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In celebration of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s first ten years, we collaborated with our friends at Crystal Bridges to feature a few of the remarkable people contributing to the well-being of the Northwest Arkansas community. 
Inspired by Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting Rosie the Riveter, which turns attention to the American women who worked in factories during World War II, these profiles feature individuals in our region who contribute in essential ways to the needs of our community. Each person highlighted works tirelessly, and often without fanfare, to spread hope and healing.
The portraits in this series will be on display in the Community Champions section of Crystal Bridges at 10, which will open to the public from July 11, 2021 to September 27, 2021. Crystal Bridges at 10 is an immersive exhibition with 10 distinct art experiences celebrating the museum’s collection and the local community one decade into the museum’s lifetime.
Photo by B. Watts Photography

Nandhini Varadaraj (she, her, hers), Board Secretary, Ra-Ve Cultural Foundation, Bentonville, AR

Shortly after arriving in Bentonville in 2008, Nandhini Varadaraj began creating ways for Indian Americans in the region to celebrate and stay connected to their culture and heritage. She helped launch Tamil language classes for youth and co-organized events in Northwest Arkansas to highlight traditional Indian dance and classical music. This work led to Nandhini’s role as Board Secretary for the Ra-Ve Cultural Foundation, an organization dedicated to sharing Indian performing arts with Indian Americans and non-Indian Americans year-round.

Q&A w/ Nandhini

Since you’ve been present in Northwest Arkansas, where are the places you have found community? What are some of the local places, past or present, you go to celebrate?

Kalaloka Institute of Fine Arts (KIFA) – this is the educational arm of Ra-Ve Cultural Foundation. Events and classes are organized at KIFA to attract people interested in traditional Indian arts. This space is an outlet for learners, teachers, viewers, listeners of Indian traditional arts.

The Hindu Temple in Bentonville (HANWA) – Be it a festival celebration, their annual classical event, or the anniversary of the temple. I came to know and have met quite a lot of my current friends at the temple.

The Kumon Math & Reading Center in Lowell – I work part-time here. Although I don’t do the actual teaching, I clearly see the difference it has made in many children’s lives including my son. I’ve met a lot of my “mom friends” through Kumon and they have contributed positively to my journey as a mother.

Other places include Barnes & Noble bookstore, ice cream at Braum’s, Coler Mountain Bike Preserve, Crystal Bridges Trails, Lake Atalanta. As a family, we go to these places to celebrate the most mundane of occasions like the end of a school year, completing a level at Kumon, etc.

All of the artwork being featured in this exhibition traveled great distances before landing in Northwest Arkansas as part of the Crystal Bridges collection. What distances did you travel to arrive in Northwest Arkansas? When did you arrive? What about this place keeps you here?

For 23 years, I lived in the same house with my parents and siblings. I got married in September 2000 and joined my husband in Kobe, Japan. We moved to Bangkok, Thailand soon after and lived there for four years where I completed my Master’s from Thammasat University.

Work brought us to Cincinnati, Ohio in August 2004 and moved to NWA at the end of 2008. It was work with Walmart that brought us here. Both I and my husband love the small city feel. It’s not like the small city made us feel we were missing something, we found everything we needed here. Although it took us a while to break into the ‘circles’ here, once we found our footing we felt most at home here.

We did briefly leave NWA in June 2017 for two years to Bengauru, India to be closer with family. When we decided to come back to the US for various reasons, Bentonville is where I wanted to be. This is where my support system (friends) is and we are glad to have come back just in time for the academic year in August 2019.

You are being recognized as part of this celebration, in part, because of the spirit of caring you bring to your interactions with others. To what and/or whom do you attribute the development of this spirit of caring to?

My parents. They never talked about how to live, they literally showed us. They are the best when it comes to everyday acts of kindness. These small, almost unnoticeable acts, made a big difference in how I approach life.

There are countless others who have helped me in times of need. It could be a friend who babysat my son while I was recovering from surgery, someone who picked up my prescription, a stranger who prayed for me―they all motivate me to pay it forward.

Part of this project was about celebrating you in your role as Board Secretary at Ra-Ve Cultural Foundation, what led you to join the board? What do you enjoy most about this work?

I grew up listening to Carnatic music and singing Bhajans. When my son showed interest in learning to play the violin, I started looking for ways to encourage and motivate him to continue the practice and lessons. A teacher and parent can only do so much. And learning a skill requires a lot of dedication, discipline, hard work, effort, time, etc. And there were many other students like my son learning these traditional Indian Arts in Bentonville. I wanted to be part of an organization that provides learning and performance opportunities for these students. Ra-Ve organizes various programs throughout the year which keep the students motivated to continue learning. It gives people like me an opportunity to watch and interact with these artists.

I enjoy the joy and ideas that the children get when they get a chance to interact with the artists. Recently, we hosted Ibiyinka Alao’s 100 feet painting at KIFA. Ibi is the United Nations Art Ambassador. To be able to have an artist like Ibi and many others come to Bentonville to share their talent, to see the wheels turn in the head of children when they take a class at KIFA is what I enjoy.

Who are some people or groups locally you are inspired by? Why?

  • Anand Sankaran, my husband. He encourages me to step out of my comfort zone.
  • Srividya Venkatasubramanya, my friend and President of Ra-Ve. She also runs the Kumon Center at Lowell. Her energy and conversations are always uplifting. 
  • Megha P Rao,  my friend and my son’s dance teacher. The passion she has for her dance and wanting to give more to her students. 
  • Ibiyinka Alao, artist. The way he brings people together. “Art heals Heart”―that’s his philosophy.
  • Everyone at CACHE – they are striving to create something meaningful for the artists to sustain themselves
  • Charles Beckom – personal trainer at WLFC. He makes you give your best even when you don’t want to.

What are some of the causes you are passionate about?

Reusing and reducing waste. Zero waste is not what I am aiming for. It’s to do what is maintainable by me throughout my life.

Pitching in whenever/wherever/however I can. I am not a fan of bending over backward to accommodate/help others. I cannot sustain it. Sustainable little acts of kindness/help. 

Promoting and supporting Indian Traditional arts.

Taking ownership of one’s health. There are some things that are under our control when it comes to health and we need to take advantage of that.

What milestones, moments, victories and/or achievements in your life are you most proud of?

I represented my state at the Track & Field events for five consecutive years. I was a hurdler. I am more proud of the efforts I had to put in. I am glad to have gone to the ground for my practice while my friends were enjoying movies and vacations. Looking back, I am proud to have woken up at 5:30 a.m. during my summer vacations to go to the ground day in and day out.

After one of our (me, husband and son) vacations, the response that my son gave when I asked him what was the happiest part of the trip. He was seven at that time. His response was that he felt the most happy when he brought joy to another person, a stranger.

I recently became a certified yoga teacher. I was pleasantly surprised by how fast I completed it after I decided to pursue it. And that I continue to invest to learn, I am literally finding new things that keep me motivated every day. I started teaching yoga to a handful of students.

I continue to give the importance that my physical and mental health deserves.

Very recently (like just a month back or so), I realized that I need to stop transferring my fear onto others. This was a huge revelation to me. I was stopping others from doing what they like/need to do because of my fears. As a parent especially, it’s very important that we not transfer our fears to our children. I am proud that I realized it now and I’m taking steps in the right direction (took long enough!).

Let’s lighten it up a bit: What are some of your favorite places to eat in Northwest Arkansas?

  • Kwality Ice Cream & Grill, Bentonville
  • Mirabella’s, Rogers
  • Moe’s Southwest Grill
  • Spice Shuttle, Bentonville

What are you current favorite musicians or songs?

Currently, its “nee mattume en nenjil nirkkirai” (You are the only one in my heart) sung by TM Krishna, written by Perumal Murugan and composed by Arunprakash Krishnan.

The love this poem talks about is genderless. To hear TM Krishna sing―it tugs at your heart. 

Since I grew up with Carnatic music and bhajans, that’s the kind of music I also gravitate to. I also like the Ra-Ga sisters’ “Pandarisa bhuta moote”.

Jayanthi Kumaresh, a veena player. I love her Cup’O Carnatic seasons, especially the Kids Series. 

Vittal Ramamurthy, a violinist who is also my son’s teacher.

Finally, Crystal Bridges at 10 was designed to both mark the museum’s first 10 years and set the precedent for the decade to come. Looking out into the future, what do you hope for our region and community?

I hope a lot more of the population will start doing a little more when it comes to recycling / reusing / repurposing things. I wish for a handful of Zero Waste small businesses to crop up and big organizations do a little bit more. I want the cities / counties in NWA to start pushing for it.

I want to see Indigenous people move to our region and for all of us to gain knowledge of their rich, cultural heritage.

I believe we will also see a wide range of food / restaurant options with new people moving in from different parts of the world.

Access to good auditoriums with flexibility in availability for programs and events. Currently, we only high school auditoriums available and understandably we are at the mercy of school for dates.

I would like to see organizations like Crystal Bridges and the Walton Arts Center invite arts professionals from various countries excelling in their traditional art forms.

Art heals Heart – I hope to see schools incorporating a wide range of arts in their syllabus.

Please list 10 things people should know about or do in Northwest Arkansas:

  • Attend Ra-Ve’s events, at least the Master Series. We organize one music and one dance-based Master concert every year.
  • Visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and  its trails
  • Take a stroll in downtown Bentonville
  • For bike enthusiasts, Coler Mountain Bike Preserve is a must
  • Rogers downtown and Lake Atalanta Park
  • Mount Sequoyah, Fayetteville
  • The Walmart Museum
  • Jones Center, Springdale
  • Bella Vista Lake
  • The Momentary and 8th St Market next to it

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