Author Archives: Priya C.

Preserving the Past in India and the United States

by Priya Chhaya

My day job (when I’m not thinking about blog posts for HomeSpun) is working as an employee for the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). We’re a non-profit organization that works to preserve and protect the places that matter to all Americans—through advocacy work, education, and community development. Most recently we released our annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list which spotlights places across America that are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, or insensitive public policy. This year’s list included Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, the John Coltrane Home in New York, and China Alley in San Francisco, California.

While most of our work is focused on saving places within the United States, we are also a member of the International National Trusts Organisation (INTO), an international network of National Trusts and similar non-governmental organizations that are committed to conserving and sustaining our shared heritage. One of the other members is The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and about a month ago I attended a week long training program and got to spend some time with an employee of INTACH, Suresh Sethuraman—who for nine months is working in Washington, DC at NTHP.

Screenshot of the INTACH website.

The Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) is a non-profit organization set up in 1984 to involve its members in protecting and conserving India’s vast natural, built and cultural heritage. For more information visit


Interview with Suresh Sethuraman, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)

Priya: Tell me a little bit about your background, and what brings you to the United States?
Suresh: I am basically an archaeologist with a Ph.D in Classical Archaeology. I am here as a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow affiliated to the NTHP and the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of the University of Maryland. Under this Fulbright fellowship, I am working on the American system—laws, policies and problems—of the preservation of heritage buildings and sites and comparing it with the system in India.

Priya: Tell me about INTACH and how it works.
Suresh: INTACH is the NTHP’s counterpart in India. It is, of course, much smaller and younger than NTHP. It was started in 1984. It is modeled more on the English National Trust than on the NTHP. It is supplementing the role of the Government of India in the arena of heritage preservation. It has small offices in almost every part of India. I am the Tamil Nadu State Convener for the Tamil Nadu (South India) Regional office.

Priya: Can you give me an example of the educational and recruitment programs of INTACH, and how they try to pull in young people?
Suresh: INTACH, since its inception in 1984, was, for many years, a small group of volunteers interested in heritage preservation. Slowly, it has now expanded to be a major voluntary organization, in fact, the largest cultural voluntary organization in South Asia. The headquarters of INTACH is located in New Delhi. They have initiated a major program for the restoration of old buildings and historical artifacts not protected by the government. They have also started a special program aimed at school students with a view to inculcate the ideas of heritage preservation in them. Through children’s books, group discussions and competitions, the students learn more of our heritage and the need to preserve it. Presently, this is one of the major activities of INTACH.

Priya: As the Tamil Nadu State Convener are there any specific projects that you’ve worked on that might be of interest to the readers?
Suresh: INTACH has small offices or chapters in different parts of India. The Tamil Nadu State office in South India is one of the oldest regional offices started a few months after INTACH was inaugurated. It is also one of the most active chapters of INTACH. We do many activities in schools and colleges. We have helped establish Heritage Clubs in over 50 schools in South India. These Clubs are manned by the students, with academic and technical guidance by INTACH. They do a variety of activities including tours to historical places.

Priya: What differences do you see in the way American’s think about preserving their cultural heritage, and the way Indians approach the same issues?
Suresh: India is very rich in cultural heritage. But the sensitivity to preserve it is not as much as one observes in U.K. or U.S. INTACH, through its educational and awareness programs, aims to create this sensitivity amongst students and others in rural and urban areas. It is a slow process. But the trend is catching on. People today are more particular to save old buildings than they were twenty years ago. But we have a long way to go. We can learn a lot from the NTHP experiences—their Main Street Program and other programs.

And vice versa. One of the things I find fascinating about INTACH is their commitment to preserving the intangible heritage of India—including dying languages, traditional knowledge and cultural practices (such as dance). Their work with Heritage Clubs also demonstrates how important it is to start at the student level—investing time and effort in educating the younger generation about their heritage, in order to create a greater number of stewards as they grow older.

For more information on INTACH visit them on the web at For more information about the National Trust for Historic Preservation visit

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.


Posted by on July 25, 2011 in Culture, History


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Witnessing the Dream, Searching for Stories

by Priya Chhaya

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

–Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK MemorialEarlier this month I attended a sneak peek of the new memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. located in Washington, D.C. next to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. The quotation at the top of the blog frames the memorial—we walk through a split granite boulder (symbolizing the mountains of despair) before reaching the 30 foot granite sculpture-a solid figure who symbolized hope for many. Situated between Jefferson and Lincoln along the Tidal Basin, the memorial represents not just MLK’s work during the Civil Rights movement, but also his broader struggle for worldwide human rights. One of the members of the internationally composed jury for this new memorial was Charles Correa known for his work on the Mahatma Gandhi memorial in Ahmadabad and the design for Navi Mumbai—a new section of Mumbai that is best described as a planned city. Gandhi influences Martin Luther King, and so it is fitting that one of the judges for a monument—one that is meant to be international in scope—is someone with an understanding of Gandhi.

As a high school student I looked to the Civil Rights movement as a moment to question my own gumption. Would I be able to stand up and protest injustice? Could I practice civil disobedience or the Indian counterpart satyagraha (the peaceful demonstrations inspired by the words and actions of Gandhi) if needed?

I also wondered about that first wave of South Asian immigrants in the 1950s. Those that came amidst this intense transformation of American identity. How did they feel? What did they think? What stories can they tell about becoming Americans?

So—this is my charge for the readers of HomeSpun. I would like to interview someone who emigrated from South Asia in the 1950s, or their descendant, that can speak to life during the Civil Rights movement. The interview(s) will be incorporated in a blog post later this summer. Please let us know if you are interested in the comments below.

Seeing the MLK memorial reminded me once again that history does have something to teach us—and that gaining equality is a constant struggle, something to be fought for and affirmed—so that the dream continues to be realized.

Note: The dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial will be on August 28, 2011.

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.


Posted by on June 15, 2011 in Diversity, History, Social Issues


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Come As You Are: Maximum India

by Priya Chhaya

Suspended from the ceiling
A map filled with arts
Dancing over a wheel, a chakra
Calling for virtue from the people.

And at the crowded, energetic stage
Sounds of Rajasthan flow into the melody of the violin

Embrace the dance styling of Punjabi rhythm
Din. Dinaka. Din Din. Dinaka. Din Din.

The art, the dance, the music, the film
All merge together amidst the written word
Imagining the city, embracing the politics
Tagore debates Gandhi
Margins and Majority on the silver screen

India is more than just the sum of its arts
More than a saffron-colored sari, or an exotic smell
But for a short while there is a glimpse,
An attempt to encompass, to gather, to embrace
India at the Max.
Maximum India.

India Map artwork

Part of the Kaleidoscope exhibition, this map of India comprised of traditional crafts floats above the chakra, a prominent symbol in the Indian flag.

For the last twenty days, I attended a variety of shows at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.  From March 1-20, the festival known as Maximum India strove to reveal India to audiences from a variety of perspectives including art, literature, film, dance, song, and comedy. These performances piece together a vision of complexity and variety.  My mission for the festival was to enjoy as many of the free performances as I could. What I couldn’t attend in person, I streamed the recording at home as a live webcast or watched an archived performance.

At every performance, I kept in mind one essential question, “If this festival is about Maximum India, what India are we seeing?” I believe that an Indian identity cannot be deciphered through words alone. That identity comes from the collective culture across class, geography, and race. Or, as Nayantara Sahgal stated in the last session I attended: “Identity is something you want it to be, not what others decide for you.”

Tiffin Boxes

Tiffin boxes from the Kaleidoscope exhibition.

So, what did I find? I learned that music is a universal language. The rock beats of Raghu Dixit included watching an older couple, dancing cheek to cheek, while waiting to go to the opera. A few yards away, a father and daughter bounced up and down while a smallish mosh pit crowded together near the stage.  During a Rajasthani music performance, where a female dancer moved with tiers of pots upon her head, a little boy crawled over my foot to get a better view.

During a literature panel discussing the depiction of Delhi, Mumbai, and Calcutta in novels, I listened to how authors struggle to portray India beyond the exotic stereotype (spice smelling air and flashes of color). I also visited the exhibit Kaleidoscope: Mapping India’s Crafts.  My experience walking through the exhibit was enhanced by video reels, installed at either end, of an individual navigating through an Indian city. Between the two films, various bicycles were on display holding tiffin boxes, pots, ice machines, and other mainstays of crowded urban markets.

Indian Sari

Two of the 20-30 saris, each either stretched out to view the fabric in its entirety or draped.

As for the other paid performances? I talked to one non-Indian who experienced the Henrik Ibsen play, When We The Dead Awaken, where all lines were read in Manipuri. Even with subtitles, she found it difficult to understand (and screaming of the lines also became a little jarring). I also checked in with my mother who excitedly described her itch to stand up and dance in the back of the theater during the The Manganiyar Seduction where a group of musicians brought in the sounds of the desert while sitting in a series of boxes as high as the theater ceiling. One of my uncles talked about sitting on stage for the maestro Zakir Hussain, and another friend watched in awe as two classical dance forms from different areas of the country came together.

Perhaps that is one of the great things about having festivals such as Maximum India. Even when there is something different for everyone to go to—no two individuals experience the same show in the same way. We all bring our own perspectives to the world around us, and while some may jump up and down at a rock concert, others like to hang back and take in the sounds. The emotional connection that resonates from hearing and seeing is an individual experience.

Stamp art display

From Reena Saini Kallat: Falling Fables. Made out of hundreds of rubber stamps, this pillar represented many of the architectural ruins that are slowly falling apart and disintegrating.

My last event involved listening with rapt attention as the niece of Nehru and award winning author Salman Rushdie talked about religion, politics and the Indian narrative—marking the changes in India since independence—and showing how the nation changes with every generation. The lecture even stepped outside of India talking about the influence of Tagore in South America, and Gandhi in movements on the other side of the world. Their conversations about how the written word equals resistance and that literature and politics go hand in hand in defining the Indian identity, and that perhaps this festival, and all that we write about it can continue to explore India to the max.

One final note, as I write this from home, I am listening to Panjabi MC (on the webcast) close out the festival. As the song winds down with familiar tones from his 2002 hit with rapper Jay-Z, he calls out over a crowded room for hands to be raised in the air like a pair of drummers hammer out a beat: Din. Dinaka. Din Din. Dinaka. Din Din. I can see that even as this festival becomes a memory—mixing all the conversations I’ve had and images I’ve seen—this festival was also, above all else, a whole lot of fun.

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.


Posted by on March 24, 2011 in Culture, Entertainment, Identity


One Country, Different Cultures

by Priya Chhaya

Rangoli artwork

This design is a form of rangoli, colorful artwork that can be drawn with paint or sand, and is a decorative element during celebratory occasions. This particular set is ready made and may be used during one of the pre-wedding events for its splash of color. All photos by Priya C.

Everyone always tells you how complicated planning a wedding is, but I never actually understood until I found myself knee deep in working on address labels for invitations, multiple tastings for Indian food (not necessarily a bad thing) and trying to figure out what to say during my sister-of-the-bride speech.

Then there’s what all the wedding books say is the toughest part of planning—figuring out how to make the experience be both for the bride and the groom.  I am a Gujarati whose extended family lives in Maharastra. My future brother-in-law is South Indian—more specifically he is a Telugu from Hydrabaad. So much like planning a wedding between two different American cultures, planning a Hindu wedding for a Gujarati bride and a Telugu groom has been a learning experience.

Because Indian weddings are an amazing mix of tradition—through dress, food, and ceremony—we’ve taken the care to stop and think about what elements can incorporate both sides of the family.  For instance, the baraat—the portion of the ceremony where the groom’s side arrives at the wedding venue usually includes a horse (or at rare moments an elephant) and some engaging music. Most weddings I have attended use recorded Bollywood music, or a live dhol (drum) player.  In trying to bring in the more southern element, we realized that the dhol‘s Telugu counterpart was a mridangam, which gives a slightly higher pitch drum beat than the dhol—so now for the baraat my future brother-in-law will be dancing to the sounds of both regions of India.

Sets of daandiyas

One-Two-Three-Four! A few sets of daandiyas, a pair sticks used in a traditional Gujarati folk dance. These particular daandiyas are for one of the pre-wedding events.

That being said, this post is not about melding the details between two distinct and separate cultures, it’s about understanding and acknowledging the nuances of the same nationality.  For instance, during a Hindu ceremony one of the most important moments is when the couple takes seven steps around the fire, making their vows to each other and their respective families. For the Telugu there is an earlier moment in the ceremony, when my sister and her soon-to-be husband see each other for the first time, that is just as important. During the Jeelakarra-Bellam the groom places jaggary (a sugary substance) and some cumin on the bride’s head. This is a symbolic moment when two seemingly different items (one sweet, the other bitter) comes together forever—that is two people coming together through the good and the bad times. To some extent, this is also representative of two different parts of Indian culture finding common ground in bringing the two families together. For planning sake though—I didn’t understand the importance of this particular ceremony until the groom’s family put it in the draft to the ceremony program (which will explain the rites to those not familiar with Hindu weddings).  What this process demonstrates on a micro-level is the work needed to bring people together across any cultural divide, Indian or otherwise. It takes open communication, honesty and recognition that in some cases compromise is the best path to take.

Tiny statues of Ganesh

Tiny statues of Ganesh, the Indian elephant god who is the remover of obstacles and an important deity for auspicious occasions. These Ganesh are meant to be a gift to guests when the the formal wedding invitations are delivered.

Of course this is all in the context of planning a wedding and doesn’t include other aspects of Telugu culture—the food, the very different dance and art forms – all just as an important part of the Indian experience as Gujarati culture. In fact—going through this process has allowed me to have some great conversations about what aspects of Indian culture have dominated the American worldview of India. Some argue that the “Indian” in America vision that we see is often more of a Punjabi Indian world view—with bhangra exercise classes, and hip hop remixes at night clubs.

Which prompts me to ask readers the following questions:

  • What are some surprising places that you’ve seen Indian influences on American society?
  • What region of India is that influence from?

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.


Posted by on March 7, 2011 in Culture, Diversity, Family


…And that’s the Beauty of the Open Mic

by Priya Chhaya

It is a chilly Monday evening and I step inside a room on the second floor of a building along U Street in Washington, DC.  I am, as usual, casually late, thirty minutes to be specific which is really on time, if you think about Indian Standard Time (IST). As I walk up the stage the strumming of the guitar fills the air and I realize that the audience inside is rapt and at attention. The silent observance is for a few seconds a tad unnerving. Where am I? I am at my very first Subcontinental Drift, an open mic event directed towards South Asians of every persuasion.

In the next two hours I heard a cross-section of a very creative group. Some sang, some spoke–some made me laugh, and others made me (if it wasn’t a public place) want to cry.  At one point a flautist played a melody in a minor key that resonated, vibrations giving me that awesome creepy crawly feeling from a song that, while sung in English, felt like a haunting foreign language.

There was one performer who sang Tagore (the infamous Bengali poet) in Bengali–and I couldn’t help be impressed. Open mics take guts, they take gumption–and to stand up in front of a bunch of your peers and sing in a different language–that is courage. I’m a bit handicapped in this area–while I understand Hindi and Gujarati, I don’t speak either fluently (one of my yearly resolutions that is never fully realized), and so I am always really proud and impressed when someone else shows mastery beyond a conversation.

The mission of Sub Drift on their webpage is “to foster and provide a supportive and collaborative South Asian American community for creative expression, encourage the sharing and involvement of community events, and expose ourselves to new mind food.” And everyone is beyond encouraging–at one point, one performer named Sundeep gave us a little spoken word that included call and response–  the response being, of course “and that’s the beauty of the open mic.”

…and it’s true. The beauty of the open mic, especially at Subcontinental Drift, is to bring together a community who has so much in common to listen, to hear, to see, and to feel the myriad of opinions that make up our South Asian cultural mosaic. Since every piece counts, we’ll see if I can find a way to add to the conversation.

Check out the link above for information on Subcontinental Drift.

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Posted by on January 14, 2011 in Culture, Exhibitions, Identity


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Getting to Know You: Making Connections

by Priya Chhaya

When I was younger there were three things that I feared when my parents told us we were taking a family trip to India. The lack of American/European toilets (something that has mostly ceased to be a problem), spending time with cousins I barely knew, and consequently wasn’t sure I liked, and the rain.

Over the years, the first has become less of a problem, and the third is easily avoided by going to India during the non-monsoon season. Getting to know my cousins is another ball game.

This past month I traveled to India for three weeks. Why?

1) My grandmother turned 80
2 )Wedding shopping (my sister is getting married in May)
3) Vacation time—I finally got out of Mumbai and got to spend some time in Goa

It’s been about three years since I’ve seen most of my cousins face to face (two or three of them have managed to visit the U.S. for the first time in the interim), and this past visit made me realize the value of a particular tool in strengthening our relationship and making it easier to communicate across oceans and continents.


Of course, age does have something to do with it. When you’re a teenager, you are loathe to enjoy a trip that takes you away from the typical American summer activities, and meeting family doesn’t seem like an awesome way to spend your time. But as we’ve grown up—we’re all adults now—we’ve come to realize that we have a lot more in common besides blood. Enter everyone’s favorite social media site.

In previous years, we’d arrive as almost-strangers—scrambling to be filled in on what had happened in the intervening years, trying to find that comfort you feel with close family—something usually achieved right as we head back to the airport. Now, thanks to Facebook, we come in knowing that one cousin has been working on a purse design business, and that another went on a trip to Ladakh, and that another cousin and his wife redecorated their new place in Pune. In a way, Facebook has replaced those single sheet, blue airmail letters that we grew up watching our mothers and fathers send back and forth, and phone calls can now actually be filled with a conversation instead of awkward filler. Facebook is even going to let me get to know my cousin’s future husband despite not being able to go back to India for the wedding.

The Family, in Khandala

And that is why I think this trip was so successful—from the 21-person field trip to Khandala, a hill station just outside of Mumbai, to the excursions to shops all over the city—the trip was filled with camaraderie and a more familial repartee… and the best part of all, memories with family members that I love.

For more information on my visit to India visit 

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Posted by on October 16, 2010 in Family, Social Life


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