Through inspiring performances, educational initiatives, and collaborative efforts, Srividya Venkatasubramanya and her team at Ra-Ve Cultural Foundation have worked to create a vibrant, inclusive space in Bentonville where Indian arts and cultural traditions thrive and connections flourish.
Venkatasubramanya is the founding president and executive director of Ra-Ve Cultural Foundation, a nonprofit she established to promote and celebrate Indian performing arts in Northwest Arkansas. Upon moving to Bentonville with her family 15 years ago, she found it difficult to feel a sense of belonging in her new home, even among people who shared her cultural heritage.
“There was a very big gap in being accepted for who I was,” she said.
Although popular culture — specifically Hindi cinema commonly referred to as Bollywood — is a way for many Indian Americans to connect with one another, she believed an overemphasis on these movies eclipsed the traditional dance and music that defined her upbringing. In 2009, she and a friend established an annual event called Sargam to promote and celebrate traditional Indian performing arts.
“A lot of Indian families in the area were investing in traditional dance and music classes, but when it was time for a public performance, they would do Bollywood-inspired acts,” she said. “I wanted to give status to traditional Indian performing arts and show that those performances did not only have to be relegated to private viewing.”
What started as a mission to connect Indians to their cultural heritage evolved into a need to connect immigrants with the broader community. Personal and business challenges in 2016 led Venkatasubramanya to pivot Sargam from an annual event to a cultural organization that would help remove barriers between Indian and non-Indian residents.
“There is something out there that’s not allowing us to connect,” she said. “So the idea of Ra-Ve was to overcome these barriers. It was not just about music and dance, but music and dance makes it a little easier to connect, perhaps.”
The name Ra-Ve is a portmanteau of her parents’ names, who died unexpectedly within months of each other in 2016.
“I named it for my parents because ultimately, sustaining a culture and keeping a culture alive is very much a parenting thing,” she said. “You have to be relentless.”
Through inspiring performances, community showcases, classes, food, and clothing, Ra-Ve Cultural Foundation brings a piece of India to Northwest Arkansas. The nonprofit is housed in the Kalaloka Institute of Fine Arts, or KIFA, which serves as the hub for Indian dance, music and theater in the area. Located at 1380 Southwest Westpark Drive in Bentonville, KIFA offers classes, performances, workshops, informal gatherings and jam sessions.
Many of Ra-Ve’s team members can share a personal story about how the nonprofit connected them and their families with others in the community and gave them an avenue to celebrate their cultural heritage.
Harini Jayachandran is Ra-Ve’s community outreach coordinator. She attended dance and music performances with her grandmother while growing up in India and was able to provide her children with the same opportunity through Sargam. She enrolled her daughter into the dance school and eventually began volunteering and later working for Ra-Ve.
Karthika Mohan Sheela serves as Ra-Ve’s logistics and programming coordinator and supports the organization’s human resources and marketing functions. Before acquiring her work visa, Sheela decided to fill her time pursuing her passion for Indian performing arts. She was naturally drawn to Ra-Ve and its mission to bring the classical arts of India to the area and eventually became an instructor at KIFA. An opportunity arose for Sheela to apply her human resource expertise to the nonprofit.
Vinitha Vijayam Ramakrishnan is a volunteer coordinator for Ra-Ve Cultural Foundation. She participated in Ra-Ve’s events as a classical Indian dancer, and her son also was involved with the organization. After serving as a volunteer, she began working for the organization to support fundraising and development.
As Ra-Ve continues to grow, Venkatasubramanya is hopeful that the organization will garner support from individuals and corporations outside the Indian community.
“In five years, we have been able to uplift the Indian community in Northwest Arkansas, whether it’s in terms of recruiting Indian immigrants to work in the nonprofit sector, collaborating with other local organizations, and promoting Indian arts and culture,” she said. “Our hope is that we can build our support among individuals and corporations in the region — not just the Indian community — so that we can continue to contribute to Northwest Arkansas’s vibrant arts and cultural scene.”