Ambika Wali, a 24-year-old risk advisory consultant from Billerica, has lived in the United States all her life. When her parents describe their childhood in India's Kashmir valley, with its multigenerational parties, music, dancing, and marketplace gatherings, she tries hard to imagine a society like the one they remember, far different from that in which she has been raised.
But every year, for one day, Wali has what she believes is a firsthand view of what her parents' life in India might have been like. Since 1995, the Burlington-based India Association of Greater Boston, or IAGB, has hosted India Day, a cultural showcase designed to bring New England's widespread Indian population together for a day of visiting, feasting, shopping, networking, and cultural performances. In its first year, Boston's India Day drew a crowd of 2,000 to the Esplanade; last year, estimates of the audience were over 14,000, according to the association's website.
And all indications are that this year's event, scheduled for Sunday, will be even bigger. Not only is word of the event spreading, but 2007 is a particularly significant year for the Indian community because it is the 60th anniversary of India's independence from British rule. Ganesh Davuluri, a member of IAGB's executive committee, says he expects to see close to 20,000 people in attendance next weekend.
Wali and her two sisters, Anjali, 20, and Nisha, 17, will be among the 28 groups of performers who will take the stage at the Hatch Memorial Shell during the festival.
Wali says that even though she and her sisters have studied classical Indian dance since they were children, the impetus to form a performance group took hold only after she graduated from college.
"In Indian culture, it's common to study dance when you are young, but once you reach adulthood a lack of outlets makes it increasingly more difficult to continue dancing," she said. "I found I really missed it. I tried to get my sisters and some of our friends together to continue the tradition of Indian dance, but we just didn't have enough people."
So Wali sought help from a most American resource: craigslist.org. Last winter, she posted an ad asking for women who were interested in Indian dancing to contact her. To her surprise, the response was immediate. Within days, she said, the ad had garnered 15 replies.
One of the young women who saw the ad was Tenzin Youdon, whose background is quite different from the Wali sisters'. Her parents were Tibetan by birth and raised her in northern India; she immigrated to the United States when she was 15 and now lives in Medford.
"In India, I lived in a Tibetan community, but I was fascinated by Indian culture," said Youdon, who is 23 and works as a mutual fund accountant. "I have been practicing Tibetan traditional dancing and singing since I was a little girl. So when I saw Ambika's ad, it was a perfect opportunity for me to learn more about dance styles from a different cultural tradition."
Dance instructor Sutanuka Debasri Basu of Bedford, a family friend of the Walis who taught the girls Indian dancing for many years, was happy to accommodate the group that Wali gathered.
Basu emigrated from Calcutta in the mid-1990s as a young bride. In the next few years, she became known locally as an instructor of various forms of Indian dance and was asked to put together a performance for India Day in 1997. In the 10 years since, she has put together numerous cultural programs for IAGB and has served on its cultural committee and executive board.
In 2000, Basu founded her own dance academy, called Taal Nrityangan. She has no primary studio but teaches in a variety of spaces in Billerica, Lynnfield, and Bedford. Her students range in age from 6 to about 26 and come from Billerica, Chelmsford, Westford, Lynnfield, Acton, Saugus, Lexington, and Maynard, as well as Boston and Cambridge.
"In Calcutta, I underwent intense dance training, starting when I was 5 years old," Basu said. "I had always wanted to be somewhat nontraditional and create my own style, so I decided to start experimenting. What I teach today is a fusion of classical, folk, contemporary, and Bollywood dance. About three years ago, I started taking classes in Latin ballroom and salsa dancing, so now I incorporate those elements as well. The program my troupe will be performing on India Day showcases all of those styles."
Among the women whom Basu refers to as her principal dancers is Sona Banerjee of Randolph, who started dancing "when I was in diapers," Banerjee says. "My older sister was the one taking lessons at that time, but she didn't like it. She wanted to spend her time learning soccer and karate. I, on the other hand, loved it."
Though Banerjee and Basu are both Bengali by background, one of the things Banerjee values about IAGP is that it brings together all the diverse elements of the local Indian community, which is growing.
Census figures from 2005 put the number of Asian Indians in Massachusetts at 55,840. According to the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Lowell and Burlington are among the communities with the highest Indian populations in the state, at 2,424 and 1,570, respectively.
"There are so many states within India, and the states have different languages and cultures," said Banerjee. "When our parents immigrated here, they retained those divisions -- not because they wanted to be exclusive but because they were comfortable with people of similar backgrounds and wanted to hold on to their language and culture. IAGB gives us an outlet through which we second-generation Indians can recognize that, whether Bengali, Punjabi, or Gujarati, our collective heritage and upbringing makes our morals, values, and practices more alike than different."
Davuluri said that like the organization itself, India Day is becoming increasingly diverse.
Every year, "it is comprehensively more representative of the many different Indian subcultures," he said. "Moreover, India Day in Boston is increasingly becoming a very valuable launch pad for people of Indian origin to showcase their artistic talents."
Ambika Wali and Banerjee both serve on the cultural committee of the IAGB.
"We're the youngest voices on the committee, and we bring a different perspective," Banerjee said. "IAGB is made up of people of all ages and backgrounds. Some are first-generation immigrants and others have been here for over 30 years. I think it is important to embrace all these differences as we redefine what being Indian is in this country."
That, increasingly, is what India Day means to those observing it. "India Day to me is not about the music, dancing, or food," said Banerjee. "It's about being in the midst of a collective community of people who really value and identify themselves, based on the loving relationships they build as they come together each year to celebrate."