About India Association of Topeka

30 Years of India Association of  Topeka

by Dr. Padma Raju

An accurate history of the India Association of Topeka (IAT) is lost in the mists of time. This is a soft focused, therefore flattering, portrait of IAT, drawn from the fading memories of the founder members. Many of the founders are in or close to the seventh decade of their lives. Most have left town. At least two have passed beyond the reach of earthly communication.

In the early 70’s, there were just a just a handful of Indians in Topeka. There were three doctors at the VA Hospital and another doctor at Menninger’s. There was another couple associated with State government. They left in 1973. Now the VA hospital has become the VA medical center, as have all the hospitals in this country. Menninger’s was renowned for psychiatric care, education and research. Topeka itself was well known as the location of Menninger’s akin to the fame of Rochester, Minnesota as the home of Mayo clinic. Indeed, whenever a foreign face appeared in Topeka, in the 70’s, the assumption was it belonged to a psychiatrist or a psychiatric patient at Menninger’s.

By the mid 70’s, there were about 15 to 20 families of the Indian community and were meeting occasionally in private homes for Deepavali (Diwali), Christmas, New Year’s eve, August 15, etc.  Very soon, our numbers increased and these celebrations were held in the clubhouses of various apartment complexes around town. Deepavali of 1978 brought the formation of India Association of Topeka as a formal but unregistered entity to promote the social activities of the community. The founders’ hope was that this organization would promote the social, cultural, and educational aspirations of the people from the Indian subcontinent and their friends. IAT has succeeded, over the years in this purpose.

The first executive/working committee (1978-79) had five members, Satya Hebbar, Vinod Patel, T. Sundernath, Rani Thyagarajan & Padma Raju. In the winter of 1978-79, a committee, consisting of B.B. Mukherji, Sharad Bhatia, and Padma Raju, wrote the bylaws of the IAT. The bylaws were approved, after a few modifications, by a General body meeting of the membership held around January 1979. During these early years, in addition to the potluck celebrations, there were screenings of Indian movies (8 or 16 mm film) at a lecture hall at Washburn University. Most of these screenings were money-losing affairs with the memorable exception of Satyam Shivam Sundaram.

Satya Hebbar was the President of the IAT in 1980. The collective memory becomes even fuzzier at this point. If and when, the correct dates and names are available, a historian of recent vintage can incorporate that information into a proper history of the IAT.

Deepavali 1979 or 1980, held at the Casa Grande clubhouse brought a unique experience. The Mai Tai was the celebratory drink and proved to be too tasty for our good. The evening ended with all the food not eaten, and all the participants driven home by a teetotaler and the person who prepared the punch. Names are withheld to protect the guilty. The person, who prepared the punch, has never been asked again to make the punch. Memories may be fuzzy but last a long time.

The early years were known for inclusion and active participation of people not born in India. Notable examples include Flora Jadhav, Sue Gandhi, and Mike Hall (currently the editorial page editor of Topeka Capital Journal) who served as Presidents of IAT. Ashraf Sufi (who was actually born in Amritsar) served as Vice President for a year. We hope this inclusive character of the IAT will trend up.

There were some unsuccessful attempts, in the 80’s, to buy a building to serve as the home of the IAT. They were given up as we realized we could not afford the year round maintenance even if we can afford to buy a building, big enough to hold the Diwali celebration. It is difficult raise money for a secular organization. We hope IAT will always be the Big Umbrella rather than catering to one religion.

In the mid 80’s a different set bylaws were adopted. In 1991, IAT was incorporated in Kansas and is now a legal entity, with the help of Jasu Lakhani and Gita Parulkar (who has served as honorary counselor in addition to being the President one year). Now the IAT has a Board of Directors overseeing the Executive committee. The initial Board of Directors consisted of Deb Bhaduri, Gita Parulkar, and Padma Raju. We have not met the threshold to make this a tax-exempt organization, yet.

The mid 80’s and early 90’s saw a waning of interest in serving on the executive committee. Lakshmi Donepudi stepped forward at least on two different years, served as President and revived the organization. She has served as President at least three years.

Information Technology revolution has brought more young Indians to the city and we hope they will actively participate in the IAT, in large numbers. This group with some others, including Sudhir Hegde, Gopala Selvaraj, Suresh Ram, & Dilip Patel, have brought Cricket to Topeka. The old timers are astounded that Topeka can now boast of two Cricket fields and several Cricket teams. The memory of a broken nose, by a ball off the bat of a Guyana player, during an informal game in Gage Park during the early years, is still vivid.

There are some salutary recent developments with varying degrees of connection to the IAT. In 2003, Lakshmi Donepudi started India Fest, for the benefit of various local charitable organizations. She has led this wonderful enterprise all these years and now Gleena Sankoorikal has stepped forward to grow this to greater glory.

There have been a few Indian music/dance events held in Topeka, with private donations, as a way of saying Thank You to the people of Topeka. Recent concerts include sitar recitals by Anoushka Shankar and Indrajit Banerjee. We are still a comparatively small community, but we have prospered in Topeka. We must continue to show our appreciation of this opportunity and “give back” by sharing our culture and wealth, both individually and as an organization. Charitable organizations in India have also benefited by the fund raising during the Navaratri/Garba celebrations arranged by Atul Patel and friends. We must encourage and actively participate in all these efforts.

Several individuals have arranged for political fundraisers for beneficiaries included Senator Bob Dole, and Bobby Jindal (when he successfully ran for the US representative from Louisiana) and Raj Goyal. The importance of participating in the local and national political life cannot be stressed too strongly.

The Diwali celebration has grown steadily, over the years, to include almost 300 members and guests. The food has to be catered and the old timers miss the better tasting home cooked food. The music and dance presented by the children and young adults has now become an expected and integral part of the celebration. Sipra Ghosh volunteered, for many years, to train and prepare these artists. During the last couple of years, Anil Karunakaran has brought his professional expertise to this endeavor. Joseph Sankoorikal has served as our permanent emcee extra-ordinaire for about 20 years now.

Best Wishes for the 30 years Anniversary to the India Association of Topeka members and friends.