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Case Study: Anandamela Festival/Vedic Cultural Center

Founded: 1989
Headquartered: 1420 228th Ave SE, Sammamish, WA 98075

Program Locations: Redmond, Sammamish, Issaquah, Bellevue, and Seattle
2016 Operating Expenses: $1.25m

Redmond, Washington, is home to world leaders in the software and technology industries and has seen rocketing growth in its foreign-born population since the 1990’s. Due to the workforce demands of the sector, the population shifted in the last five decades from less than 10% foreign-born in 1990 to over 38% in 2016. In fact, between the ages 25 to 44, there are more foreign-born than native-born residents in Redmond. These young employees, largely Asian Indian, Chinese, and Hispanic, arrive for work opportunities and choose to raise families in this idyllic suburban community, wanting relevant recreation and cultural offerings.

Back in 1989, just as this demographic shift was taking off, a group of people purchased a sheep farm with a shabby three-bedroom house for $100,000 in a sleepy unincorporated area that would eventually become the town of Sammamish. They wanted to create a small temple for their Hare Krishna community, but struggled to retain devotees and remain viable. Harry Tarantian, the current Director of the Vedic Cultural Center (VCC) arrived in 1991 and saw a much larger potential in the space to create a home away from home for the arriving families of Indian heritage. The programming blossomed far beyond spiritual practice to include classical dance, theater, yoga, instrument classes, philosophy, singing, and even Vedic mathematics. Over time Indian and non-Indian families alike found a cultural home in the VCC, where they could enjoy a home-cooked vegetarian Indian meal and connect with Vedic culture. Over two hundred such meals are served on an average weekday with weekends seeing three to four thousand visitors, all run by dedicated volunteers.

In 2010, the Redmond Arts Commission chair, Latha Sambamurti, brought VCC together with the City to produce Anandamela, the “Joyous Festival.” The massive free festival, now numbering over 25,000 attendees over three days, takes place on the City Hall campus. Attendees can participate in a wide range of activities including a bhangra dance contest, cow milking, and pottery. The festivities are capped with a proclamation from the Mayor and welcomes representatives from the Washington Governor’s office and several State Senators.

Social Impact: Bridging cultures with joy

With change comes challenges. For immigrants, the experience of being new to a country is a balance between assimilation and maintaining your personal cultural heritage. That challenge is more pronounced for young families grappling with how to raise their children in a new land. From Redmond’s standpoint, projecting a sense of welcome and building relationships with new arrivals was imperative but could be difficult terrain to navigate. The city needed to evolve their services, engage new residents in the life of the city, and be mindful of cultural differences. Existing residents often struggle with feelings of wariness about newcomers or defensive of the status quo. 

In the arts offered by VCC, families found a place where they and their children could get a soul-reviving dose of Indian culture. The city found a venue to connect with the Indian community, and better develop its neighborhoods, parks, and programs for new arrivals. It is no mistake that the Anandamela festival takes place at the City Hall campus. What better way to lay out the welcome mat than to celebrate your art and culture on the steps of City Hall? VCC’s doors are open to everyone, including curious people who want to learn a little more about their new neighbors. Anandamela goes a few steps further as a large and inclusive participatory event. 

Latha underscores that there is a major difference between performing culture and experiencing it. “Culture really means education. Tell me something I’ll forget it. Teach me something, I might remember it. Engage me I’ll never forget it.” Simply attending a cultural dance or a concert on a stage is very different than what happens at Anandamela each year. Their goal from the start was to make every attendee a participant in the cultural activities, whether they are Indian or not. Harry explains, “What you don’t know, you fear…When you connect on the level of culture, the prejudice disappears because you are on a human level… we want to fall in love with other culture. Me disappears and we become a ‘new us.’”

Latha and Harry delight in the numerous stories from the festival that illustrate the joyous cultural integration they are after. The Korean university student who practiced bhangra on YouTube for three months, so she could take first prize at the Anandamela dance contest. The American “with a lovely Indian soul” who comes every year to construct a beautiful intricate mandala on the floor. The high-energy Punjabi-Celtic mash up group from Canada, Delhi 2 Dublin, that gets everyone dancing together. The Russian girl who took home the second prize in the cooking contest. 

The demand for this positive cultural exchange continues to grow. A Diwali festival was recently added to Seattle Center’s Festál Series. The neighboring City of Bellevue now produces the Flavors or India festival and the Parade of Chariots in the Crossroads area, and Marymoor Park now hosts a Festival of Colors, Holi. 

Sponsors

Funding support for the 2018 Social Impact Study was provided by:

       Seattle-Foundation_4c-Logo.png        4culture_black

       king county                         

                                        

 

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