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Spreading South Asian Culture

Jul/30/2023 / by Brian Sodoma

Anu Sehgal develops programs to share her heritage and traditions

South Asian woman speaking to an audience holding an open children's book
Photo courtesy: Anu Sehgal/ The Culture Tree

Sometimes, it’s not the career you pursue that impacts your professional life the most. It’s the one that pursues you. That’s the case for Anu Sehgal, the 48-year-old founder of The Culture Tree, which uses language, educational, and cultural programs to promote South Asian cultural literacy.

After spending years in the corporate world, a career in cultural education found Sehgal about 14 years ago when she started a family. While raising two boys in the United States, she found the ties to her family’s heritage were shallow and did not accurately reflect the tremendous diversity found in South Asia.

“I took my culture for granted until I had my own kids, and that was when I realized my children need to know their heritage and their roots. I was unable to find any place delving deeper into specifically Indian culture,” she recalled. “There was a lot of representation in New York City, and a lot of exhibits but there was no one speaking in the language kids could understand. The representation was very superficial, and people were repeating the same things. For example, South Asia is known for henna, and it would be present at all events, even if it wasn’t appropriate.”

Sehgal recently shared with SEEMA the story of how The Culture Tree was born and how it quickly became a mainstay in South Asian cultural education in New York.

Childhood and Early Career

Cultural curiosity started early for Sehgal. Born in Delhi, she describes her childhood as “happy,” “secular” and “inclusive.” Her Hindu father and Muslim mother were an atypical marriage for the time. Rather than dwell on differences, her parents chose to embrace many different types of cultures, religions, and festival celebrations in India.

Sehgal’s parents emphasized hard work, humility, and an openness “to learn from anyone and everyone,” she added. “[My parents were] both were very tolerant to people from different backgrounds, religion, classes, and castes.”

Sehgal graduated from Delhi University with a degree in economics, then moved to the U.S. in 1995 where she worked in finance, creating quantitative models. She became fascinated with marketing and branding, and went to Yale for an MBA with an emphasis in marketing. This led to brand management roles with Colgate-Palmolive, Mattel, American Express, and Tagmo, the South Asian food company founded by award-winning chef Surbhi Sahni.

“I enjoyed the switch because running the brand is almost like being an entrepreneur and managing your own business. You get to do a little bit of everything,” she said.

A Change of Plans

But when the cultural education ideas began swirling, it was time for Sehgal to pivot. She would take all she knew about marketing to start The Culture Tree.

“I wanted my kids and their friends to learn about Indian culture. It was very emotional and tied to my needs as an Indian American parent raising her kids in the United States. There was a deep passion and urgency involved in that,” she added.

Sehgal began language classes, starting with Hindi. Other classes were then introduced, with the help of Bengaluru-based children’s author, Roopa Pai. Word spread quickly.

“Once we started these classes people realized how buttoned up our organization was, and South Asian parents started introducing us to the museums and libraries in their area,” she said. “It was very organic growth and word of mouth, and we started working with institutions to create programs that were educational and more culturally authentic and relevant.”

Seeking Out Unique Programming

The success and growth of The Culture Tree is rooted in customized programming, according to Sehgal. Tapping her marketing experience, she first takes time to get to know the institution seeking her services, then custom builds programs for it.

Working with the New York Public Library, for example, she emphasized literature programming around Indian festivals. “The New York Public Library has a huge emphasis on bilingualism. So we have authors who have written books not just to represent the culture but also following a bilingual approach,” she said.

In working with the Museum of the City of New York, Sehgal’s team created a program where South Asian children in New York share their cultural and household stories through essays, poems and art called “My Diwali Light.” For her program with the Children’s Museum of the Arts in downtown Manhattan, The Culture Tree worked with an artist from one of India’s oldest tribes, the Bhil, to replicate sketches from children in the Bhil style.

Her programming work also exposes her to more authors, artists, musicians, and cultural ambassadors from all around the world.

“It’s just amazing how we can connect with anyone now, even in India. That is something I do constantly. I’m always looking for something that is really an authentic representation of different aspects of India,” she emphasized.

Looking Forward

Anu has added children’s book author to her resume as well. She published “Kahaani Rangeeli” (Colorful Story) in February this year. The story centers around Holi, the annual cultural celebration of spring’s arrival. She has also created four puppet shows for children and adults.

“I would say those two things [books and puppet shows] have been received well. I will keep building on them,” Sehgal said. She also has two more books coming out next year, which will focus on lesser-known Indian cultural subjects.

In the future she wants to expand The Culture Tree’s programs. Currently in the U.S. and Canada, Sehgal will add more languages and make them more accessible through online courses, books, and classes.

“My hope is to provide parents and children with sufficient products and means for them to learn new languages. Product development will become a big focus,” she said.

Through her writing and growth of the The Culture Tree, she’d like to bring greater understanding to the fact that India’s culture is multi-dimensional and includes many subcultures, foods, languages, and religions.

“I think the biggest misconception is that we are one India, that it is unidimensional. There is no one Indian. It is one of the most diverse countries in the world,” she said. “I feel now the media is much more interested in South Asia. Social media has helped, but we have only scratched the surface in telling the story of our culture.”

Seema

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