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Cultivating Cultural Literacy

Dec/01/2023 / by abhijit-masih

With her roots in India, Anu Sehgal is committed to sharing the richness of South Asian culture.

As the creator of the Culture Tree, Anu Sehgal is dedicated to fostering cultural literacy about South Asia through language, educational initiatives, and cultural programs. Although she has resided in the United States for 25 years, her deep-seated roots remain firmly planted in India. As a visionary, Anu identified a significant gap in authentic Indian experiences and community connections in the U.S. This realization intensified when motherhood beckoned, fueling her unwavering passion for preserving and sharing the rich beauty of Indian heritage. Anu underscores the significance of creating a legacy imbued with cultural enrichment. Her commendable efforts have effectively sown the seeds for a more diverse and interconnected world, reflecting a lasting impact on the cultural landscape.

Can you tell us the inspiration behind the Culture Tree and the mission behind the organization?

Once I had my own children, I realized there was a real need. First of all, reflecting the Indian cultures, because people in America think there’s just one dimension to Indian culture. That’s when I really felt the need for reflecting the different aspects of Indian cultures. Also having some sort of programs that were really buttoned up, especially in terms of language literacy. That was the start of The Culture Tree. The mission is for the South Asian American children to interact with their heritage in different ways. Initially, we started with just a language program, but now we have dance programs and this year, we have started an interactive program for teens so that they can get involved with their cultures. The second pillar is just cultural literacy, in which we create custom made educational programs. 

What are some of the key initiatives to promote Indian culture and heritage?

I have actually created puppet shows. Those two words, open doors automatically. It not just makes my life easier in selling up programs, but puppet shows are an art form in most Asian cultures. So it’s using these popular stories to tell people about the cultural aspects of a specific festival. So we have four puppet shows. One is Ramlila, which is about Diwali. We Colors of Krishna’s Love which is a popular story of Holi. It also goes deeper because we talk about colorism through that puppet show. There is always the celebratory and informative aspect, but there is also a lesson behind whatever we do. Then we have created another puppet show about Eid. And the last one is called Climate warriors. It’s about stories from India about how people have led environmental movement.

Can you share some success stories and memorable moments from your work with The Culture Tree?

An extremely memorable moment was when Mayor Eric Adams actually recognized the work that I’ve been doing in furthering cultural literacy about South Asia. He recognized me at Gracie Mansion this year and it was just an amazing event. I think that was the most memorable moment so far. But I think each and every event that I do and the interaction that I have with children and their families, when they are excited to learn about a new culture, is a very rewarding experience. I just feel this is a revolution and this is the way our kids should feel about their heritage cultures.

What have been some of the challenges that you have faced in promoting Indian culture in the West?

It has gone through its own challenging times but I think it’s getting easier, the more you’re seeing our culture in every aspect of life. Initially, when I started this seven years ago, it was a hard sell. There were very few books that were written about different different cultures from South Asia. For example, I had gone to this event at a museum, it was a Holi event and since there were no books on Holi for kids, they were reading a Diwali book. That was challenging maybe seven years ago. I am seeing such a big change now. Also, I built my credibility with these institutions, museums, libraries, that they let me do whatever I want to do. So it is getting easier. It’s all about educating them. I feel people are much more accepting now.

In your view, why is it important for people of Indian descent, living here in the US, to stay connected with their cultural roots?

It’s very important for the expat community to connect with their culture in different aspects of their lives. That is the foundation for first gen people like me, we came from there. So it is the sense of belonging that we feel, and get from our community and our culture. It is also extremely important for children who are born here to be connected with their heritage culture. I tell them all the time that once you know your culture, there will be opportunities that will happen in South Asia, especially job opportunities in India. But more than that, it’s just making them feel proud about their culture and give them that confidence that it’s a gift to be multicultural, it’s a gift to know different languages and different dances. I feel it’s fulfilling for a human being and it’s also very grounding for all of us.

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