Red carpet lined the entrance, and Indian carved pillars draped in ivory fabric stood on either side. Cameras flashed as people poured into the first Tampa Bay Indian Film festival.
The three-day event drew about 1,000 to the swank affair at Channelside's IMAX cinema last month and featured independent films by Indian directors.
It was a sign of how far the Tampa Bay area's Indian community had come, said Francis Vayalumkal, 30, president of the Indo-US Chamber of Commerce in Tampa, the event's sponsor.
"The festival showed that we have a strong and big enough community now," he said.
Drawn to the area by familial ties, warm weather and job opportunities, the local Indian community is growing. During the 2000 U.S. census, Indians numbered nearly 10,000 in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties — making this the third-largest Indian community in the state, behind Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Current numbers are sketchy at best, but many Indians, including Vayalumkal, estimate the population has more than doubled.
Today, there are Indian restaurants and grocery stores in the Tampa Bay area. Several Hindu temples, a theater that shows new Indian movies, and annual festivals celebrate the culture.
Bollywood Urban Cafe is one of the most recent establishments to open with an Indian flavor. Owner Raj Armani said the community's heightened awareness about Indian culture made it the right time to launch the Westchase restaurant.
"We're very in tune with the times," he said.
These "times" are a far cry from when Gaurangi Patel relocated here from New Jersey in the mid 1980s.
"We had maybe one Indian grocery store downtown," said Patel, a dentist in Clearwater, who worships at the increasingly growing Hindu Temple of Florida in Carrollwood.
The Indo-US Chamber later set out to make a change. The organization formed in 1999, brought Indian business people together and helped them to network and expand.
"There was always a cultural barrier," Vayalumkal said, about the obstacles that Indian business owners faced. "They needed advice and guidance on how to succeed."
Today the chamber has 2,800 members, said Vayalumkal, who owns Candor Resources, a Tampa technology consulting firm.
The area has long had a strong base of affluent Indian community leaders, including philanthropists Kiran and Pallavi Patel. Now a new crop of transplants is building on that foundation.
"We've gone from small businesses — like motels and gas stations — to national traded corporations, such as insurance companies and banks," Vayalumkal said.
The expanded Indian presence locally is part of a national trend, said Vivek Wadhwa, a Harvard University researcher who has studied Indian immigrants in the United States. "Those who have come here are the most educated immigrant community. They've had extraordinary success, especially in technology, so they're role models, mentors and they're basically giving back in a big way."
Their success is shaping a new identity, Wadhwa said.
That progress is personified in Paresh Patel, executive chairman of Homeowners Choice Insurance in Clearwater. The company, which the 47-year-old started with two business partners, now insures about 70,000 Floridians.
He came to the area 25 years ago to work for a technology company. Once his entrepreneurial spirit blossomed, his company opened in 2007.
In the beginning, he noted that clients from the Greek and Indian communities helped the agency thrive. "There were a lot of Indians who said, 'I don't know anything about insurance, but I know you'll look after my money,' " Paresh Patel said.
"The common vision is 'You're going to go to America because your future generation will have a better life,' " he said. "And what you see in terms of Indian life here 25 years later is that progress is very measurable."
(Paresh is not related to Kiran and Pallavi, and other Patels in this story are also unrelated to each other. The surname is common in a region of India.)
For Aakash Patel, the largest indicator of an expanded Indian population is his social calendar.
The 25-year-old recounted a Super Bowl party he attended this month and last year's trip to London to see the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play — both with his "Indian friends," he said.
When the Florida State graduate came back to Tampa in 2006 after college, his dance card was far from full.
"I knew nobody," said the public relations director for the Westin Tampa Bay who also sits on various charity boards.
But he knew that would change. He had picked Tampa after considering New York, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey.
"This was the best city for someone like me to grow," he said, noting Tampa's cosmopolitan feel without the overcrowding.
On a recent night, Gaurangi Patel stood among dozens at the Hindu Temple of Florida in Carrollwood that boasts a congregation of 3,000. The group listened to the chants associated with Maha Shivaratri, a sacred all-night festival celebrating Lord Shiva.
When she hears stories of young Indians like Aakash finding community here it makes her smile.
"Now," she said with a hint of accomplishment in her voice. "We have a sense of belonging."
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3405.