An Indian community center in the heart of the US capital

Temples galore, but a place for Indians to call their own, is underway.

By Deepak Chitnis

Dr. Parthasarathy Pilla
Dr. Parthasarathy Pillai

WASHINGTON, DC: The US capital, home to a large Indian-American population, comprising of those living in the neighboring suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, too, is likely to soon have its first community center for the Diaspora.

Over the last 30 years, the number of Indians that have immigrated to the US has grown exponentially. Estimates today say that there is somewhere around 3.1 million people of Indian origin living in the United States, which represents about 1% of the entire US population. As a result of this significant influx, numerous temples, mosques, and gurudwaras have been erected all over America, as well as various cultural centers have taken shape in places like California, Texas, and Ohio, among others.

And now Dr. Parthasarathy Pillai, a resident of Maryland, is heading up the initiative to build a community center to be known as the India Community Center, Inc., Washington (ICCW).

In an interview to The American Bazaar, Pillai talked about the need for such a center in the nation’s capital.

“We’ve [he and his associates] have been trying to create an India Center for almost 25 years,” says Pillai. “But whenever we tried, there was something else already being built, whether it be a temple or a church, [things] like that, so it was difficult to get financing. There are about 18 temples in the Washington [DC] area, but no community center. So this is what we’re trying to do.”

He added: “It should be a symbol of India and America’s friendship, and also a symbol of the Indian American community.”

Pillai initially went to the Indian Embassy, asking them if they would support an initiative to build an Indian community center. The ambassador at that time, Karan Singh, was supportive of the idea, but no progress was made. Years later, when current ambassador Nirupama Rao assumed her position, Pillai asked her if she would pledge the embassy’s support of a cultural center. However, Rao said the embassy was already planning to create a similar center. When Pillai pressed further, he discovered that the embassy was merely planning a “cultural wing.”

“The same way they have a wing of the embassy to deal with visas, that’s what they were going to do,” says Pillai, who wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. “They will invite certain people to whatever events they hold there, but there is no access for the general Indian-American community.”

Pillai then decided that it was time to just do it himself. He is the president of the Organizing Committee for the ICCW, and is joined by 10 others: vice-president Sunil Singh, secretary Anadi Naik, treasurer Mukund Agashe, and members Dr. Rajen Anand, Dr. Sambhu Banik, Asok Batra, Gisela Ghani, Dr. Hari Har Singh, Benoy Thomas, and Japagnam Wycliffe.

“We want to build a place where Indians can come and hold their events without having to ask schools, which [often times] are already booked. We want there to be a place where the entire community can come celebrate Independence Day, Republic Day, Diwali, and even regional holidays like Onam and also non-Hindu holidays.”

But in addition to that, Pillai also wants the ICCW to be a simply a place where Indian Americans can interact with each other leisurely and spend time amongst people from their country. Specifically, he wants the ICCW to be a destination for aging and senior Indian-American citizens, who he hopes will foster a sense of community among themselves within the ICCW.

“It will also be an important place to preserve Indian culture,” says Pillai. “We want to have teachers, advisers who can teach young children about India.”

The organizing committee has submitted the paperwork to register their organization as a non-profit with the IRS. Pillai says that they applied close to a year ago (prolonged, in part, by the partial government shutdown), and that confirmation should be coming shortly. The funding for their venture — which involves purchasing 10-15 acres of land on which to build the initial center itself – is being funded by private donations, as well as corporate sponsors.

“We don’t want to reveal who our potential sponsors are yet,” says Pillai. “We have spoken with several people and businesses who are interested in helping us, they are just waiting for us to [receive] our confirmation [as a non-profit] from the IRS.”

Pillai and the rest of the organizing committee are hopeful that construction on the ICCW can get underway soon, and that it will become the definitive center for Indian-American life in the Washington, DC-metro area.

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