JUNE 2016
Khaas Baat : A Publication for Indian Americans in Florida


Photo by Mark Thiessen/
National Geographic

Rishi Nair of Seffner (Tampa Bay area), a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Williams Magnet Middle School, took top honors at the 28th annual National Geographic Bee May 25 in Washington, D.C. In addition to earning the title of National Geographic Bee champion, Rishi received a $50,000 college scholarship and a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society. He will also travel (along with one parent or guardian), all expenses paid, on a Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic eight-day adventure to Southeast Alaska aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion, including a stop at Glacier Bay National Park, in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Travel for the trip is provided by Lindblad Expeditions and the National Geographic Society.

The second-place winner and recipient of a $25,000 college scholarship was 14-year-old Saketh Jonnalagadda of Westford, Mass., an eighth-grader at Stony Brook Middle. Third place and a $10,000 college scholarship went to Kapil Nathan of Hoover, Alabama, a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Brock’s Gap Intermediate, who was also among the 2015 top 10 finalists.

In the nail-biting, seven-question final round between Rishi and Saketh, Rishi took the lead after the first question by correctly answering: “The Gotthard Base Tunnel, expected to open in early June, will be the world’s longest rail tunnel. This tunnel is located in which country?” Answer: “Switzerland.”

Saketh did not answer the first question correctly but caught up when Rishi incorrectly answered the fifth question: “An active lighthouse is located on a cape that is the easternmost point of mainland Australia. Name this cape.” Answer: “Cape Byron.”

The final question, which clinched the win for Rishi, was: “A new marine sanctuary will protect sharks and other wildlife around Isla Wolf in which archipelago in the Pacific Ocean?” Answer: “Galápagos Islands.”

Rishi is the second Florida student to win the National Geographic Bee. In 2010, eighth-grader Aadith Moorthy of Palm Harbor was the national champion.

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Khaas Baat Business Beat
A partnership with Indo-US Chamber of Commerce, Tampa



By NITISH S. RELE - [email protected]

Geetha KarkeraFor more than 25 years, Bharathanatyam teacher Geetha Karkera of Orlando has been inculcating dance to students in the Central Florida area. That translates into commuting 800 miles weekly. Initially, she would drive as far as Jacksonville and Orlando from Ocala but now is focused on Tampa and Orlando. “I want to cater to sincere, loyal and 'interested' students,” she told us during our interview at the Hindu Temple of Florida in Tampa as her disciples learnt new moves. “I have about 35 or so to students and conduct a two-hour class every class day and teach in temple halls. I do not want to be a training center anymore.”

A native of Chennai, Karkera moved to Mumbai to take lessons from Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir (Tanjavore Bani). She soon became one of the top dancers of the natya mandir. Then came her relocation to the Gulf in the 1980s where she worked as an executive with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in a publication, before choosing to move to the United States for educating her two young daughters. With degrees in Microbiology and Education in India, she furthered her education in Nursing in Florida, “and kept Bharathanatyam only as a sole passion, my only form of worship," says the founder of Nritya Academy. From 1967 to 1980, she ran the India Academy of Fine Arts.

So far, 124 of her students have graduated to the arangetram level. An arangetram is a debut as an artist or a solo classical dance recital, signifying the ability to perform difficult dance items, signifying the graduation of the dancer after following several years of rigorous curriculum). “I have not repeated a ‘varnam’ (central theme) in any of the arangetrams,” she points out. “Varnam is the longest item in an arangetram which is a combination of Nritta, Nritya and Natya. I choose students for arangetram, not a means to an end or else I would have many more. I choose students who wish to continue dancing as long as they are able to. There is a need for financial support but I ward off the temptation.”

Since 2005, Karkera has been affiliated with Alagappa University in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu, which provides her students with a Bachelor's degree in Bharathanatyam. “This year, 29 students received their certification course results and over 100 students are affiliated to the course.” She willingly admits that “what I know is a drop in the ocean, what I learnt in a day of four hours, I can only provide my students in a month’s time in four classes. Then what justice can be done to authentic or traditional dancing? Hence, I 'Skype' with them, guide them and have now begun to guard them.”

Needless to say, students and their parents are excited to have Karkera as a choreographer. The parent of Meera, one of the students at the dance practice in Tampa, told us, “Geethaji is the best guru my daughter can ever get.” That was seconded by another student who called her a “very friendly teacher.” And Daisy Morales, Florida Soil & Water Conservation District supervisor representing Orange County, calls Karkera “an outstanding and amazing woman, who is involved with the youth, our future generation, working tirelessly to preserve the culture.”

Karkera believes that Bharathanatyam is genuinely the hardest of all dance forms. “I learned traditional dancing from gurus and have not deviated from my form and norms and have been blessed with an innate ability to choreograph,” she says with pride.

Not many may be aware that Karkera is a linguist who can speak many Indian languages and dialects and Hindi. She is a fine painter too. “Whenever I am upset, I either cook or paint,” she reveals. “I also do props for all my personal stage performances. My father P. Ramabhadran, founder of SAFE (Shanti Arts Foundation & Endowment), was a connoisseur of fine arts, from sculpture to painting, from drama to Carnatic music. He devoted his entire life to enable the progression of artists.”

Karkera has singly raised and educated her two daughters: Dr. Sabrina Madabhushi is a pharmacist and Tina Karkera is a litigation attorney, while “providing them with culture and traditional values.” She has three grandchildren.

Tampa resident DR. A.K. PILLAI bags 63rd Indian National Film Award

Dr. A.K. Pillai accepts the National Film
Award from Indian President Pranab Mukherjee.

A longtime resident of Tampa, Dr. A.K. Pillai is the winner of the prestigious 63rd Indian National Film Award in the category of “Environment Conservation/Preservation” for the movie “Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal” (Birds with large wings). He received the honor from Indian President Pranab Mukherjee on May 3.

This is one among many honors received by Pillai (producer) and Padma Pillai (co-producer). The two-hour film also won the World Humanitarian Award last year in Jakarta and was screened at United Nations Environment Programme last November in Geneva.

“The National Film Award is one of the best things that has happened in my life, especially to receive the award from the honorable president of India,” Dr. Pillai told Khaas Baat. “It was an experience of a lifetime to be seated among famous actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan and other legends in the Indian film Industry. I am very humbled and fortunate to receive the honor. Thanks to all my friends and well-wishers for their support.”

Dr. Pillai’s passion for making realistic and meaningful movies led to joining forces with internationally renowned contemporary artistic filmmaker Dr. Biju. The Malayalam/English/French partly fictionalized film portrays the struggles of villagers in Kasargod, Kerala, as they face many health issues due to misuse of the endosulfan pesticide in cashew plantations. This affected people, especially children born with birth defects, as well as the environment for 2½ decades.

Awards and Recognitions


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