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Volunteers drive success of Tampa's India Festival 2013

Mahesh Modha believes that everything in life revolves around relationships.

As this year's chairman of Tampa's India Festival, Modha spent the past year cultivating relationships and leading a team of 200 volunteers in setting the stage for Saturday's long awaited annual event.

"It's time to abdicate and deliver," he said.

Modha promises this year's festival will be the most memorable of the past 26 years, largely because of the volunteers. Although he sees himself as an instrument guiding the volunteers, "Really, they make me look good."

First-time visitors can expect a variety of all things India at the festival — from traditional foods to colorful, embroidered fashions to energetic, classical Indian dance competitions. He said in India, every life event has a connection to dancing: weddings, babies, engagements.

Honorary chairperson Malti Pandya will be volunteering backstage with this year's dancers, bringing them water and snacks and offering encouragement and support.

Pandya has been actively volunteering with the India Festival for the past 17 years. She remembers stuffing envelopes before the Internet made communication easier.

She sees her volunteer role as a link to both the past and the future. She originally got involved with volunteering because of her children. She wanted them to experience their culture and thought if she became immersed, then they would, too. Both son Rahul, a choreographer, and daughter Pooja, festival book editor, are still immersed.

"Many of our volunteers are made up of families," Pandya said. "It's an opportunity for the whole family to get involved."

Like Pandya, Modha sees volunteering as a family commitment.

Every year since moving to Tampa, he and his family have attended and volunteered with the India Festival. For the past two years, Modha has also worked as a vendor.

His wife and two daughters will be there Saturday helping out.

Modha's family involvement echoes the community values that first drew him to Tampa 15 years ago. Those same community values are what he also sees as being a key influence in attracting the "Bollywood Oscars" to the area.

In June of next year, Tampa will become the first U.S. city to host the Indian film industry's major awards weekend.

Modha sees the success of the annual India Festival as a snapshot of the bond of the Indian community.

"Because of our unity in Tampa, the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) saw that as a unique opportunity," he said. "If we put Tampa on the map of the world because of the awards, that will be spectacular."

Modha, who also volunteers with the IIFA, said there will be an IIFA booth set up at the festival to drum up excitement for next year's awards.

When the India Festival began 26 years ago, Modha said there were about 2,500 in attendance with a handful of vendors and maybe 10 to 15 volunteers. Now, attendance has swelled to more than 10,000. Modha anticipates Saturday's India Festival will be the largest crowd gathering on the East Coast to celebrate Indian culture in one day.

"It's all about bringing people together and building relationships," Modha said.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn has officially declared Oct. 26 India Festival Day.

Aimée Alexander can be reached at