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Journey to the Top: Indian Origin Alka Sharma shares her inspiring story of tightening Indian roots in US

From being an actor, dancer, poet, radio jockey, freelance writer to a painter, Alka possesses multitude of talents

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Mandi Theatre group. Image source: Alka sharma

Superlative in her own way, she is a renowned figure in the field of Arts and culture. With the Community Service award, Best EmCee Award and Best Radio Media Award in her bag, she has been tightening the Indian roots in the USA through dance and theatre. She is also one of the notable members of the Indian community living in Chicago, USA. From being an actor, dancer, poet, radio jockey, freelance writer to a painter, this woman possesses a multitude of talents.

She is Alka Sharma and her journey to the pedestal where she stands on today is astounding and inspiring in the true sense of the term. In an exclusive interview with the reporter Karishma Vanjani of NewsGram, she opens her heart out about her radio channel, Mandi theatre group and shares some word of advice for youngsters living abroad.

Alka sharma

Karishma: You are indeed a master of all trades! Founder of Mandi Theatre Group, channel head of Radio Spice Box, a dance teacher and a doting wife. No journey to prominence is easy but today our readers would love to know about yours. Let’s start with your time in India, your home away from home.

Alka: Thank you. I’d like you to note that unlike many girls born in Indian cities who are surrounded by prejudices, I rather had a simple upbringing. I did my schooling from a Hindi medium school in Jamshedpur, Bihar. My interest in the theatre of arts wasn’t innate, as a matter of fact; I went on to finishing my Post Graduation in Computer Applications from Delhi. The magic began in this beautiful city, where I later joined Shree Ram Bhartiya Kala Kendra to learn classical dancing. During this time, I was also called in by the famous Aakashwani radio channel to do a segment for their shows called ‘Samiksha’ and ‘Yuvavani’. However, destiny had other plans and soon I was married and I moved to America.

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Karishma: Journey to the top. A lot of girls dream but fail to achieve that height. How did you find a way out of these tough situations?

Alka: After I moved to Chicago, things were depressing for a while as I was not able to zero in on any particular direction, several years went by as well. But, one fine day, I read about a budding radio channel in Chicago called ‘Chann Pardesi’ looking out for new talents to join them. I immediately called them and the rest, as one says, is history.

Karishma: Radio Spice box started as Chann Pardesi in Punjabi and Gurbani back in 2012. Today, the same channel has more than 50,000 listeners per week. Making a radio channel reach this applaudable height of success is a feat. Could you shed some light on your role in Radio Spice Box?

Radio Spice Box

Alka: As I was saying, one positive move can shape up a lot of things in your life. I made a call 5 years back to Sarwan Tiwana and Darshan Basraon, founder/director and MD of Chann Pardesi respectively. They looked at my background with Aakashwani radio and trusted me with my idea to start a Hindi radio channel. Today, after 3-4 years from its name change to Radio spice box from ‘Chann Pardesi’, we are the only radio channel in America broadcasting not only in Hindi but other regional languages such as Gujarati, Bangla, Bhojpuri and Marathi. We have around 14 volunteers contributing to our shows from all parts of the world to help create a phenomenal 24*7 broadcast show for our listeners.

Karishma: Would you like to share some words of wisdom for Indian kids living in the States?

Alka: There are just a few things I’ll like them to remember. Living away from our heritage doesn’t necessarily mean that we forget them. Hindi is our national language and shying away from speaking our own language degrades the value of our country. Visit Japan or China and look at how they respect their ancestral language. I wonder why we don’t hear anyone counting in Hindi, why is it always one, two, three and not ‘ek’, ‘do’, ‘teen’. In my opinion, music is the best way to get this point across. Let me add, music and dance. Dance is the way I teach my students things they wish to learn about the Indian legacy.

Karishma: Even though you stay in the U.S, your roots still belong in India, which is very well proved by your words. Please share some details about your dance group named ‘Amrapali dance group’?

Alka Sharma: My group consists of kids who come to learn Bollywood style dancing. What makes me happy is that they are also very inquisitive and eager to learn Hindi. We’ve also performed for the U.S consulate.

Karishma: Coming to your multitude of talents- your contribution as an actor and a dancer in the Mandi theatre group reminds the audience about some great Indian classics and help them re-live it. Can you tell us how the Mandi theatre group came into being?

Alka Sharma: A lot of good theatre plays were performed in Chicago for years but I saw that all of them were performed in English and with that thought, we founded the Mandi theatre group, a small way to preserve India’s theatrical tradition. We meet once a week and practice, I write plays, direct and act in them. It is a team effort.

Karishma: How has your journey in the Hindi theatre been so far?

Alka Sharma: It’s been beautiful. Last year, in 2015 itself we had 8 performances. One of the plays that I’m very proud of is ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’; it was a tribute to a Great Indian Writer, ‘Premchand Ji’. Part of the proceeds generated from this play were donated for the welfare of Senior Citizens to the NGO, HelpAge.

Karishma: What social issue does your theatre group cover apart from promoting India’s theatrical culture and art or Diaspora?

Alka Sharma: Our mission revolves around strengthening the role of ‘Traditional Indian Theatre’ in the arts community of Chicago area. Amongst our productions, one of the plays called ‘मटकी छाप पर मोहर लगायें’ (Matki chaap par mohar lagaye) was solely based on water shortage faced by many parts of India, it was a political Satire based on Shard Joshi’s short story.

Karishma: Our readers would love to know what’s in store for Mandi now? Are there any future projects or goals set in stone?

Alka Sharma: This brings me to the official announcement I have been meaning to make through Newsgram. Our Mandi Theatre Group will very soon hold Chicago’s first theatre festival showcasing the work of eminent playwrights of India. That’s right, I have been working on its press release and I assure you the theatre festival will be the first of its kind Chicago has seen.

Karishma: So Alka Ji, who stands behind this successful image?                                           Alka: Definitely not, I have a list of people to thank but amongst them, I would like to especially thank my husband Rohit Sharma, it’s due to his support that I took a few life-changing decisions and my mother CK Sharma, who has been my inspiration throughout.

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Karishma: Our readers want to know what does RJ Alka Sharma love to do in her leisure time?

Alka Sharma: (Laughs). I have always been an avid photographer. I capture everything beautiful from a water droplet to a whole field filled with snow. Adding to that, my home in Chicago is filled with oil paintings. These are the ones, I painted during my hard times and I still pursue painting whenever I find the time.

– by Karishma Vanjani of NewsGram. Twitter: @BladesnBoots

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“They Don’t Make Prayerful Offerings When They Harvest,” Story Of The Native American Church

“The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

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The sun sets over the gateway of peyotera Amada Cardenas's house in Mirando City, Texas. Ironwork reflects core Native American Church values of faith, hope, love and charity. VOA

Back in the day, when the “grandmas and grandpas” of the Native American Church (NAC) needed peyote, they would make a 2,000-kilometer pilgrimage from the reservations of South Dakota to the tiny town of Mirando City, Texas, close to the U.S. border with Mexico. That’s where they could find Amada Cardenas, a Mexican-American woman who at the time was the only peyote dealer in Texas.

Cardenas was not Native American, nor was she a member of the NAC. But she understood how sacred the medicine was to church members and defended its use as a religious sacrament to those who sought to ban it.

Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994.
Amada Cardenas, holding a basket of peyote, outside of her home in Mirando City, Texas, 1994. VOA

“After Amada’s passing, the peyote distribution system lost heart and seemed to be about monetary compensation,” said Iron Rope, former chairman of the Native American Church of North America (NACNA) and today chairman of the NAC of South Dakota. He is concerned that the remaining three or four peyote dealers in Texas — all non-Native — don’t give “the medicine” the reverence they should.

“They don’t make prayerful offerings when they harvest,” Iron Rope said. “We’ve heard reports about intoxicated harvesters. Sometimes, the medicine that comes to us was mushy or small, and the harvesting technique was not one that would allow regrowth.”

Careless and sometimes illegal harvesting, along with increased land and resource development in Texas, has led to a decline in peyote’s quality and availability. Prices have gone up, and church members worry the cactus, now listed as a vulnerable species, could become endangered.

In 2013, NACNA began researching ways to conserve peyote and its natural habitat.

Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico.
Lophophora williamsii, more commonly known as peyote, which grows in the wild in southern Texas and Mexico. VOA

Pan-Native religion

Peyote, or Lophophora williamsii, is a succulent that contains psychoactive alkaloids and only grows in southern Texas and a handful of states in northern Mexico.

Indigenous people have used it ceremonially and medicinally for centuries, as noted by 16th century Spanish missionaries, who condemned it as an evil. Peyote use persisted, however, and by the late 1800s, had spread to present-day Oklahoma, where tribes adapted it to suit their individual spiritual traditions.

In the face of government efforts to ban peyote, peyotists in the early 20th century sought to incorporate as a formal religion. In 1918, an intertribal group established the NAC, which has evolved to include tens of thousands of members across dozens of tribal nations. Members view the church as an important component of healing from historic trauma and reconnecting to tradition.

Peyote was banned in the United States in 1970, but the law was later amended to allow peyote to be used in “bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church.”

Texas allows several peyoteros registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to harvest and sell peyote, but only to card-carrying NAC members with proven Native American ancestry.

Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007.
Peyote buttons are shown in the yard of a peyote dealer in Rio Grande, Texas, Oct. 12, 2007. VOA

‘A beautiful ceremony’

Unlike other religious denominations, said Iron Rope, the NAC is not a unified theology.

“Different variations of the ceremony have come into play,” he said. “There are Christian aspects to the NAC today and traditional aspects, as well.”

Wynema Morris, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and an NAC member, grew up with an understanding of the sacredness of peyote and the religious etiquette surrounding its use.

“It was my own grandfather, Samuel Thomas Gilpin, who actually received peyote early on from the Winnebagos, a neighboring tribe, and passed it on to his sons, my uncles,” she said.

This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled "Cheyenne Peyote Leader." Courtesy: Library of Congress.
This 1924 photo by Edward S. Curtis is entitled “Cheyenne Peyote Leader.” Courtesy: Library of Congress. VOA

Peyote is much misunderstood and maligned, she said, viewed by many anthropologists through the lens of colonial prejudice.

“I don’t like their use of the word ‘hallucinations,’” she said. “You don’t use peyote to get high. You use it to pray and communicate with God — the same God everyone else talks to.”

She described all-night services of prayer, song and meditation.

“The ceremony is beautiful,” she said. “The extraordinary and the phenomenon are not necessarily unexpected, but they are definitely not precluded.”

Sacred gardens

In 2013, NACNA began looking at ways to conserve and sustain peyote for future generations of indigenous Americans, Mexicans and Canadians.

“It was our intent to eventually have our own land and be able to have our own peyote dealer who could understand our concerns as the Native American Church,” said Iron Rope.

The sun sets over "the 605," acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church.
The sun sets over “the 605,” acreage in Thompsonville, Texas, which the Indigenous Peyote Conservation purchased in 2018 for the conservation of peyote, a sacrament of the Native American Church. VOA

In 2017, NACNA and partner organizations formally launched the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative (IPCI). With funding from the Riverstyx Foundation, a nonprofit that supports research of medicinal uses of psychoactive plants, IPCI purchased 245 hectares (605 acres) of land in Thompsonville, Texas, to serve as “Sacred Peyote Gardens.”

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It is their hope that by 2021, “the 605” will house a nursery, residential and guest housing, and youth training, all supported by peyote sales.

“It’s about generations to come,” said Iron Rope. “To reconnect them to the land and to the medicine. And that’s the healing process that we’ve been missing.” (VOA)