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VOL. 125 | NO. 166 | Thursday, August 26, 2010

Festival Highlights Memphis-India Connections

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Daily News

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When Memphians talk about India, two subjects almost always come up – overseas call centers and the film “Slumdog Millionaire.”

But organizers of this year’s annual IndiaFest said the nation’s cultural and business influence in Memphis is growing rapidly.

IndiaFest 2010, hosted by the India Association of Memphis (IAM), will be held at Agricenter International, 7777 Walnut Grove Road, Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and includes a traditional bazaar, food vendors, fashion shows and entertainment, including a foray into Indian film.

“It’s a celebration for what Memphis is really becoming, which is more of a global city,” said Sharan Salian, festival director.

One cultural commonality between Memphis and India is civil rights, Salian said, noting that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a believer in nonviolent protest, the mainstay of India’s civil rights champion Mahatma Gandhi who is honored alongside King at the National Civil Rights Museum.

“Another is the connection we have with cotton,” said Salian. “India happens to be one of the leading buyers and exporters of cotton.”

But the business connections between India and the United States are shifting away from service industries to manufacturing and product research and development, said Dr. Ben Kedia, international business professor at the University of Memphis.

Kedia and other local Indian business leaders will speak at a conference hosted by the Greater Memphis Chamber on Friday that coincides with IndiaFest.

“Companies in Memphis soon will be doing business in India if they are not already doing it,” said Kedia. “FedEx is not only trying to expand very significantly in India, but they have made two countries in Asia as quite important, which are China and India.”

Earlier this month FedEx reported that it had opened air service to Bengaluru, its third Indian gateway along with Mumbai and Delhi, expanding India’s connections with Europe, the Middle East and the United States.

Six other Indian cities were added to FedEx’s next-day express network.

“(The attraction) is (India’s) population and also the growing economy because India is now growing with about 8 percent economic growth,” said Kedia. “The old story has been outsourcing, but the new story is manufacturing.”

Kedia said he also expects Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to expand its joint wholesale venture with Bharti Enterprises, which began in 2009.

“I think we are going to see more and more interaction in terms of import and export and investment also,” said Kedia. “In fact, they used a lot of these Indian tractors to clean up a lot of the mess created by (Hurricane) Katrina in New Orleans because those tractors were about half the price of Caterpillar.”

Kedia said the U.S. is India’s top trading partner and India ranks in the lower top 10 of America’s trading partners.

Ambassador Arun K. Singh of the Indian Embassy in Washington will give a keynote address at Friday’s event on trade relations between the two countries on a national level.

“Much of the connections of India and the U.S. have been not with Memphis unfortunately, but have been at the international level,” said Kedia. “For example General Electric and Microsoft have some of their biggest research labs in India because India produces a large number of engineers and they may be at half the price. You can probably hire two for one.”

While American companies outsourcing jobs raised smoke during the last presidential election, Kedia said the backlash against it has remained political rather than commercial.

“At the national level that is a concern but at the corporate level, it is very important that companies need to be lean and profitable,” said Kedia.

While the 8-year-old festival has been a relatively small one with 5,000 to 10,000 people attending each year, Salian said about 30 percent of attendees are non-Indians and that’s the segment he hopes to grow.

Most Memphians only experience Indian culture when dining in Indian restaurants, but Salian said even that can be limited as most offer cuisine from only one Indian state, the Punjab.

At IndiaFest, about eight to 10 different regional cuisines will be available, as well as cooking demonstrations to demystify the use of Indian spices in cooking.

This year’s festival is themed “A Journey into Indian Cinema” and will include a look at the history of Indian film-making, which Salian said rivals Hollywood in volume of production, and perspectives on the meaning of the term “Bollywood.”

“It’s a question of making sure that the people of Memphis really understand the deep history that we share,” said Salian.

Admission for IndiaFest is $2 for adults and $1 for children 6 and older. The business conference “Memphis and India – Trade Development, Export, and Investment Opportunities” hosted by the Greater Memphis Chamber will be 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday at the Hilton Memphis.

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