Michigan Masala

If you've seen the bhangra before, you know what I'm talking about. This sassy and exuberant folk dance from the Punjab, a state in the northwest of India, is arguably one of India's most famous pop culture exports.
Ladies, your long skirts will flare in full twirling glory, and guys, even if you can't sport a turban or toss off cartwheels and one-armed back flips, the moves will impress. The bhangra is often the inspiration for dance numbers in Hindi-language films released by Bollywood, one of the world's most prolific movie machines. Wedding and party revelers, as depicted in Monsoon Wedding, love it; colleges field competitive teams; and Anuja Rajendra, founder of Bollyfit, a program of fitness through Indian dance, teaches it all over Metro Detroit.

"People were starting to hear about Bollywood and the Indian subcontinent was getting a little bit more visibility among people here, and so my friends, actually a lot of Indian friends…suggested a moms' bhangra class," Rajendra explains.

Two years ago Rajendra choreographed her first session, and now teaches over 100 students of all ages in Ann Arbor, Plymouth, Saline, Canton, and Grand Blanc. Indians and non-Indians alike let loose with Rajendra's mix of Bollywood be-bop, the bhangra, and bharat natyam, which she coins "the ballet of the east", with a dash of hip-hop. In her classes, you get to prance to "Jai Ho" the Academy Award-winning Hindi song from the Victoria train station scene in Slumdog Millionaire.

Files for Indophiles

Bollyfit has been featured in Virender Ajmani's Michigan India community blog. "In the Indian community I like to promote all the newcomers who are starting new businesses, new restaurants, and non-profits," Ajmani, a Mumbai transplant and long-time Detroit resident, explains. The Compuware programmer has also been nationally recognized for his mashups linking points on maps with other web content  such as magazine clips or Twitter tweets. The blog now draws about 1,500 to 2,000 unique visitors daily, he says.

His readership is likely to expand, commensurate with the region's growing number of Indian émigrés. According to Kurt Metzger, director of the Detroit Area Community Information System, from 2000 to 2007, the Indian population in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties grew from 43,021 to 63,105, a more than 43% increase.

And The Economist reports that in 2007-2008 the U.S. was India's largest export market, consuming 13% of its exports. But in addition to hard goods such as textiles and gold, India is selling its vibrant pop culture. South Asian dance, film, and foods are now mainstreamed in Metro Detroit. Think of this not only as a way for Indian immigrants to survive in a new land, but also as reflective of their inclusive nature.

Rajendra recently led 34 students, 70% of non-Indian origin, in a crowd hit display at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, where the troupe danced to Hindi songs like "Mauja Hi Mauja" – translated as "Fun, Fun All the Time".  Students have the option to perform every month or two at different exhibitions, she explains, as long as organizers understand that anyone is welcome to take part. In the past, she's turned down an invitation from a group who wanted Bollyfit to represent India with a corps made of Indian dancers only. "…Part of the appeal of Bollyfit is because the world is changing and we're all realizing that all of our roots are connected," Rajendra says. "And that's one of the things I love about it, is the diversity in the groups."

This amalgam of heritages means that Indian trends are becoming hot among the hoi polloi. "I'm seeing a lot of Indian culture, in fact, here in the area, especially after Slumdog Millionaire," says Ajmani, who was pleased to see tandoori chicken as entrée of the day at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor. "For example, you go to Costco, they've started selling more Indian cuisine… and Macy's is selling kurtis."

The Reel World

A kurti is a long shirt or blouse worn over pants or a skirt, untold stylish examples of which can be seen on the rack – and onscreen in Hindi cinema at the Novi Town Center 8. It's the first such full-fledged Bollywood theater in Michigan showing Indian cinema seven days a week, says co-owner Sonali Gangwani. Patrons come from as far as Toledo, Cincinnati, Lansing, Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids. Three screens show independent and Hollywood films and the other five always play the Indian variety, making it possible to go from Harry Potter to Short Kut – The Con is On in one very long night.

"It's definitely a hub for our community, for sure, because the [local] Indian community really doesn't have a community center like the Arabic people do or the Polish people do, so it's more a bringing together of our community via the medium of film," Gangwani says. She adds that films feature not only Hindi speakers, but also the Tamil and Telegu languages. It's worth noting that 22 languages and hundreds of dialects are spoken in the country.

Only about 5% of patrons are non-Indian, Gangwani says. "It's not very high, but I think the world is seeing the global Indian cinema now that Slumdog Millionaire has been released…It's still very sheltered, still undiscovered, as the way I'd like to call it. We still have a large market for it here."

The market for Hindi cinema could include not only patrons, but also a starring role for the mitten state. Maybe those Michigan film tax credit dollars could turn Metro Detroit into Mollywood?! It's possible.
The Michigan Indian Chamber of Commerce  has invited Hindi film legend Anupam Kher's Actor Prepares film school to host a four-week "Bollywood Acting" workshop here, potentially this October.

Confections from Calcutta

And in another instance of continental creep, Indian restaurants, too numerous to name here, have long been fixtures on the local foodie scene. The cognoscenti know, though, that India is king not only for its curries and chutneys, but also for sweets, or mithai. Royal Sweets operates the only stores in Michigan carrying fresh sweets, made in-store daily, from all regions of the subcontinent, says Neha Singhal, assistant manager of the store's one-year-old Farmington Hills location. The company has just opened a Troy branch and is scouting a Canton location. Prior to that, locals had to shop online or travel to New York, Chicago, or Ontario.

On the menu? You'll find North Indian sweets, which are generally made of pure milk and laced with dried fruits or cashews, almonds, or pistachios. Also look for chum chum, a Bengali sweet from the east of the country made with milk, all-purpose flour, and cottage cheese, and south Indian Mysore Pak, made with gram flour and ghee (clarified butter). Coconut is a popular filler for many items. The stores also carry dry snacks and make fresh sugarcane juice, mango lassi, and food hearty enough for a meal – samosas, channa bathura, various chaats (mixes) and dosas.

The American clientele has grown by 40-50% over the past year, Singhal says. "Americans come not only for the snack items, because they don't know anything about our menu. When they start looking for the sweets, they are very excited. When we give them samples, they appreciate it and they grab around one or two pounds and then they become our regular customers."

While doing Indian brunch on the weekends, tune into a whole host of local radio shows, like the latest Bollywood numbers with Rajiv Sanghvi on 690 AM, and, on 1460 AM, notes of substance from Mumtaz Haque, advisor to Gov. Granholm on Asian and Pacific Affairs in Michigan.

The South Asian subcontinent has had a tangible influence on the region through its art, through its cuisine, and through the media. And the take on Indian culture is personal and individual, Rajendra explains. "People are really forming their own connections through today's world, rather than what has been told to them or what they've read about."

Tanya Muzumdar is the spicy curry in Metromode's editorial pool. She is also a freelance writer. Her previous article was Clawson Central.


Stay fit with dance

" Jai Ho"

Samosa at Novi Town Center 8

Virender Ajmani's

Novi Town Center 8

Royal Sweets

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D
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