7 ways people with roots in South Asia are shaping the future of Birmingham today

South Asian influence Birmingham - people in art museum sculpture garden
Members of the Indian Cultural Society at the Birmingham Museum of Art in the Sculpture Garden. Photo via Indian Cultural Society at the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Facebook page

In 690 days, Birmingham will be hosting The World Games 2022. As we prepare, we decided it was a good time to explore the rich international influence of different groups who live here. We’re starting with how people and organizations from the Indian subcontinent have been shaping the cultural conversations here for years.

To learn more, we reached out to Sanjay Singh, whose truly remarkable story should be required for high school students everywhere to show what an education can do. He’s truly a wealth of information, and it’s no wonder that businesses and cultural organizations across this town have tapped him for his leadership skills. I asked him what Indian culture used to be like here:

“10 years ago, you had to go looking for grocery, food, culture, art, shows and movies from India. You had to be in the know. If you were from the Indian-American community, you knew or could find your way through the maze. But now, the general awareness about India, Indian, and culture/art from India is quite common and accepted within the larger community and particularly at UAB. Large employers like BBVA, Protective, Regions, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama have contributed to this change four important ways.”

These changes include:

  •  An increase from less than 100-first- and second-generation Indian-American students, faculty and scholars at UAB in the 1990s compared to over 1000 now. 
  • More restaurants, grocery stores and cultural organizations mean non-Indians can participate. 
  • A growing number of visible professionals in the community has greatly enhanced the general understanding of Indian culture—physicians, professors, business owners, entrepreneurs and community volunteers. 
  • Events like Holi at the Birmingham Museum of Art and IndiaFest and Diwali at UAB have become major cultural events for the locals.

What we’re sharing today is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the influence of people from the Indian subcontinent on the Greater Birmingham area. 

1. The Indian Cultural Society at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA)

Young people celebrating HOLI with the Indian Cultural Society at BMA
Holi is such a fun time for everyone. Photo via Indian Cultural Society at the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Facebook page

It’s always exciting to discover the many ways a single organization has been working to make things happen in the community. The Indian Cultural Society does a lot to keep the 5000-year old culture of the Indian subcontinent alive here in Birmingham while also bridging people across class, caste and language divides. 

Did you know that the Birmingham Museum of Art has a fine Asian Art collection and rich cultural programming? The Indian Cultural Society has played a part of making that happen in partnership with the museum. and their Asian Art Collection . Dr. Katherine Ann Paul has been the curator of that collection since August 2019, bringing a wealth of experience with her. 

Contact: Facebook | Email

2. Together with the BMA, UAB and the Alys Stephens Center, the Indian Cultural Society has been hosting IndiaFest for three years, with plans to turn it into a GlobalFest

Women's hands decorated with henna at the Birmingham Museum of Art
Henna is so pretty. Photo via Indian Cultural Society at the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Facebook page

Spring in Birmingham has come to mean the annual IndiaFest, with dozens of events across Birmingham honoring the city’s thriving Indian culture. 

Contact: Facebook | Email

3. The Indian Cultural Society brought the “Dancing Shiva” sculpture to Birmingham from a Tamil Nadu village workshop

In the Indian village workshop where Dancing Shiva was made
Visitors from the Indian Cultural Society at the Birmingham Museum of Art watching sculptures being made in a Tamil Nadu workshop, Southern India. Photo via Sanjay Singh

Singh and his wife Dora purchased this beloved sculpture for the museum in honor of Dr. Donald Wood, who served as the BMA’s curator of Asian Art for 30 years. Every other year, Singh organizes a trip to India for the museum (in fact, BC or “before corona,” they had a pretty awesome-looking trip planned. But alas, 2020 has been the year for cancelled plans, so one day…) 
 
Dr. Wood was on a previous trip, and when they were in a very remote village of Tamil Nadu (down in the Southeastern part of the Indian peninsula), they came across this piece which Dr. Wood thought would be perfect for the sculpture garden. It actually took 24 months to get it shipped to Birmingham, but they finally succeeded. 

Location: Birmingham Museum of Art Sculpture Garden, 2000 Reverend Abraham Woods Jr Boulevard, Birmingham, AL 35203

4. Avani Rupa brings one-of-a-kind fine jewelry to Birmingham and the world

Avani Rupa fine jewelers - South Asia influence Birmingham
Avani and Rupa, the mother-daughter duo behind Avani Rupa. Photo via Avani Rupa’s Facebook page

Avani and Rupa are a mother/daugther duo who bring design and knowledge to their fine jewerly lines. Customers love them so much, they come from across the globe for one-of-a-kind and custom-designed gemstones and handcrafted metal pieces. If you marry modern sensibilities with Indian culture and heritage, you’ll get an idea of how unique and sought-after their creations are. 

“The art of designing and wearing fine jewelry that is well made runs deep within the Indian community. For centuries, gemstones and diamonds have been discovered all throughout the Indian landscape. Those stones had not only great appeal, but a symbolic meaning, especially as they became part of intricate jewelry designs.

We have enjoyed bringing those types of pieces to the broader community because it allows us to explain our rich heritage and show them a piece that they have never seen before, that then becomes one of their favorite pieces.” 

Location: 2408 Canterbury Rd., Birmingham, AL 35223
Contact: Facebook | Instagram

5. The Indian Cultural Association at UAB

Indian Cultural Association at UAB
The Indian Cultural Association at UAB. Photo via Indian Cultural Association at UAB’s Facebook page

The Indian Cultural Association at UAB is an undergraduate student-led organization that promotes awareness of Indian culture. Their 150-and-growing members aim to create friendships between students of all ethnicities and backgrounds while uniting the UAB and Birmingham communities. They are happy when students of non-Indian descent join the organization, believing diversity creates opportunities for growth as well as sharing Indian culture with others. 

Annually, you’ll find them holding Diwali, Garba and Holi events. The Diwali show regularly draws more than 1500 guests. In addition, thy host fundraisers and donate money to nonprofits that strengthen their community. 

“ICA is not just an organization; it’s a family. As a family, we aim to support each other in every way possible, and strengthen both the UAB and Birmingham community. ICA is not only an essential part of UAB’s campus, but also to the city of Birmingham. Most of the performers and sponsors of our annual Diwali show are members from the Birmingham community. Joining ICA has so many benefits including engaging in cultural events, forming connections with the local community, and strengthening one’s leadership and service and outreach skills.”

Sristi Das

Contact: Facebook | Instagram

6. Association of Indian Students at UAB

Association of Indian Students at UAB
Association of Indian Students at UAB. Photo via Association of Indian Students at UAB’s Facebook page

The Association of Indian Students at UAB, with 113 mostly graduate student members and some faculty advisors, helps ease Indian students’ transition to UAB. They offer free airport pickup and temporary accommodation services to incoming students every semester, plus social camps and hiking events twice a year. 

They also provide a platform for cultural exchange and encourage learning opportunities through community service. While their main focus is Indian students and the Indian community around Birmingham, everyone at UAB is welcome to participate in AIS’s events such as Diwali, Holi and Indian Independence Day celebrations. 

Contact: Facebook | Instagram | Email | If you are at UAB, look for the “Association of Indian Students” page on Engage

7. ICAB—Indian Cultural Association of Birmingham

ICAB was a leader in shaping the South Asian influence in Birmingham
Diwali is also known as the “Festival of Lights,” and for good reason. Photo via ICAB’s Facebook page

ICAB was the first Indian organization in Birmingham, established about 40 years ago. Their four-fold mission is to:

  • Preserve and celebrate India’s unique cultural heritage 
  • Provide needed services to members of the community
  • Increase interaction between the local community and the Indian Diaspora
  • Strive to share the gains made by the Indian community in Birmingham with communities in India

Here are some of the annual events they hold: 

  • Republic Day on January 26
  • Valentine’s Day
  • Holi Celebration “The Festival of Colors”
  • Independence Day on August 15
  • Diwali “Festival of Lights” – this is the signature program of the ICAB and the Indian community

Membership is open to the entire Indian community. $75 per family, $35 per individual. Non-members are welcome to pay a small fee to attend events. 

Contact: Facebook | Email

We love having the opportunity to provide a window into some of the many cultures that make up our Magic City. If there are other cultures or organizations you’d like to see us highlight, email me at sharron@bhamnow.com and let me know.