Nikunj Patel, who also goes by Nick, sat at his desk at the India Cultural Center with a tranquil look on his face as a technician flitted nervously in and out of the room with questions about the sound system.
Should they have a microphone on the presentation table in the Lotus Gallery banquet hall? Were they going to use the overhead projector? Patel smiled and told the man to have it ready, just in case; they would play it by ear.
As a trustee of a center that rests at the core of the vast Indian-American community in Tampa Bay – one of the largest in Florida – Patel is accustomed to presenting a calm demeanor in the face of events that can attract upward of 1,000 people at a time.
Located on 10 acres in a residential community about 13 miles northwest of downtown Tampa, the India Cultural Center routinely hosts major Indian festivals, fundraisers, feasts and colorful dances, as well as cultural, educational and spiritual events.
The center’s two community halls – the Magnolia Ballroom and the Lotus Gallery – together seat more than 1,000 people and have seen legions of weddings, birthday parties, baby showers and other important milestone celebrations for both the general public and the area’s Indian-American population.
“It is the heart of the community,” Patel says.
On this night, the center is expecting about 100 attendees – coordinators and planners from the Indian-American community and a delegation that flew in from the International Indian Film Academy, or IIFA.
The subject of the meeting: planning for 2014’s “Bollywood Oscars,” or the IIFA’s annual Weekend & Awards – the coveted extravaganza coming to Tampa Bay April 24 to 26, the first time the gala will be held in the United States. The televised awards broadcast typically draws 800 million viewers worldwide and is expected to bring tens of thousands of visitors to the Tampa Bay area, including hundreds of Bollywood movie stars.
In addition to major downtown hotels, the Tampa Convention Center and other large venues like Raymond James Stadium and the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the India Cultural Center will play a role in the event– both as the site of meetings ahead of time and as host of half a dozen of the many happenings leading up to the awards weekend, according to planner Chetan “Jason” Shah.
The center has long been a hub for the Indian-American community, starting as a dream of Dr. Kiran Patel (no relation to Nick; the Patel surname is common in parts of India) and his wife, Dr. Pallavi Patel. They wanted to establish a gathering place for the growing Indian community and also a place where they could welcome the general public to enjoy Indian cultural events. Together with fellow Indian physicians, the Patels bought the property in the 1980s, but plans stalled until building funds could be raised. In 1996, the ICC finally opened its doors, featuring the Magnolia Ballroom. The Lotus Gallery was later added as a meeting and convention hall, and both halls together now offer 21,000 square feet of space for events – the ICC having grown alongside the area’s Indian-American population, currently estimated at more than 23,000 people.
The ICC is often the base for activities and meetings for the more than four dozen different Indian-related associations in Tampa Bay and also holds dance classes or lectures and yoga seminars by gurus from India, open to the general public.
“When there are events at each location,” Nick Patel says, referring to the center and the three temples, “it gets very crowded.”
It gets so crowded, in fact, that organizers have moved the major annual festival, called India Fest, to the Florida State Fairgrounds on the other side of the county. The Fairgrounds is also now the site for some of the major dances and ceremonies around huge celebrations such as the Hindu observation of Navratri – honoring the victory of good over evil – and the even bigger five-day festival of lights called Diwali, which welcomes in the new year every October or November.
For many years, the ICC rented out the halls to the general public, but recently neighbors started to complain about noise, so the center has had to scale that back, Nick Patel says, though they’re still trying to work out an agreement.
Still, visitors are always welcome to come and participate in many of the ongoing events at the center and the temples, he says. The mainstays are enormous weddings among Indian families – who often bring in their own food or caterers for 500 or more guests – though some in the younger generation are opting to choose hotel halls instead, Patel says.
And even though some go away to college, the younger generation returns to Tampa Bay to settle, and many still have their weddings at the ICC.
“They remember when they grew up, their parents, the activities they did here,” he says. “Eventually they come back.”
If you go
The India Cultural Center is located at 5511 Lynn Road in Tampa. For more information, call 813-264-4638 or visit www.tampaicc.com.