NAMASTE Madison Celebrates Contributions of Indian Americans
to the Greater Madison Area
Cultural and Community Introspection
Above left: Event Organizers - Neeta Saluja (l-r), Lakshmi
Sridharan, Anjali Sridharan, Pratibha Antani and Amitha
|Above: A panel from the exhibition
Indian Americans in Madison do the same thing. We have our own culture, our one foot in everything, but we are also willing
to try out what other people have to see what is better. And we accept it if it is better. For example, we celebrate Thanksgiving
just like the rest of Madison does, although we didn’t have that in India. Thanksgiving is something commendable, so why not
celebrate it. That’s the type of flexibility we have in our culture. And that has sustained us and it will sustain us forever.”
Anjali also appreciates that flexibility.
“I would say that the whole Indian culture itself is more like a philosophy,” Anjali said. “You don’t have to do things a certain
way to be considered doing them the right Indian way. All of us, I am sure, are doing things differently in our households and
that is acceptable. Some people go to the temple regularly. Some people pray in their house. And some people pray in their
head. All of those are acceptable ways to be Indian and you are directly connected to the religion.”
Indian Americans have always felt very welcome in Madison, feeling the freedom to be who they are while also enjoying the
best that Madison has to offer.
“I came here from Australia and I came in the middle of the winter,” said Neeta Saluja who teaches Indian cooking. “And I
thought it was going to be tough. But coming to a university town, there were people from all walks of life. We lived in
University Housing, which was a wonderful experience. And I never felt any different than the rest of the people who lived
there. I feel very comfortable talking to people and listening to them. It was a very easy transition for me. But I did come from
Australia. Things have changed over the years, certainly. But I still feel that Madison is such a community where people just
come together very nicely. Whenever I go outside of Madison, I can feel the difference in people and their behavior. But it was
easy to adjust in Madison. My kids grew up here and they loved it.”
“I came to the U.S. in 1977,” said Pratibha Antani who retired from WPS. “From 1977-1985, we lived in different parts of the
country. However, after coming to Madison, I felt this was a different city because I never had any problem here. People are
nice. Even though it isn’t a big city, it is very close to Chicago and Milwaukee and so, I never missed anything. And like
Lakshmi said, although we love to go to India, this is our home. I don’t say the U.S. is our home. But Madison is our home. I
always look forward to coming back. Even though I go and visit LA, I still say that I want to go back to Madison. I have
wonderful neighbors. I have lived in that neighborhood for the past 23 years. We get together a lot.”
Amitha Domalpally, an ophthalmologist by training who is the director of a research lab, has always lived in Madison and has
never been made to feel like a foreigner. And if her difference is recognized, it is in a positive way.
“Being an Indian in Madison, most of the time, I don’t realize and don’t remember that I am an Indian and I am different,”
Amitha said. “I think that is because when I am at work, my colleagues are scientists and there are three surgeons
surrounding me. I never get the feeling, ‘I’m different. I’m Indian.’ When I am on the soccer field with my son and daughter with
the other moms, I’m just another soccer mom out there. It never comes up that you are different, that you are Indian. I think the
only time that it ever comes up that I am different, that I am an Indian, is when people ask for restaurant reviews and want to
know which Indian restaurant I go to or they are admiring my beautiful jewelry or clothing and say, ‘I could never go with that
yellow, but it looks so pretty on you.’ At that time, I am an Indian. If it ever comes up, it is always in awe and fascination for this
country that is a different culture.”
Lakshmi Sridharan was struck by the friendliness of the people when she first came to Madison as a student in the 1960s.
“I just fell in love with the city,” Lakshmi said. “The very first day when I came, I woke up at 8:50 a.m. and I had an English test
to take at 9 a.m. I was on one side of campus and I didn’t how to get to Bascom Hall. I asked someone how to get there and a
gentleman was standing next to me and said, ‘You will never be able to walk down there in 10 minutes. I’ll take you there.’
That was my first day in Madison. A few years later, I went for my driver’s test. I got in the car. Shree had taught me how to
drive. I was sitting outside waiting to take the test. I never changed the gear from neutral to drive. I hit the gas and the car wasn’
t moving. Later, Shree said, ‘I knew you were going to fail.’ This gentleman who was sitting next to me said, ‘Don’t be nervous.
You’ll do fine. I know you Indians. I have friends and they are all very smart people. You are a smart woman. You can do it.’
That relaxed me and I got it into gear. I drove and he passed me even though there is the expectation that no one gets through
on their first try. I did make a mistake in the beginning, but he had confidence in me and he told me I should have confidence
in myself. Those are the kinds of people whom I have come across in Madison. I just love being here. We have wonderful
neighbors and wonderful school teachers. Everyone has been so nice to us. I never feel that I left home. When I go back to
India now that I am retired — Shree and I go back to India every year — I love visiting India, but I feel this is our home.”
But she did feel a difference when she worked at the DNR. But it could have been that, especially when she started there, the
DNR was a good-old-boys club.
“I was one of the very few women working there,” Lakshmi said. “And I was certainly the first Asian woman there. It was not
easy. They didn’t discriminate against me, but I was just different for them. It was harder for them to consider me an equal to
other candidates when it came time for promotions and all of that, not because they didn’t trust me, but because they felt it
would be difficult for the public to interact with me. Over time, I won them over.”
The members of the committee are very conscious and proactive about keeping their ties to India to keep that cultural
connection alive even as they also adapt to their adopted home.
“After we moved here, we had to make trips to India, have them connected to their grandparents and other relations,” Neeta
said about her children. “Today, both of my kids are very close to both sides of our family and their cousins. When they go
back to India, they don’t feel out of place there. And they are well-fitted here. When they go back, they are like any children there
and they fit in with the food and the dancing or joking. They have sustained it that way, going there and being part of the family.”
Anjali who is second generation continues the tradition.
“We actually do travel to India,” Anjali said about her family. “We take the kids there so that they get exposed to the culture. I’m
lucky enough that my husband restricted me to live by my parents or his parents if we were going to have children. So by
being by my parents, we have a lot of culture exposed there too.”
All of the committee members agreed that the food is an essential part of Indian culture and is what helps sustain people in
“I think one of the things that make it sustainable is that when we have been brought up on Indian food, it’s hard to let go,”
said Anjali. “My uncle recently joked that his daughter who is an MD Ph.D. and is now working and his son who is working in a
hedge fund, they go all over the country and stop in each of their houses and cook for them and then go back home.”
Neeta Saluja noted that not only does it sustain the culture, but it also is often the gateway to Indian culture.
“Often times, my son would ask if I could give him two extra,” Neeta said about packing a llunch for school. “He said that it
was a good bargaining thing and he could get something better from other people. One day my son wanted me to make
lunch for 8-10 students. By the time I started making the food, I don’t know how many kids came. In the end, I ran out of
everything. I said, ‘Look, there’s some chicken curry and rice.’ They said, ‘Okay, we’ll take that too.’ Food connects us so well
and it really keeps us in perspective and everything, the food and openness to people.”
And the food also was an entree to meeting Americans as well.
“We invited our neighbors over so many times for Christmas and summer parties,” said Pratibha. “They would look forward to
the Indian food. We threw parties for my husband’s colleagues at Edgewood College. They would ask my husband, ‘Is your
wife going to make certain Indian dishes?’ He would tell them yes. They would say, ‘We are definitely coming.’ We threw so
many parties for the faculty. And they loved it. Everyone said that Indian food is very, very famous. My neighbors were always
waiting for the invitation.”
Another important tie to Indian culture is the music and dance, which are central to the education of any youth growing up in
“My mother’s side is very traditional people,” Lakshmi emphasized. “In that community, music has to be taught for every girl
who is born and raised. Many of them don’t have good voices and don’t have an interest in music. But they all have to learn.
That’s how I grew up. The thing was my father was in the federal government, so he used to get transferred. For most of my
young adult time, we were not in our area in the South. We were transferred to the North. They were not good teachers.
However my mother would seek teachers and look for them. She would talk to people. She would find someone who would
come to our home and teach us music, my sister and I. The music is a part of our growing up. When I came here, met Shree,
got married and Anjali was born, always at the back of my mind was we had to have music and dance taught and she has to
And Anjali has carried on that tradition.
“I have two girls,” Anjali said. “I think it is easier with girls because they like to dress up more except when it is itchy. In fact, we
have to go through and do the whole test with Indian clothing. Is it itchy? Okay, we’re not getting this. Amitha is actually a very
good choreographer. Except for the first year when my older daughter was shy, my daughters have participated in almost
every dance every year. My oldest daughter is 12-years-old and she isn’t giving it up yet. They like to dress up. They like to
wear the costumes. They like to dance to Indian music. And they like to do something that ties them to something they know.
They know that during the break, they get snacks. They like that. But they also like hanging out with their Indian friends in
Madison. It definitely ties them together. And they know the 3-4 big celebrations that happen in Madison. They ask, ‘Are we
doing a dance for that this year?’ It’s a ritual each year.”
Living in the same city as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a world-class university, also helped the Indian American
community sustain its culture.
“The Southeast Asian Studies Department at UW-Madison gave a lot of opportunity,” Neeta said. “My daughter started
learning dance when she was five-years-old. They were teaching dance in the dance department. They just loved it. They had
performances at the Madison Civic Center. And my mother who is a musician, played sitar and was a vocalist. Whenever she
came, she brought a tabla instrument and she would teach the kids. They learned music from her. They wanted to learn it, but
they didn’t want to show it off to their friends. But they never got connected with the Bollywood part. I really wanted them to see
the movies and all of that. They said, ‘No mom, don’t force us to watch these movies.’ But they enjoy dance music and that
kind of thing. We have been happy to see that they have connected in some ways.”
While food and dance are elements that define the Indian American community, they aren’t always the ties that bind,
especially for couples whose Indian heritage is rooted in different geographic parts of India. But there are ties nonetheless.
“My son doesn’t like Indian food,” said Amitha Domalpally, an ophthalmologist by training who is the director of a research
lab.” It’s too spicy. My daughter enjoys it. But she doesn’t like Indian clothes because they are too itchy. And my husband and I
speak different languages, so we don’t speak an Indian language at home. English is spoken, so both kids know nothing but
English. I do worry. Will they forget their Indian identity? We are in Middleton, which doesn’t have too much diversity. There are
very few Indian kids in school. It is there at the back of my mind. Will my children just give up on being Indian? And then, they
discovered Bollywood. And Bollywood is Indian dance, music, fights, you name it. Everything the kids want is there. And they
are getting their Indian culture through Bollywood. We turn on YouTube and play music and dance and watch movies and that
is how they get it.”
The clothing is also an essential part of Indian culture, especially for the women.
“Part of why I like being Indian is you can get away with wearing bright colors and silk scarves every day,” Anjali said. “I have
some of my Indian silk scarves that I wear to work. I just wrap them a few extra times because they are much longer. The
South is known for silk. There are thicker kinds of silk and then there are thinner silks. In Tamil Nadu where my family comes
from, there is a thicker kind of silk. And then the other states where Bangalore is located, there are the thinner kinds of silk.
Silk is always in. I would say they drape so beautifully. Depending on what’s ‘in’ in India, all kinds of sarees you can wear with
all different colors. I remember someone once telling me, ‘I think that sarees are basically the absolutely most beautiful dress
in the world. No matter what your shape, you can still look beautiful in a saree.’ Dressing up and using all of the different
kinds of fabric that flow beautifully, that can be embroidered or can be sewn on appliqué or even looking at the wool that can
be hand-sewn and knitted on, I think India has the most variety of fabrics that you can dress up in for all different
temperatures. If you look at the country, it has all different temperatures and climates.”
And the availability of Indian clothing is perhaps a symbol of the growth of the Indian American community.
“Lakshmi actually told me this story of when she first came here, in order to get an Indian sari, she had to get it from Japan
because shipping from India was not even possible, but shipping from Japan was,” Amitha said. “This is back in the 1960s.
And today, I have people coming every month to the apartment a block from my house selling saris and I can go there and
buy. I can get them online and shipped from anywhere in the world. But I can also get it shipped from women who do small
business and sell these beautifully embroidered saris. I can take a photo of my sari and send it to a woman in California and
she will send me matching accessories. I can get whatever I want just from hitting my phone button and I don’t have to go to
Japan for them anymore.”
The Indian American community has grown and prospered and in doing so, has left its mark on Madison.
“Indian Americans had an economic impact of $489 million in 2015 in Dane County, directly and indirectly,” Anjali said. “It
contributed 5,000 jobs directly and indirectly. Once we started putting numbers down, then we started seeing what we had
done as a community. We have really contributed.”
While the Indian American community keeps its ties to India, it has also made the Madison area its home. And by doing so, it
has contributed to the excellent quality of life that the Madison area enjoys.
Lakshmi Sridharan who is a scientist who retired as a regional manager for four DNR programs in southeastern Wisconsin
is leading the committee that hosted the event.
By Jonathan Gramling
Ever since the first individuals from the subcontinent of
India began coming to Madison during the 1960s as
students, there has been an Indian American community
presence in Madison, at first very small and relatively
invisible and then more visible with events on the Capitol
Square celebrating India Day.
And while Indian Americans have always welcomed non-
members of their community to their celebrations and the
Indian American community has grown significantly over
the years, the community has never taken stock, as a
community, of the Indian American community here and
its impact on and contribution to the broader Madison
community — until now.
On May 8-15, members of the Indian American
community — through a Library Takeover Grant —
informed the Madison community and themselves of what is the Indian American community is through large posters placed
throughout the Madison Downtown Library and ended with a symposium that will reflect on the identity of Indian Americans,
from perspectives within and outside of the community through an initiative called NAMASTE Madison. Namaste id a friendly
greeting given as one slightly bows with hands pressed together.
In many ways, a key feature of the Indian American identity is the ability to adapt to cultural movements and to borrow the best
elements of all cultures while still maintaining an Indian American identity. And it is all an integrated sense of being.
“I feel like I am an Indian American,” said Anjali Sridharan, a second generation Indian American who is an electrical engineer
by education and now works as a project manager. “Working in Madison is nice because in general, the environment is very
tolerant of differences. I feel you can be yourself whatever that might be and be able to pursue your career and dress the way
that you want to dress and feel free to do extra-curricular activities with your culture. My life is absolutely a blend of the two
Her mom, Lakshmi Sridharan,
talked about how the Indian
culture has survived and has
been nourished over the
“Indian culture is very flexible,”
said Lakshmi who is a scientist
who retired as a regional
manager for four DNR
programs in southeastern
Wisconsin and is leading the
committee hosting the event. “I
think it comes from our history in
India. India was invaded by the
Islamic religion, Muslims. And
then they faded away and the
British came. They spent 200
years with us. Indian culture
survived all of that. They didn’t
let go of what they had and then
accepted whoever came and
whatever they offered. That’s
partially because we absorbed
the best of the other culture.