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India native wove threads of India, Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: April 20, 2014 at 09:05 AM

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Vijayadhwaja Rao didn’t write any of the checks that helped lure the Bollywood Oscars to Tampa. He didn’t travel to India or Macau to make the local pitch.

He played no part in planning the international event that promoters are likening to the Republican National Convention for the attention it will bring to Tampa.

But Rao did help establish and grow Tampa’s tight-knit Indian community, creating a welcoming atmosphere for people with ties to the subcontinent.

That atmosphere is credited with helping Tampa emerge as the first U.S. city to host the annual International Indian Film Academy awards, which takes place this week.

Few Indians in Tampa have been more respected than Rao, who died in 2006 at age 70, said Santosh Govindaraju, a 38-year-old India native who grew up in Tampa and is former chairman of Tampa’s Indo-US Chamber of Commerce.

“It would be hard to name a young Indian man or woman who grew up in Tampa who wouldn’t say he was a role model,” Govindaraju said.

Only a few dozen Indians lived in Tampa when Rao arrived. He was among the small community’s earliest organizers as the first president of the Hindu Temple of Florida and founder of the Students of India Association at the University of South Florida.

Today, an estimated 35,000 Indians call Tampa home.

Rao was a humble man who dedicated his life to helping others and educating the entire community on Indian culture to weave into Tampa’s mainstream culture, said Nitish Rele, 51, publisher of the local Indian newspaper Khaas Baat and a native of India.

“He said through education comes understanding and through that understanding comes togetherness of all cultures,” Rele said.

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The International Indian Film Academy awards is a four-day extravaganza that will feature two awards ceremonies, VIP events, a convention center expo and business conference, an estimated 30,000 visitors and an immediate economic impact estimated at $30 million — not to mention a worldwide TV audience of about 800 million Saturday night.

But Rao’s wife, Sarala, said the opening night Wednesday will be the realization of her husband’s dream for Tampa.

It’s called the IIFA Stomp, a free public event at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park to celebrate India’s fashion, food and music.

For a night, downtown will resemble India.

“I wish he could be there to see all those cultures mingle and learn about India,” Sarala Rao said. “If he was here, I know he’d attend and spend the night walking around, meeting new people and telling them about India.”

Rao, a native of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, arrived in Tampa in the mid-1970s when he took a job as a math professor at USF. With no Hindu temple in the area, Rao helped organize small-scale religious celebrations.

A different home was used each week. Those attending were asked to bring their own sheets for a place to kneel.

Mahesh Patel, who once hosted a local AM radio show on the culture of India, said Rao made the sessions teaching moments, educatingchildren about their culture before and after prayers.

“He was a true pioneer of those things we consider regular now,” Patel said. “There was no community center, no temple, no associations. He was the first to try to educate and bring people together.”

“He was worried more about the children than the adults,” Sarala Rao added. He wanted them to experience structured spiritual gatherings, she said.

Rao brought this philosophy to USF as well, reaching out to those few Indian students on campus and inviting them to come to him whenever they needed help with anything.

“Some were from India and far from home and alone,” Sarala Rao said. “They were a minority on campus. He didn’t want them to think they had no one to go to. He wanted them to think of him as family.”

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India native Renu Khator, former provost at USF and now president of the University of Houston, said life in India for most people is shaped by a culture that is inclusive and intensely interwoven with relationships. When students leave this for the United States, they often feel lost and deprived.

“They crave for relationships and bonding,” Khator said.

When Rao learned that some USF students were calling Hinduism a cult rather than a religion, he feared the young Indian students would feel further alienated.

He and his wife came to believe that if Rao could teach all USF students about India, the Indian students would feel more accepted and not so alone.

In 1982, as the Hindu festival of Diwali was approaching, Rao asked a group of Indian students how and where they would be celebrating. One answered nowhere. Another, born and raised in the United States, stared at Rao blankly. He had no idea what Diwali was.

“They were already losing their heritage, and he wondered what would happen to future generations if he didn’t do something about it,” Sarala Rao said.

Two years later, in 1984, Rao formed the Students of India Association and charged its members with two tasks — gather together regularly to celebrate their culture and educate the campus community by inviting people to festivals and holding educational seminars. The Students of India Association, Khator said, succeeded in integrating the Indian culture into USF.

Rao became “a guardian of all Indian students at USF,” said Frankie Vayalumkal, a 34-year-old native of India, founder of Tampa’s India International Film Festival and a former president of the Students of India Association. “All the students respected him for what he did.”

And eventually, so did the larger Tampa community.

When a charter for the Hindu Temple of Florida was formed, Rao was chosen as its first president. His primary duty was to raise money to build the temple.

He helped collect more than $1 million, all from members of Tampa’s Indian community.

“Those who gave trusted that with him in charge it would get done and get done right,” Sarala Rao said.

“Everyone respects a person of integrity and selflessness,” Khator said. “Dr. Rao was such a person who always thought of giving without any status or position. He was one of us but also above us.”

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In 1996, the Hindu Temple of Florida opened on Lynn Road in Carrollwood. It is considered one of most elaborate and authentic in the country. Rather than basking in praise, Rao stepped down as president.

“He believed in democracy,” Sarala Rao said. “And he had other things he wanted to accomplish.”

A year later, he founded the Telegu Association of Florida. Telegu is a language dating back more than 2,000 years that is spoken in Rao’s native state. The association celebrates the art and cultural heritage of the people who speak it.

“He used to say that Telegu was like sweet honey,” Sarala Rao said. “He thought that the Indian children growing up in Tampa were missing out on it. He wanted a way to teach it to them.”

His interests spread beyond the Indian community, said Rele, with the Khaas Baat newspaper. Rao also founded Gurukulam, from the Sanskrit words “guru” for teacher and “kulam” for school or a section of society.

Gurukulam is a Sunday tutoring program based at USF and operated by volunteers that is intended to help students in high school mathematics, reading and writing.

He also founded a sister Saturday program at USF called Urban Scholars Outreach that teaches the same curriculum to disadvantaged children.

“He worked five days a week as a professor and served as a mentor to countless students on campus,” Rele said. “And then he volunteered more time on weekends. He never rested.”

Every organization Rao founded lives on.

“He was always thinking what he could do for the community and how he could inspire others to do more,” Rele said. “He was not from Tampa, but this was his other home.”

The Wednesday celebration at Curtis Hixon brings together his two homes.

“He would have been so proud of everyone who made this great event happen,” Sarala Rao said.

Rele said hopes original members of Tampa’s India community take a moment during the week of International Indian Film Academy events to reflect on how the community has grown. When they do, he said, he wants them to remember Rao.

“Is he the father of Tampa’s Indian community? He would never have claimed that. But I think he definitely was.”

 

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7606

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