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Cultural settlement

As Shrewsbury-­based society marks 50th anniversary, young and old celebrate growing Indian community

The "Ganpati Bappa Morya" dance group performs in the Sanskar 2013 dance performance.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

The "Ganpati Bappa Morya" dance group performs in the Sanskar 2013 dance performance.

The auditorium at Marlborough’s Whitcomb Middle School was rocking as children took the stage in costumes, some elaborate and bursting with color, and began to dance.

The lyrics were in Hindi, and the music was a mix of Bollywood and traditional Indian themes.

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More than 350 boys and girls, ages 5 to 18, performed choreographed dances in a variety of styles — from Bharatanatyam to Bhangra — during the “Showcase India” event sponsored last month by the Shrewsbury-based India Society of Worcester.

This bustling scene would have been hard to imagine when Shyam Sharma, one of the society’s founders, arrived from India in 1960 with $1.68 in his pocket and a scholarship toward a doctorate program at Clark University in Worcester.

“I had no money for a plane, so I came by sea,” said Sharma, 82. Recalling the loneliness he and others from his country felt in the Worcester area, he said that at the time, the number of

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Sneha Hingorany, 16, puts on the finishing touches of her costume before she performs in a dance piece in Sanskar 2013.

Indians was very small.

Since then, he has seen the local Indian population grow enormously, and with it, the India Society of Worcester. This year, the secular, nonprofit organization is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

‘People would ask us, “Which tribe do you belong? Are you Navajo?’ ”

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Run by volunteers, the society tries to foster Indian culture through language classes, seminars, and senior and youth groups. It also reaches out to the larger community through free programs, such as a crisis hotline and a weekly medical clinic.

To mark its milestone, the society has partnered with Shrewsbury Media Connection, which provides public-access cable television programming in town, to produce a documentary tentatively titled “Fifty Glorious Years of ISW.”

Several events are also being planned for the weeks leading up to India’s Independence Day, Aug. 15.

“We are planning weekend events every weekend in July aimed at introducing the community to different cultural aspects — food, music, competitions for kids,” said Ashish Cowlagi, chairman of the society’s semicentennial committee.

Shrewsbury resident Beena Krishnan said she has been involved with the society since she enrolled her daughters in its school 14 years ago.

“It gave a window to India for my kids,” she said. “It’s made them appreciate other cultures, and learn their languages. It’s been very rewarding. . . They do a lot of community work.”

The cultural school enrolls between 140 and 170 youths, and teaches courses on five languages: Hindi, Tamil, Gujarathi, Telugei, and Marathi.

Sheila Carmody of Worcester sends her children there. Carmody, whose husband is not of Indian descent, said she felt it was important that their children be exposed to her culture.

“India is so vast, and so when you move to Worcester, Shrewsbury, Westborough, Northborough, it’s hard to form a sense of community,” she said. “In school, they’re surrounded by American tradition and American culture. . .  The India Society allows them to learn all the different festivals and celebrations, whether it be religious or historical.”

According to 2010 US Census data, Shrewsbury is home to more than 3,100 Indians, or 8.8 percent of its population. The state’s Indian community increased from 43,801 in 2000 to 77,177 in 2010, a jump of 76.2 percent, according to the Institute for Asian American Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston, based on US Census figures.

It’s a far cry from 1960, when Sharma first arrived here.

Sharma, who still lives in Worcester, said he and other Indians would visit the India Association of Boston, or try to meet at Brown University in Providence or UMass Amherst. “I thought, ‘Why not have an organization here?’ ”

In 1961, Sharma said, he founded the Indian Association, but outsiders found the name confusing. “People would ask us, ‘Which tribe do you belong? Are you Navajo?’ ”

In 1963, the organization changed its name to the India Society of Worcester. It had about 25 members, including students atarea colleges.

“When you came to this country, you didn’t know anybody,” said Sahdev Passey, who arrived from India in 1973. “Nobody knew your culture, and you were not assimilated into the American culture. You needed somebody to understand who you were.”

Passey said there were no Indian restaurants or grocers in the area. Members of the burgeoning group would open their homes to new arrivals, cook them Indian food, and show an Indian film. “Whenever you had those gatherings, you were back home,” he said.

In the mid-1980s, there was a wave of information technology and medical professionals from India who settled in Massachusetts, according to Passey. Among them was Rajiv Dayal, who moved to the United States in 1989, and joined the India Society so that his children could be exposed to his homeland’s culture. Dayal is now its president.

In 1991, the society acquired property on Main Street in Shrewsbury for a facility to hold classes and gatherings. It took almost 13 years to raise the money for the construction project; the building opened in June 2004.

“That center, that was our dream, and has provided us with a nucleus for our community,” Passey said.

Today, the society has about 500 dues-paying members, according to Cowlagi, but about 2,100 families subscribe to its e-mail newsletter, and attendance at major events ranges between 3,000 to more than 5,000.

Westborough High School student Sneha Hingorany, 16, is a member of the Indian Youth Group, which helped organize last month’s showcase in Marlborough. She also teaches basic Hindi to younger children, and Indian dance at the society’s center. She said the youth group has given her a stronger connection to her culture.

“My heritage means a lot,” she said. “Being born and brought up here, as opposed to being born in India, can make it difficult to hold onto that heritage. With the youth group, I can meet up with people who are in the same situation as me. We all have a really good bond.”

Dayal said that while children of Indian descent need to learn their culture, “adults also need interaction with other adults to keep the culture alive. If the adults don’t practice Indian culture, the kids won’t have it either. It just falls away.”

Looking to the future, Dayal said the India Society of Worcester needs to expand its outreach to the community at large. The society offers a crisis center, and a medical clinic every Wednesday for those without insurance to see volunteer doctors and nurses. Those services are open to all, not just members of the Indian community, society officials said.

The local Indian community’s needs are changing, Cowlagi said. “It used to be they were happy just to see another Indian face and get some Indian food. But now the needs are more complex. Think about the second generation of Americans — these kids have a very different perspective of what India means to them.”

The immigrant journey is not unique to the Indian population, Cowlagi noted.

“This cycle of immigration, of setting their roots, bringing their friends and family and eventually . . . calling this place home has been the nature of America for many, many years,” he said. “Yet there’s something very unique about this story that makes it ours.”

E-mail John Swinconeck at johnswinc@gmail.com.
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