The Asian Indian community in Northeast Ohio: some significant highlights
The Asian Indian community (see INDIANS (ASIAN)) in Northeast Ohio, specifically Cleveland, is a significant marker of the settlement trajectory of immigrant communities- a trajectory replete with various personal, social and cultural adaptation processes in the US. Quite often, reasons for this geographical shift in the personal domain have been none other than to secure better economic and professional opportunities- and the United States provided them all.
The first wave of immigration from India to the US was perhaps, in the early part of twentieth century increasing gradually in later years, with concomitant changes in immigration laws in the 1960s- this being the period when Cleveland's Asian Indian population began to expand. However, there were earlier migrants to the city. Shanti Bahadur (b.1897) was the first and one of the oldest residents in Cleveland. Born and educated in Hyderabad (capital city of the State of Andhra Pradesh). He left India in 1920 for New York, worked in Ford Motor Company in Detroit and subsequently moved to Cleveland in 1927 where he established his photographic studio in the Commercial Building in 1933 (Reported in The Lotus, 8(1) Jan.1974). With about 100 Indians in 1930, the number rose to 170 in 1960 and 307 Indians in 1980, 2216 in 1980 and 5,780 in 1990 in Northeast Ohio. The steep rise in the number was largely due to the influx of medical professionals, engineers and business professionals from India who were able to immigrate because of the Immigration Act of 1965 which did away with previous quotas. A majority of these sought lucrative employment in the Cleveland's medical institutions, universities, and the corporate sector as well as small and large business firms. While some professionals such as Dr.Ashok Pradhan and Sham Gautam and Dr.Farook Screwvala came to Cleveland in 1959 and 196o, respectively, there were others who sought higher educational feats in Cleveland. Ajeet Singh Sood and Paramjit Singh created history in their educational achievements, respectively. Ajeet Singh Sood was by the first turbaned Sikh to graduate from the Case Institute of Technology (now CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY) in June 1963 (although he had successfully completed his degree in December 1962), followed in 1972 by a successful completion of his business degree (MBA) from Western Reserve University. Paramjit Singh came to Cleveland in 1962 and created yet another chapter in 1965 by being the first turbaned Sikh to have graduated from Western Reserve University, proudly wearing his turban, rather than the traditional mortarboard. (personal communications, Ajeet Singh Sood, 2012 and Paramjit Singh, 2012).
While the Indian community in Cleveland adopted and assimilated new cultural affiliations with a new culture in north-east Ohio, efforts were made by its members to maintain continuity with India, the country of origin This not only facilitated a connection with the traditional roots but also enabled easy connections with the American friends in Northeast Ohio. An important step in this direction was the formation in October 1963 of The India Association of Cleveland. Ambitious and inspirational in its goals, it aimed to share and present the rich cultural tradition and customs to American friends, to provide opportunities for cultural exchange and encourage close ties amongst Indians in Cleveland, which often found expression in sharing celebrations of various Indian festivals and national holidays (The Lotus, March, 1968,1(6), p.1.).. The Constitution of the India Association of Cleveland, underwent modifications between 1968 and 1973 and a year later proposed the establishment of an India House to serve the Indian community in Cleveland. The year 1964 was, by far, a significant landmark in the history of the trajectories of Indians in Cleveland. Shortly after its inception, the India Association of Cleveland celebrated the first Indian Republic Day on 26 January 1964 in the basement of the Euclid Methodist Church, and in February 1964 Mr.Hari Prakash Sharma was elected as its first President. Thus were set precedents, traditions and a calendar of events for community activities in the following months. In order to better connect the residents of Cleveland with India, a monthly newspaper called The Lotus was founded in 1967. Importantly, it acted as a mouthpiece for the dissemination of information to the Indian community and its friends in the greater Cleveland area. Besides bringing regular updates on issues relating to politics, sports and other social and economic developments, it was a significant vehicle of communication amongst the local community in Cleveland, communicating ideas about small businesses, theatres, issues of diversity as well as help regarding immigration and several social and entertainment events taking place in Cleveland. More importantly, the National Scene news item occupied an important place in every issue of The Lotus. Besides a regular connection with India, it also shared India's achievements regularly, as was the maiden underground nuclear test conducted by India on 18 May 1974. Amidst these precedents, issues of "brain-drain" from India attracted the attention of the Indian community in Cleveland, which was reported by the Editorial of The Lotus (p.1, July 1968) as follows:
Most Asians come here to further their training, to specialize in a field but most of all to have the guidance of the best teachers, and thus further their education. At first, their stay if intended to be short, but various factors contribute to their decision to stay on, and as this span increases, they decide to make the West their home. Besides, the West is the Mecca of aspiring writers, scientists and engineers and consequently, is an incentive for a good Asian student to stay on and carve a niche for himself.
It is a truism that Cleveland existed as a very important center in Northeast Ohio. While aspirations for education and better financial situation seemed cogent reasons for new establishments by the Indian community, Cleveland, even in the 1960s, remained a popular place with new immigrants at the time. As the nation's tenth largest consumer market, it was one of the largest producers of machine tools and other capital goods vital to US productivity. Besides, Cleveland has been the home of the world famous Cleveland Orchestra and Cleveland Museum of Art and more importantly, an international center for medical care and research.
While reasons for immigration to the US were primarily financial, economic or family ties, there have been some very interesting and remarkable exceptions to this trajectory. The story of Om Dutta Sharma, a lawyer by profession and his wife, a registered nurse in India, both of whom immigrated to New York in 1974, reveals the zeal with which Sharma and his wife built a new life in America. While Om Dutta Sharma's wife found suitable work, Mr. Sharma gave up his profession after he found out that passing the bar examination was a requirement for practice. After several small jobs in restaurants, and in a factory, he finally became a cab driver, and later opened up a school for girls in his native village near New Delhi (India), thus becoming a 'hero to school girls in India.' (Reported in The Plain Dealer, 2 January 2005- obtained from the records of Indian Association of Cleveland - courtesy of WRHS). Mr. Sharma?s new 'career trajectory' adds a new dimension to the near unanimous belief that a majority of the Asian Indian immigrants successfully practice their profession when they come to America. While seeking better educational and financial opportunities has inspired the Asian Indian community to adopt a new homeland, for Mr. Sharma, it meant 'giving back to the native country.' His story is exemplary of new identities forged by the immigrant communities in the hope of repaying to their parent country- and Mr. Sharma did it successfully "for hundreds of girls in the village near New Delhi, who by social custom are not permitted to travel to another town to attend school, it could mean a shot at college. " (The New York Times, 16 November 1999).
Yet, another member of the Indian community who settled in Cleveland was Dr.P.K.Saha. Dr.Saha grew up in Calcutta (in the State of West Bengal, India), trained at R.G.Kar Medical College and in 1956 he won a scholarship to come to Oberlin College where he earned his Master's degree in a short span of nine months. A prolific writer, Dr. Saha wrote 50 poems, stories and anthologies, to name a few. He exhibited a balanced view of the east and the west, as evident in the following passage:
We must be involved in American life around us, and yet retain our Indian identity. It is easy to get carried away in either direction? The challenge lies in maintaining the proper balance that serves best of the two culture as well as our individual selves. (P.K.Saha- The Lotus, 1 (2) , 1968).
Another successful member of the Indian community whose name and achievements cannot go amiss is Monte Ahuja. Monte Ahuja's successful trajectory begins with his arrival in the U.S. in 1969 from India for his graduate studies at Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio) where he earned his MS in mechanical engineering in the year 1970. Thereafter, he came to Cleveland and earned his MBA at CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY (CSU) while working various jobs to support himself. Fortunate as he was, Monte Ahuja developed the business plan for Tran star, as part of his coursework at CSU and in 1975, his plan proved immensely profitable. Over the years, Tran star became the leading worldwide distributor of quality transmission parts to the motor vehicle repair industry with current annual revenues of more than $250 million. (Source: www.uhhospitals.org).
While the Asian Indian community has overcome various social and cultural obstacles in the process of adapting to and creating a new social niche, its engagement with and contribution to American society remains undisputed. More recently, three Indian American CEOs, Steve Singh of Microchip Technologies, Shailesh Mehta of Providian Financial Corp., and Ray Irani of Occidental Petroleum Corp., made it to the Forbes list of 278 top managers in terms of their exemplary contribution of revenues and profitability to their investors (India Abroad, May 11, 2001). In the field of education and medicine, besides making successful fortunes, Monte Ahuja's contribution to establishing a College of Business at Cleveland State University, and more recently, a hospital, remains unparalleled.
Regular social meetings marked the cohesion of the Indian community in Cleveland. Prof. R.Banerji and his wife, for instance, continued to hold religious functions in their home, since 1965 in order to bring the community together. In 1971, an India Radio Program, at WCLV (95.5 FM) based on the culture of India was sponsored by Air India and Athens Pastries and hosted by Mrs. Purnima Banerji.
While on the one hand, constant efforts were made by the Indian residents in Cleveland, as in the rest of Northeast Ohio, to accommodate and embrace the new culture with continued efforts at retaining it, the India Association of Cleveland had started sharing opportunities with the Indian community for those who wished to return to India. Batuk S.Modi was involved in finding sponsors for specific projects in India that would be willing to take 'returning immigrants' in the 1970s. About the same time, the idea of India House took shape with the efforts of the India Association of Cleveland.
The early to mid -1970s featured several important landmarks in the history of the Indian community in Cleveland. In 1974, for instance, was founded a singles' club for Indians in Cleveland, called Youth India Club to bring together young men and women; in the same year, a Speaker's Bureau was formed voluntarily by the India Association of Cleveland whereby knowledgeable individuals were invited by various churches, schools and clubs to share their knowledge on various subjects about India. Also, while issues of brain drain became an important topic of debates in India, it was reported that when a medical doctor left India to settle in the US, India incurred a loss of 44,000 dollars and the US gained 690,000. Similarly, for every scientist leaving India, the US became richer by 250,000 dollars and India lost about 23,000 dollars (The Lotus, August 1974)). To this effect, an updated 'Guidelines for Industries, 1974-75' was published by the Ministry of Industrial Development in cooperation with the Indian Investment Center in New York- this served as a guide to those intending to set up their own business in India or were planning to return to India with the knowledge and experience gained here.
The year 1975 is credited with several new establishments and activities of the Indian community. A nationwide activity called Project India was undertaken in Cleveland. Supported solely by the India Association of Cleveland, it received the initial fillip from the Associations of Indians in America (AIA) of New York and aimed primarily at finding avenues to donate funds to India. In the same year, a delegation of twenty people representing the World Fellowship of Religions visited Cleveland. Members of the organization, based on the concept of Universal Religion and dedicated to the idea of inter-religious ties, discussed the essentials of Hindu scriptures and their relevance in daily lives and practice, the history and philosophy of Jain religion as well as the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib. Shortly thereafter, a local chapter of the World Fellowship of Religions was established with Dr.K.C.Bhaijee as its President. Finally, for the taste of India and her food and delicacies, the first Indian restaurant, Taj Mahal Curry House, was started on 5714 Mayfield in Cleveland.
Another important development that marked the Indian community's continuous involvement was the initiation on 16 May 1976 of the India House Project with the efforts of the volunteers and generous donations from the community. It started at a school in Magnolia Building (10819 Magnolia Drive). Amongst other objectives, the immediate goals of the India House Project were to raise at least $5000 for a temporary home for 12 months so that classes for children, Indian dance and music and two Indian languages could be starred in this space. Besides, recreational activities, the establishment of a library for Indian books for children as well magazines and newspapers were also amongst the short-term goals; besides providing guidance to graduate students in seeking employment in various public and private institutions was also an important aim; more importantly, there was a call to begin an information service including a Directory of Indians in Cleveland, and information on immigration, and insurance etc.. Within less than a year of its initiation, the India House Project, by February 1977, was successful in instituting educational activities, dance, music, cultural programs, seminars on real estate investment, and on various issues pertaining to the Indian community in America. Owing to the expansion of community activities, and to accommodate new ones, the name of India House was changed to INDIA COMMUNITY CENTER in February 1977, acquiring a new building in its present location on Cedar Road in December of that year. Generous donations poured in from several members of the Indian community, with a crucial one from Dr.Bafna for an amount of $5000. True to its commitments, the India House Project was successful in forming a group of professionals in Operations Research, Information Systems and Computer Science with the idea of developing informational sources for employment opportunities in the greater northern Ohio and to provide guidance to graduates for seeking employment in industries, public institutions and universities.
With a generous donation for the cause of the Indian community, Drs. Taru and Mahesh Patel opened up opportunities for improving the India House and its activities. More sister associations, for instance, the Bengali Cultural Society joined the India House as an associated organization. A year later, after the dissolution of the India House, in 1977, the India Community Center of north east Ohio was established for the purpose of receiving funds to educate the community about India, hold seminars and to undertake relief measures for the needy, and to obtain justice and legal rights through legal means. This was further strengthened when the Bharathi Cultural Society and Guru Nank Foundation joined the India Community Center to represent the rich cultural heritage of India. The Gujarati Samaj of Greater Cleveland, the Bengali Cultural Society and the Jain Society of Greater Cleveland, and the Marathi Mandal of Cleveland, followed suit in later years. With this change, The Lotus became the official communication vehicle for the India Community Center.
The planning department of GREATER CLEVELAND GROWTH ASSOCIATION reported the thriving economy of metropolitan Cleveland reaching its zenith in 1978, opening up 893,300 jobs in that year. As a result, the median household income in the city of Cleveland stood at $9,683 while in Newark, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, it was as low as $6,615. Against this successful backdrop came a successful convention that opened up doors for the two million Asian Indians living in America-this was the first convention of the Asian Indians in North America in which issues of rural development in India, import-export businesses, role of Asian Indians in American politics, cultural assimilation in the US, legal aspects of immigration, employment and discrimination, Indian women in American Society, music, and fine arts, were the focus of discussion.
With the establishment of the India Association of Cleveland in 1964, the Indian community had come a long way in adopting Cleveland as a new and permanent home for themselves as also for their generations. Nevertheless, ties with India never ceased to exist. While continuous engagement with the social and political affairs of India was at the forefront of these activities, a lot was done to participate in the emergency political situations within India. The horrors of the Civil War in (the then) East Bengal drew active participation of the Indian community in Cleveland when the Bengal Relief Group of Cleveland sponsored the first Cleveland march in 1971 to dramatize and depict the horrors of the war and to draw attention to the sufferings of millions at the time. The event received wide coverage in important local newspapers as well as media coverage on NBC TV channel 3 (see WKYC [CHANNEL 3]). While the Indian community kept growing in numbers, it also had made considerable impact on her American friends in Cleveland. Alongside, social, cultural and political engagements, the India Community Center continued to nurture and reach a wider population. A significant milestone amidst these developments was the establishment in 1981 of The Federation of India Community Associations of Northeastern Ohio, which served as an umbrella organization for the various social and cultural groups representing India. It was a unifying force for the diverse sub-cultures of India, at the same time enabled bonds between the India and American communities addressing the social and educational needs of the Indian community as well as of the larger community. Starting as a student organization in 1962, it was officially established in 1981 and has since grown exponentially in its supportive activities for the Asian Indian community.
Equally significant is the establishment in 2005 of the India following the inauguration of the Chinese Cultural Gardens in 1985. The Cultural Gardens (see CULTURAL GARDENS FEDERATION ) are the work of creative minds at Cleveland State University who brought to fruition the representation of ethnic cultural representations through these gardens. The India Cultural Gardens, like other Cultural Gardens, depict the rich history of immigration, and diversity in America and a history of major social, cultural and political events that changed twentieth-century America and her people. Members of various communities worked in collaboration with the Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation to add to the historic site. Besides, representatives of other ethnic communities- have established their own cultural gardens which now number to 31.
It might, perhaps, be safe to assume that the first generations of the Indian community had to cross several social and cultural barriers before they could assimilate and accept the culture of the adopted home in the US. While measures were taken by fellow Indians to help each other and facilitate integration into the American society, the successive generations would have found it easy to adapt to the American life and culture. Nevertheless, new discussions and meetings continued to mark the cultural progression. A national Asian Indian Sammelan was held in 1993 to represent the hopes and aspirations of second generation Indian community. This was a symbolic start to unite and fraternize to lend a discussion on issues of marriage, impact of culture, religion, and the extent of political involvement of the Indian American community. In the State of Ohio, a bi-partisan group that addresses the political interests of the Indian community was initiated in 1994; it was called the Asian Indian Alliance of Ohio.
While maintaining social and cultural practices have facilitated the adaptation to the adopted culture religion and religious practices have enabled a successful cohesion and collective identity in this adaptation process. Significantly, Cleveland is a representative of this trajectory. "As a religiously homogeneous city in the early 1800s it evolved to a distinctly heterogeneous one by the 1990s as different religious bodies began to recognize the strengths of diversity and cultural distinctiveness and pursued their activities in an atmosphere of tolerance and cooperation." (Michael J. McTighe (dec.) Jimmy E. W. Meyer, "Religion," Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, May 1998 (online ed. John Grabowski).
The idea of founding a Hindu temple in Cleveland was mooted in 1983 by a group of dedicated volunteers of the Asian Indian community and a year later, was formed its Charter by Sri J.L.Sharma with six founding members: R.Balu, Subbarao Cherukuri, Darshan Mahajan, Selvaraj, J.L.Sharma and V.V. Sundaram. The group needed $10,000 to start the operations, which was made feasible by the generous donation of Darshan Mahajan, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, and the opening of a bank account in the name of Shiva Vishnu Temple at Premier Bank, Elyria. And in 1985 was born the first Hindu temple in Cleveland. Initially, housed in a rented location of a closed restaurant at West 120th and Lorain Road, the temple came into existence with the donation of Rama Parivar by Mr.V.V.Sundaram and of pictures of deities for ceremonial poojas by Mr.J.L.Sharma. The permanent home for the Shiva Vishnu temple, now on Ridge Road in Parma, was, however, acquired after several discussions between 1987 and 1997 on the viability of a suitable place. The new temple in its current location in Parma was inaugurated on September 10, 1989. Remembered as a major event, it was attended by over 2,000 attendees with the maiden religious functions performed by Sri V. Shastri, assisted by Sri. Gopinath from Nashville along with other priests. Over the years, the temple has become a major venue for various religious festivities and religious discourses, and social and cultural performances on specific religious festivals (For details, see www.shivavishnutemple.org).
More recently, another Hindu temple has marked the expansion of the Asian Indian community and its engagements in the social and cultural life of nNortheast Ohio. The temple, called Sree Venkateswar (Balaji) temple, located on Brecksville Road in Richfield, held a grand opening amidst several religious rites and rituals lasting about a week from 22 May to 28 May 2013.
The Sikh community of India which came to America after the partition of India in 1947 to seek further educational and employment opportunities was equally active in keeping the Indian heritage alive through various religious engagements. They founded the first Sikh Gurudwara under the aegis of The Guru Nanak Foundation of Greater Cleveland Area- incorporated in 1976 with a temporary home on West 25th Street in Cleveland. It moved to 3305 West 25th Street in Cleveland in 1980, finally acquiring a permanent home in 1991 to its present location on Broad field Road in Richfield. Two most important landmarks characterize some additional achievements within the Indian community. One by establishing the first archives of their own history in 1996 with Mr. Mukund Mehta and supported by the Federation of India Community Associations, the Indian community opened a new and golden chapter of the history of arrival and immigration in northeast Ohio for over fifty years. Second, the establishment of a women's organization, called the Association of Asian Indian Women of Ohio (AAIWO), by professional Indian women to engage the American mainstream and to address issues of immigration and naturalization legislation, small-business development, and minority-status recognition added a new chapter under the Federation of India Community Associations, to address new issues.
The interesting facets of immigration, immigration patterns, success stories of adoption, adaptation, assimilation and resistance are not events of the past. They will continue to exist not only for the Indian community but also for other ethnic communities who have made America their new home, or are aspiring to make it so.
Dr. Poonam Bala
Visiting Scholar, Department of Sociology
Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio
Founding Member, Asian Indian Heritage Project (Cleveland, Ohio)