Closing ceremony at the Konkani Sammelan 2022. (Picture courtesy of Nirmala Madhava)


Column: For the first time I was surrounded by hundreds of people who spoke my language

I had the opportunity to attend the 2022 Konkani Sammelan in San Jose, Calif. — these are the highlights of my trip. 
<a href="" target="_self">Meera Hatangadi</a>

Meera Hatangadi

July 29, 2022
Growing up, I never once heard my language represented in the media or on TV shows. I have never expected to hear my language spoken by someone in line at the grocery store or in the next video on my TikTok For You Page. That’s the experience of many Saraswat Konakanis.

Only about 0.19% of the Indian population are native Konkani speakers. That’s 0.000296% of the world or 2.3 million people. There are also several dialects of it, making the population of people who speak the same Konkani as I do much smaller.

As an ethnic minority within India — and definitely in the United States — I find that my native language and culture are mostly limited to the confines of my house.

However, there is an inkling of time during which this does not reign true. Every four years, the Saraswat Konkani community comes together to celebrate our mutual culture and language at what we call a Sammelan. 

And this year, I had the opportunity to attend the 2022 Konkani Sammelan in San Jose, Calif. — these are the highlights of my trip. 

Highlight one: Exploring my culture 

Amid the lack of representation that my culture receives in the world lies one truth: The only way to explore my culture further is by learning from those who share it with me. For this reason, my biggest highlight at the 2022 Konkani Sammelan was learning more about my rich culture and heritage.

The opening ceremony was choreographed by Guru Dr. Sanjay Shantaram with the concept and skits written by Dr. Vivek and Mrs. Gayathri Shanbag. (Photo taken by Dheenu Neelamegam)

The first step toward this learning was the opening ceremony. 

Consisting of a variety of skits and dances, it followed the story of a young couple who immigrate from Mangalore, India (home city to many Saraswat Konkanis) as they navigate their new lives and find their own community in the U.S.

Opening ceremony display of traditional Konkani marriage attire and procedure. (Photo taken by Dheenu Neelamegam)

The ceremony showcased elements of Konkani culture such as the traditional folk dance Vaga Vesu and a display of traditional Konkani marriage attire and proceedings. Most of the dialogues were in Konkani, and the songs used in the performances were songs recorded in Konkani for the Sammelan by Shri Praveen D. Ram.

Folk dance of Vaga Vesu. (Photo taken by Dheenu Neelamegam)

The display of niche elements of Konkani as well as general Indian culture showed me different sides of my heritage. Seeing the couple on stage experiencing the culture shift between the U.S and India and trying to find a group of like-minded individuals, deeply resonated with me as it was something my parents went through when they first moved to the U.S.

Archana Kamath, a committee member, and performer at the Sammelan felt the same way. 

“The whole story of how a couple from Mangalore came here and how their life has evolved in the opening ceremony is one where anyone can kind of see themselves in that couple,” she said. 

The closing ceremony was choreographed by Guru Nirmala Madhava of PAMPA Dance Academy with a sand art backdrop display by Ragavendra Hedge. (Photo courtesy of Nirmala Madhava)

The convention culminated in a showcase of Konkani history in the closing ceremony.

“It was both an honor and a pleasure working with the organizers of the Konkani Sammelan 2022. We had a wonderful time putting on this show together,” said Guru Nirmala Madhava.

This program displayed my people’s Kashmiri origin and the history of our tumultuous migration south to the Konkan coast, all while retaining our culture and language.

“Closing ceremony gave the history of Konkani, how we have maintained our culture throughout the migration. Expressing stories that I didn’t even know about,” Kamath said.

Amid these two programs, the Sammelan also displayed different facets of Konkani and Indian culture. 

Deepika Padukone speaking about her Konkani upbringing. (Photo taken by Dheenu Neelamegam)

For example, Indian actors Ananth Nag and Deepika Padukone spoke about their Konkani upbringings, and speed painter Vilas Nayak created a depiction of a traditional Konkani village. 

These artistic performances displayed the intricacies of the Konkani identity and further immersed me in my culture. Seeing these Konkani people become such masters of their craft and make their own impact on the world, made me increasingly proud to be a Saraswat Konkani.

During the entertainment, the auditorium hall was filled with laughter, silent chatter and appreciation for our collective culture. I was reminded of the power of language and culture in unifying a group of people.

Highlight two: Performing 

Any large event requires multiple moving pieces to come together for the completed product. From the venue to the decorations to social media to the performances, each piece came together to culminate in the show. One such aspect — the performances — included me.

The author performs the folk dance Kavadi Chindu. (Photo taken by Dheenu Neelamegam)

I was part of two Indian classical dances in the Inauguration segment on the first day, two Bollywood dances in the opening ceremony on the second day and folk dance on the third day. Performing was one of my favorite parts of the Sammelan. 

The days of the performances were filled with action as we would get ready to don our costumes, jewelry and makeup, and rush backstage before our performances. 

However, it was in the weeks leading up to the event that I enjoyed the most. We would have practices nearly every day, running through the various segments and perfecting time cues. I was able to bond with other Konkani individuals and gain a sense of camaraderie and community within the group.

The author performing at Inauguration (Photo taken by Dheenu Neelamegam)

“Performing at the Konkani Sammelan gave me a chance to learn and perform a dance to a Konkani song which was so exciting,” said Chaya Manjeshwar, an attendee and performer at the convention. “[My friends and I] were able to meet and perform together after a long time and connect back to our roots by sharing stories with an audience of people from around the world who speak Konkani just like we do.”

Highlight three: Food and entertainment

It wouldn’t be a Konkani convention without a variety of different Konkani foods. At home, my family and I tend to eat Konkani food most days, but the food at the Sammeland was special. Each meal included a combination of traditional Konkani food mixed with more fusion Indian food and some interesting combinations.

The day consisted of five different meals throughout the course of the day: Breakfast, lunch, tannik (a snack taken around tea-time), appetizers and dinner. Food in these courses included traditional Konkani foods such as dalithoy (lentil in a soup typically eaten with rice) and tendle upkari (stir fry of ivy gourd).

There were also a lot of non-typical Indian foods such as fava bean kofta kafir lime sauce (a curry with vegetable balls typically served with a spicy savory sauce but in this case with a sour sauce) and chicken gashi (a Konkani dish typically served with vegetables rather than meat).

Food at the Sammelan cooked Vittal Shetty from Jasla caterers and events. (Photo taken by Dheenu Neelamegam)

I found these meals rather enjoyable as they combined some of my favorite Konkani dishes while also adding some unique dishes that piqued my interest. Although the lines to get food were sometimes long, I typically found that the wait was worth it, and I wasn’t the only one.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the wide variety of delicious and authentic Konkani food. My personal favorite was definitely the cracked wheat kheer (a traditional dessert),” said Shreya Kamath, an attendee and performer at the Sammelan.

In addition to the variety of food, the variety of entertainment also made the convention that much more enjoyable. On the first day, I saw Indian musical artist Shankar Mahadevan live in concert, and on the second day I enjoyed Padmini Rao’s Hindustani classical music concert. 

Apart from the music scene, the Sammelan also had a variety of other entertainment ranging from comedy skits to karaoke to Konkani’s got talent, which kept me engaged throughout.

Highlight four: Community

At the end of the day, the Sammelan was all about forming one thing among the Konkani people: Community. 

At the Sammelan, I rekindled relationships with old friends, made some new ones and caught up with many of my relatives. Whether it was socializing after the performances, or sitting down and talking while eating, during the Sammelan I felt a greater sense of community.

Even though for most of the year my language and culture are not present in the media, at this year’s Konkani Sammelan, I felt represented.