Last year, at just about this time we spent a good part of the day at the Little Africa festival in St. Paul. We were planning to do the same again this year but in the weeks prior I learned that India Fest was scheduled on the same day. I’ve been vaguely aware of India Fest—organized by the India Association of Minnesota—for some time now but had never previously been moved to attend. But now that our boys are getting older we’re trying to expose them to as much of their parents’ Korean and Indian heritage as we can and so we decided to go. And a very interesting event it turned out to be.
Unlike the Little Africa festival, which takes place in a small park at the intersection of Snelling and Lafond, India Fest is a pretty large affair. It takes place in the grounds in front of the State Capitol and is altogether more spectacular. These differences speak to the differing fortunes of the immigrant communities in Minnesota. The Indian population of Minnesota has been expanding greatly with each census; Indians are the second-largest Asian community behind the Hmong. Indians are also among the most economically successful groups in the state. This financial muscle was clearly flexed for the festival. The Twin Cities’ T Metro transit system offered free passes on all their lines for passengers going to India Fest and the state declared August 17 India Day. And among the various cultural booths that were featured at the festival were those for the state’s major political parties.
The festival has three prongs. First, is the stage—right in front of the Capitol—where various cultural performances took place from 11.15 through 9 pm. These included dance performances by students of local Indian cultural associations and members of the community, performances by professional groups, Bollywood dance events, a live band and a DJ (we did not stick around for the evening’s events and so I cannot report on how crazy it all got). Second, there was a plethora of booths that featured cultural information etc. Finally, there was a long food section with tables set up by various Indian restaurants from across the Twin Cities.
I don’t have much to say about the performances except to say that it was all of a pretty good standard. This will not come as a great surprise to anyone who knows how many Indian cultural organizations and academies there are in the Twin Cities. Somewhat unsurprisingly, most of these performances were rather female-driven. It’s not the case that folk dances from the various regions of India do not involve men at all but in the diaspora it often seems to fall to women (and girls) to be the bearers of the markers of tradition. Perhaps the performances we were not present for featured more men (and boys) but if not, it would be nice to see more of that in the future.
The cultural booths were an interesting mixture as well. More interesting to me than what the booths were actually doing was to see which groups were or were not there. In terms of regional/state representation the major southern states/language groups were all represented: there were booths of the Malayali, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu associations along with separate booths focused on Tamil and Telugu language. From the east Bengal and Orissa had booths, as did Bihar and Jharkhand (appearing jointly despite relatively recent political separation). The Gujaratis and Punjabis had booths too. I was surprised to not see a Marathi booth; far less so to see no Kashmiri presence or that of any of the states of the north-east. I suppose this is a good index of the demographics of the Indian diaspora in Minnesota.
Also interesting—and a little disappointing—was the nature of the religious/spiritual representation. The Hindu Society of Minnesota was there (perhaps not coincidentally right next to the Gujarat Samaj’s booth); so was the Sikh Society of Minnesota. There was even a Pentecostal Christian booth. And a large number of meditation booths (though surprisingly, no yoga). But there was no Muslim presence as far as I could make out. I have no idea if this has historically been the case at India Fest or what the story is either way. At any rate, it would be nice to see the cultural activities at India Fest not be effectively Hindu.
And finally, the food. Seven local restaurants/counters had booths set up: Surabhi, Bluefox, I Grill, Persis, Bawarchi, Hyderabad Grill, and Hyderabadi Nawabi House (whose counter at the Skyway in Minneapolis is coming soon). I found this to be a very interesting lineup, dominated as it is by Hyderabadi food: in addition to the two with Hyderabad in their names, I Grill and Bawarchi are also Hyderabadi/Andhra food specialists and Persis’ offerings were also strong on Hyderabadi connections. It seems as though the population of Indians in the Twin Cities from the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh (Hyderabad used to be the capital but is now the capital of Telangana which split from AP in 2014) has increased. This would also be borne out by the amount of Telugu I’ve heard spoken in recent years in stores like TBS Mart. (Separately, I was expecting to see Hot Indian Foods there as well—I wonder if they’re going to be at the State Fair instead, or if it’s the case that their market is not Indians per se.)
Most of the vendors had fairly limited menus on offer, and most featured biryani. We got goat biryani and uppma with peanut chutney from I Grill and grilled lamb and chicken with naan from Hyderabad Grill. Most of it was much better than we’d expected, with the notable exception of the naan which was rather sad. Surabhi had a selection of chaat and other snacks that I would probably have indulged in if I’d not already gorged on biryani. I was also very pleased to see that the sweet options included both a Coldstone Creamery booth and a stall selling fresh-pressed sugarcane juice (ganne ka ras). If you attended as well and ate at the other vendors please write in below.
Okay, this has already gotten much longer than I’d planned it to be. Take a look at the massive slideshow below and then scroll down to see some thoughts on how the layout of the festival could be improved.
So, some suggestions for improvement. I’ve already noted the near-complete absence of Muslims from the festival’s program. Again, I’m not sure what the reasons for this might be but it would be good if the India Association of Minnesota did some better outreach ahead of next year’s festival. Let’s not have Hyderabadi food be the only visible marker of Indian Muslim culture at our signature event.
I also think the arrangement of the booths needs to have some thought put into it. It was all rather haphazardly distributed today. While this yielded some amusing—if probably unintentional—juxtapositions (the Hare Krishna booth right next to the Bollywood Dance Scene booth), it might have been good to put all the regional-cultural booths in one section and the religious booths alongside each other. Similarly, putting the businesses marketing their services and the non-profits in their own sections would make sense too—put the Indian dentist and wealth adviser (seemingly related) and tax preparer next to Best Buy and Boston Scientific.
Finally, while in the weeks leading up to India Fest the event’s Facebook page regularly published a series of posts on Indian spices, there was almost no information posted on performances and performers. Nor was there a schedule posted online. All of this would have been very helpful indeed.
If we’re in town, we’ll be back next year regardless. And maybe next year we’ll do the late-afternoon and evening shift instead of the morning and early-afternoon shift. In the meantime, if you attended as well, I’d love to hear about your experience of the festival.