A Personal Reflection:
The Changing Role of IACA: A 39 Year Retrospective
-Dr. P. Ravi Sarma
In 1971, when Atlanta was still a charming southern town without sky-scrapers and Olympic dreams, there were but a handful of Indians who called it home. They were young, pioneering in spirit and patriotic. They started the India-American Cultural Association (IACA), and incorporated it. It served the needs of the group at that time. After a short period, however, like most nascent organizations, it became dormant, as the young people moved onto other things and other cities. Many of the original group, however, continued to live in Atlanta and wanted to reactivate the organization. Dr. Raj Chawla was the registered agent of this organization and served as its first president. Some of the members from this original group, who continue to be active, are K.K. and Girija Vijai, Jagan and Suman Bhargave.
It happened in 1975, when a professor with great parliamentary skills was persuaded to take the leadership of the organization. Dr. P. Venugopala Rao created a constitution for the organization and gave a focus and purpose for the community. That focus was to create a “Cultural Center” for the then 250 families in town. There was a modest fundraising goal of $50,000 and a well-respected research scientist from Coca-Cola, Dr. Darshan S. Bhatia, became the chairman of the cultural committee. Thus started the continuous existence of a community organization, one of the few in the country that speaks for the entire Indian American community, regardless of the religion or region of its members. The first major program was a ballet called “Ramayana” that attracted citywide attention and introduced the Indian community to Atlanta leadership. In 1976, Mrs. Uma Majmudar started the “Voice of India”.
The growth period
The early 1980s proved to be a period of rapid growth for the metro region and along with it grew the Indian community. More importantly, a group of youthful leaders emerged who believed in the goals of the association and worked hard to make the idea of a cultural center a reality. This group included Prakash Desai, Yogesh Joshi, Raman Patel, Vibha Desai, Prakash Wadhwani and others.
During the late 70s and early 80s IACA participated in the Dekalb community festival, and the Piedmont Park festival. August 15th was always celebrated with a food festival and carnival, called “Anand Mela”. IACA held its first annual banquet in August of 1982. Mayor Andrew Young was the chief guest; Ambassador K.R. Narayanan was the Key Note Speaker. Among the honorees was Mrs. Lillian Carter. In 1983 the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi was celebrated for the first time in cooperation with the Martin Luther King Center. Sri P.V. Narasimha Rao, then the External Affairs Minister of India, was the Chief Guest. This event continues to this day under the guidance of Giriraj Rao. The same year, the general body of IACA approved the purchase of the property that became the India Cultural and Religious Center (ICRC) Yogesh Joshi was the president and P. Ravi Sarma was the Chairman of the Board. The ICRC was inaugurated in June of 1984 during the presidency of Bhagirath Yadava. The ICRC temple and library were dedicated in 1985. The first IACA Drama Festival was also conducted during that year. Prateen Desai was the president that year. Life Membership was also instituted then. In 1987, during Subash Razdan’s presidency, the ICRC loan was paid off and the Gandhi Room at the King Center was refurbished. IACA encouraged the youth with its support of IYA, the Indian Youth of Atlanta.
Falling behind times
While IACA was busy consolidating its various activities, the community was growing and undergoing change. Many regional associations were established and they started to attract more members with their activities. The pioneering spirit and the patriotic zeal, which led to the establishment of IACA, were not that important anymore for the newer arrivals. Regional associations and religious institutions served the need for camaraderie and social interaction. While the community itself was doing well, IACA was unable to grow further and attract new support.
The changing community
As the 80s were coming to a close, something happened all across the US. Computer professionals replaced physicians, engineers and small businessmen as the new immigrants. A “virtual” organization, the Indian Professionals Network (IPN) founded by Narsi Narasimhan started attracting the young and the restless. Second generation Indian Americans started making their presence felt, first in college and university campuses and later in the community. Service organizations such as Raksha and CRY, newsmagazines such as Khabar and TV shows such as Namaste Bombay all reflect and represent this change
By early 90s it was clear that IACA had to change in order to remain relevant in this restless community. And change it did. Its annual beauty pageant and talent show now is a major event in the community. IACA’s educational activities include the Spelling and Vocabulary Bee, the annual career seminar organized by Ram Sidhaye and the Scholarship Fund. Recently, under the leadership of Mrs. Raj Razdan, IACA also started a senior citizens program. The constitution of IACA was amended to include representatives of other non-profit organizations in the board during the chairmanship of Vir Nanda. The successful organization of the Festival of India in 1997 under the presidency of Chand Akkineni is a clear indication that IACA has reemerged as a leading voice of the Indian American community in Metro Atlanta. In 1998, IACA was a major partner in the project spearheaded by NFIA that led to the dedication of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the King Center.
Passing the baton
The course of IACA is now clearly being set by a new generation of leaders. The pioneers defined the goals of IACA while the second-generation leaders in the 80s implemented them and consolidated the organization. The present leaders, who are the third generation leaders, are redefining IACA and trying to make it relevant again to the community. Still, the leadership is largely in the hands of the immigrant Indians. The baton will have been truly passed when Indian Americans who are born and brought up in the USA take up the leadership of this organization.
Prospects for a community organization like IACA
I have been associated with IACA and the Indian community of Metro Atlanta for nearly twenty years and I have observed the change in the community closely during this time. It is my belief that a community organization like IACA will survive only if it understands the service needs of the community and provides them. Insufficient funds and volunteers will always be a problem. IACA leaders will have to be people who are successful in their personal and professional lives. They should contribute not only their time but also their money before others in the community will follow suit. The Jewish Community Center and the Chinese American Community Center are but two examples of successful community organizations that IACA can try to emulate. IACA does represent the voice of the Indian community and a good public image projected by IACA will reflect positively on the entire community. Business leaders and entrepreneurs, who do well when the community is perceived well, should support service organizations like IACA for this reason alone.
Not many people believed that IACA would survive this long. This association has been serving this community for 35 years and chances are that it would be there 25 years from now. Our task is to make sure that it continues to be relevant to the needs of the community.
Dr. P. Ravi Sarma was secretary (1982), chairman of the board (1983), chairman of the library committee (1985-87), editor of Voice of India (1987-92), and vice chairman of the managing committee (1992) for IACA. He has been chairman of the Indian American Scholarship Fund (IASF), started by IACA, since 1993. Dr. Sarma can be reached through email at firstname.lastname@example.org