Torchbearers of tradition – The Indian SCENE

Torchbearers of tradition

Through plays and hymns, Dr. Venkatesan and Ambuja Venkatesan of Bloomfield Hills keep their culture alive

(Ashray Dravidian for The Indian SCENE)
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For nearly four decades, Dr. Srinivasan Venkatesan and Ambuja Venkatesan have nurtured Indian cultural and religious activity in metro Detroit area with care and devotion. Dr. Venkatesan holds a Ph.D. in Material Science and served as a vice president at a photovoltaics manufacturer  for most of his career in Detroit. He retired from active professional work in 2016.

He has also produced and directed more than 40 plays in Tamil and English in Michigan, not only writing the story and dialogues himself, but also handling all aspects of the production — from costumes to set design to props and makeup. His wife, Ambuja is a willing and active contributor, bringing to the table her own management skills to put on successful productions. The two make a special effort to involve children and young adults in their productions as they feel that such immersion experiences give young people a better feel for their cultural and religious roots than mere instruction in a classroom. “We have learned a lot from their vast knowledge, especially about adherence to our Hindu culture and traditions,” say friends Ranjani and Raj Rajaraman. “Their willingness and readiness to help everyone any time is remarkable. Above all, they do all this with a smile and a lighthearted sense of humor.”

Dr. Venkatesan also frequently collaborates with the local music and dance teachers, creating a space for students to showcase their talent in his productions. Satish Subramanian, who has assisted with several of these productions, is “always in awe of them both. His willingness to help and be there to cheer the upcoming artists is legendary.” Several of Dr. Venkatesan’s plays were so popular, they were invited for encore performances in nearby cities like Toronto, Columbus and Pittsburgh. On many occasions, the performances raised funds for disaster relief or social development projects in India.

The couple also supports several local temples through personal devotional service. They have organized a weekly bhajan group for the past 37 years, practicing singing of devotional hymns and supporting several charitable activities in India. In addition to awards conferred by the Michigan Tamil Sangam, the Great Lakes Aradhana Committee also honored the couple with a Lifetime Achievement Award at their annual Navaratri Festival last September. “One can learn a lot about organizing events, time management skills, people management skills and doing all this with humility, just by observing them,” friends Jambunathan Ramanathan and Parvathi Jambunathan say. “They are always there for giving a word of advice, giving a word of comfort and personal help for friends. They are indeed a role model couple for our community.”

Srinivasan Venkatesan in 1985.

The Indian SCENE: Where were you born? In what year? Tell us a little bit about your parents and siblings.

Dr. Srinivasan Venkatesan: I was born in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu in 1943. However, right after I was born, my father moved our family to Hospet where Tungabhadra dam construction had just begun. That’s where I grew up, through my schooling years, until I had to go away to college. I was the third child and I have six sisters and two brothers. My father was a head draftsman in the Tungabhadra dam project; my mother was a housewife.

Ambuja Venkatesan: I was born in a small village called Thuvariman, near Madurai, Tamil Nadu. My father was the district representative of Burma Shell oil company. He lived and worked all over India, but finally settled down in Thuvariman, near Madurai to raise the family. I have eight brothers and two sisters.

IS: Do you have any special memories from your childhood?

SV: My high school was about three or four miles from where we lived. There was only one bus in the morning that could get us to the school in time. If one missed the bus, there was no other way except to walk all that distance. Of course, that took a lot of time, we would be late and be punished by the headmaster. Punishments used to be quite harsh. Anyway, one time during my final exams, I missed the bus. There were a few other boys and girls also gathered there — they too had missed the bus. One girl among them was the daughter of the chief engineer of the project. She sent word to her father and soon, a station wagon arrived. The girls piled into the car. The chief engineer’s daughter instructed the driver, — indicating us boys — to let us ride in the back. In those days, boys and girls didn’t even speak to each other. So, the driver opened the hatch of the station wagon and we boys climbed into the trunk, and got a ride to the school. We got into the exam hall on time and wrote the exam.

AV: We lived in an agraharam [a Brahmin enclave within the village]. It was a small colony of about 60 households. Everyone knew each other. I went to school nearby. I also learned music and playing veena. The music teacher used to come to our home to teach veena.

IS: Were your families very orthodox? Were you made to follow madiand acharam [purity rituals, especially around kitchen and food]?

AV: In my family, it was somewhat practiced, but not as rigorously as in his family — his mother was very orthodox.

SV: Yes. My father was not so much into this. I mean, he was devotional enough, but not particularly orthodox, but my mother was. In fact, her code of conduct was so strict that she wouldn’t eat even in my sisters’ homes. She used to fast on holy days like Ekadasi.

The couple, with son Dr. Krishnan Venkatesan.

IS: Where and when did you get married? Was it a traditional wedding?

SV: Yes it was a traditional marriage. We got married in 1975 in Thuvariman, that is, her place. I was in Ireland at that time, working as a postdoc.

IS: Did you have the traditional bride viewing ceremony? Did you put on a suit for that, like in the movies at that time? After all, you were working in a “foreign” country.

SV: Yes, the whole thing was done traditionally, but no, there were no suits. My parents and I went to their house to see the bride. She could play the veena, so she played a song. That was about it. Nothing dramatic. We agreed to the alliance the very next day. Because of my schedule, I had to return to Ireland soon. The wedding was soon after that. And then both of us left for Ireland immediately.

IS: Dr. Venkatesan, your first experience abroad was going to England. What struck you at first? Was it much of a shock?

SV: In my case, going abroad was not planned at all. I was working as a research assistant under a Sri Lankan professor at a central government research institute. He took me under his wing and I was working on hydrogen chemistry. Meanwhile, the director of the institute wanted to put his own imprint on the work being done and instructed us to work on batteries. So, we switched gears and worked on batteries for several years. We developed some good prototypes. In the meantime, my mentor went to visit Sri Lanka and died of a sudden heart attack there. With my mentor gone, it was clear that I didn’t have much future at that institute. It was my experience with him that opened the door to the England opportunity.

Once an offer to work in England came from the professor in London, I had to scramble around to arrange everything in a short time: to find money for airfare, to arrange for sustenance of my family — I was supporting them to some extent from my salary — until I settled down in England, and so on. I landed in the middle of January. It was cold, so it was a shock alright!

IS: Tell us a little bit about your first few days in England.

SV: Well, my arrival itself was an adventure. I landed in London with just three pounds in hand. One man was supposed to meet me at the airport but there was no sight of him. Someone advised me to try Victoria Station. I had to store my suitcase in the cloak room — that cost me one pound. The bus fare to Victoria Station was another pound – so, two of my three pounds gone. Luckily, I found my friend at Victoria Station. When I asked him why he didn’t meet me at the airport, he coolly replied, ‘This is where everyone meets. I thought I wrote that I would be waiting here for you!’  He asked, ‘Where is your luggage?’ I said, ‘My luggage is in the airport cloak room. Once I spend this last pound for the bus fare to go, I won’t have any more money. So, first lend me some money for the return fare!’ So, my life abroad started with borrowing money.

That friend helped me a lot initially. We both were housed as paying guests in a house in Old Chapel. The scholar stipend was very low. Within that pay, I had to manage all my local expenses and save some money to send home, to support my family and also to pay back the bank loan for my airfare.

IS: Anything else interesting during your England stay? Did you start your cultural activities during that time?

SV: Actually, something very interesting happened about one year into my stay there. I came across a Tamil magazine called London Murasu that was being published there. I wrote a story and sent it to the magazine. As soon as the publisher-editor received mystory, he came in search of me. He said he liked the story very much and offered £15 for it. Not only that, he encouraged me to write regularly for the magazine. He invited me to his house, and I spent many weekends with that family, working on the magazine, eating and sleeping right there. I used to type Tamil on a small portable typewriter. I got paid small amount of money for each page I typed. And then I finished my Ph.D. in about three and a half years. Immediately, I got a postdoc offer from Ireland.

IS: How did you come to the US?

SV: A postdoc’s life is dictated by the funding of the projects. Every time the funding runs out, one has to search for newer pastures. My project in Ireland ran out in about two years. At that time, we debated whether to return to India or seek opportunities elsewhere. Almost at the last minute, I got an offer from the City University of New York. So, we landed in New York.

IS: Ambuja, what about your studies? Did you work outside the home?

AV: Yes, I have a master’s in mathematics from Madurai Kamaraj University. I worked as a secretary in an Indian firm in New York for some time.

SV: My postdoc saga continued in the U.S. also. Two years in New York, then about a year in Florida. Our son was born during that time. When the funding in Florida was running out,  I was confused as to what to do next. One of my friends advised me to apply to this company in Detroit that was looking for electrochemist. So that was the step that brought me out of the postdoc loop. We moved to Detroit in 1980 and stayed here ever since.

IS: What has been your biggest challenge with life in US, personal or professional?

SV: Professional life has been generally okay, of course, the usual challenges. On the personal front, having to deal with the cold was always a challenge. Once our son was born, we certainly had some concern about raising a child outside the Indian social environment. We both grew up in large families with many siblings. It was not like now where our parents or other family members could come here to stay with us. One thing we have been blessed with: a very good and supportive circle of friends.

IS: You both are well known in the community here for your dedicated service in the devotional and cultural arenas. How did you get started with that?

SV: It essentially stemmed from the desire to impart our culture and traditions to the next generation. In 1981, we started the Bhajanai group with five families. That group is still active, with a monthly gathering. On the other front, I started writing short plays in Tamil and got the children to enact them – stories from Bhagavata Purana, Ramayana, etc. Meera Vijan, who was involved with the Bharatiya Temple’s children’s programs at that time, asked me to do a program with them. This, of course, I had to do in English. Around the same time, we became members of the Michigan Tamil Sangam [a Tamil cultural association]and I started to pen and direct Tamil plays there, involving both children and adults. I served as the editor of their magazine called Kadambam for five years.  I also edited some of their commemorative special issues. Those were some interesting times.

IS (to Ambuja): In all the years I have known you, I think I have always seen you in saree. Have you always worn a saree?

AV: Yes, never wore western clothes. Always saree.

IS: What is the reaction of others, non-Indians?

AV: They say it is so beautiful. I’ve never had any problem with it.

Performing at a historical play, Vedanta Desikan, in 2018.

IS: Coming back to the plays, these have obviously been a passion for you. Where and when did this start? Only after coming to Detroit?

SV: No, no. It started much before. When I was working at the institute in Karaikudi there was a doctor there in town, Dr. Raghavan, who had a strong interest in plays. He used to produce the play, either in Tamil or English. Since I am short, he always gave me female roles! I grew my mustache to avoid being cast as a female, and argued with him that I wouldn’t remove it. He humored me for a few days, but finally convinced me to shave it off and continue to play female roles.

I acted in plays under his direction for about six years or so. Somewhere along that period I told him that I would like to direct a play myself. He was receptive and encouraged me. So I directed a couple of plays in Karaikudi. I continued this activity in England as well. During that time, the Sri Lankan Tamil crisis was at its peak. The Tamil community in London wanted to raise some funds to help the victims and refugees. I produced two plays for that purpose and we raised some money.

After coming to Michigan, initially my interest has been in children’s plays because we ourselves had a young boy. And I had to forge my own path here, deviating from what Dr. Raghavan had taught me in Karaikudi. What we were doing here were mostly mythological themes, as compared to social themes done in the past plays. And for the sake of the children, the language has to be simpler and playful.

IS: How did you handle sets and props?

SV: Believe it or not, I got most of the material from the discarded packaging materials at my work. They used to throw out a lot of plywood and large cardboards. After I picked them up a few times for use in my plays, the technicians knew and began to keep such items aside for me. We used to make most of the ornaments and costumes but procured a few special items from India. While my father was alive, I used to ask him to get us something or the other, stuff like wigs. So, over time, we accumulated a good collection of props.

IS: Wasn’t it difficult doing everything by yourself?

SV: Yes, it was. Regarding my plays, it was actually a strength that I wrote the script myself. Because of this, I would have a vision of how the full play should look. Accordingly, I would prepare the props and define the look of the characters. Ambuja used to be the backstage manager, managing the participants and the props.

IS: How did you deal with people’s egos? That is one of the biggest challenges in community theater.

SV: It is not easy, for sure. I’ve been lucky, I guess. Especially in the old days, none of the people really knew much about acting or putting up a play. So, they were willing to listen to my direction. Even if someone was upset about some little thing, the others would bring them around. If someone gave trouble, there were always many people ready to do it, so that was not much of a problem.

IS (to Ambuja): What were some of your experiences with the plays?

AV: We had to have rehearsal every week. Getting people together, feeding them. We used to prepare some snack items like bajji or bonda. As soon as each rehearsal call went out, people would ask, ‘What is the menu today?’

IS: You both are most known in the community for your support of the temples and various devotional activities. In the middle of professional life on one side, raising a family on another side and managing cultural activities on the third side, how did this emerge?

SV: When we first arrived in Michigan, the Bharatiya Temple was the only temple. We used to go there for worship from the very beginning. We used to participate in the events, prepare the naivedyam [devotional food offering] for the Lord. Along the way, I learned all the sooktams [Vedic hymns] under the tutelage of Sharmaji, one of the priests. This went on for about four or five years. I used to join the priests at various religious events like Sivaratri and recite the Vedic hymns along with them.

When the Parashakti Temple started, Dr. Krishna Kumar came to know about my work with the Bharatiya Temple and invited me to a meeting there. In the initial days, that temple used to be quite cold in the winter. So, we used to take hot, home cooked meals for the temple priest. Then, the Great Lakes Balaji Temple opened up and we started serving there as well. When I was immersed in professional work, we participated to the extent that my work schedule allowed. Now that I am retired, we go to the temple every day.

(Ashray Dravidian for The Indian SCENE

IS: How do you see the need for and challenges of passing on our Indian language and culture to the next generations?

SV: We certainly had more struggles in the early days. For example, Tamil Sangam always ran classes to teach Tamil reading and writing. People would start enthusiastically, attend for a few months and then drop off. Now, there is actually more enthusiasm. The classes are also organized more professionally. They are holding classes in 3 townships in the area, so that people don’t have to drive too far. The children are also feeling a certain competitive spirit about it. Now, they can learn Tamil, not just to read and write, but up to the level of reading literature. For stage and cultural items, many young people that started with me have started their own groups now or working with other groups. So that activity is also expanding. I think it is being nicely passed along.


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1 thought on “Torchbearers of tradition”

  1. We are all proud of our b. and sister. Valha your Tamil Tondu and Valha Pallandu Pallandu Rajaji

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