indo-American offerings there.

Contact Us