Saturday, May 18, 2024

Bossier Parish History: A Cultural Exchange: When the Indrani Dance Troupe Came to Bossier City, 1961 

by BPT Staff
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May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month to celebrate the contributions that generations of AAPIs have made to American history, society, and culture. When the Indrani Dance Troupe of India came to Bossier City in November, 1961, Indrani and her fellow dancers and musicians intended to share Indian dance and culture with the Ark-La-Tex. Instead, the shortened visit put the spotlight of the world on the customs of Northwest Louisiana during the time of “Jim Crow” racial segregation. 

Pam Carlisle | Bossier Parish History Center

Born in Madras (now known as Chennai) India in 1930, Indrani Rahman won the very first Miss India pageant in 1952. Later, she joined her mother Ragini Devi’s dance company. Known simply as Indrani, she was the first professional dancer to revive the long neglected Odissi style of dance that was virtually unknown outside of the Odissa region until Indrani performed it in Delhi in 1957. She subsequently performed these and other dances all over the world, helping to popularize the Indian classical dance form.

In 1961, Indrani was the first dancer presented on a national tour by the Asia Society, which was a foundation set up to foster better relations between Asian nations and the U.S. While on this tour, Indrani and her troupe performed for President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during Nehru’s official visit to Washington, D.C. Nine days after this performance at India’s embassy in Washington, D.C., the tour was to stop at Centenary College in Shreveport, where they were invited to perform Monday, November 20th by Joseph M. Running, head of the department of music, for the college’s “Lyceum” performance series. Lyceum programs were primarily for the educational enrichment of Centenary students and faculty, but members of the public were permitted to attend Indrani’s performance by purchasing a ticket at the door. 

Normally Dr. Running put out-of-town performers up at the Washington-Youree Hotel in Shreveport, but due to a Louisiana Teachers’ Association conference, no rooms were available. So, he booked rooms at the Kickapoo Plaza Court, a modern motor court motel across the river in Bossier City at Highway 80 and Benton Road. The Kickapoo advertised its cabins as, “the most complete in America.” The tourist complex also offered a restaurant that was a favorite of locals as well as out of towners.

The group checked into the hotel on Sunday without incident. But when they went into the restaurant to eat, they were refused service. Said the restaurant owner in the Monday, November 20, 1961, Shreveport Journal, “I couldn’t explain to every customer that came in that the group was made up of Indians, not Negroes….Our main business is derived from local people.” The owner instead offered to fix food for the troupe members to take to their rooms.

Indrani Rahman in the 20 November 1961 Centenary Conglomerate.

 After the dance tour’s manager called one other unnamed Bossier City restaurant that also said they would not serve the group in the restaurant, the dancers and musicians did eat in their rooms. And, they made plans to leave the area first thing in the morning, cancelling their appearance at Centenary. In the Shreveport Journal article on the 20th, Indrani is quoted upon leaving: “We are heartbroken. We are leaving without a good feeling about this country.” 

The troupe initially decided not to announce to the newspaper why they called off the performance, but the President of Centenary College, Dr. Joseph J. Mickle, saying he deeply regretted the incident, did make it public. An editorial in the Bossier paper supported the local businesses that denied service, but an eloquent student letter to the editor in the Centenary College newspaper, the Conglomerate, of November 27, 1961, declared, “This event can serve as an example to us of what goes on every day throughout our country to fellow human beings but writ large.”

Following the incident, Indrani made a statement in a story that ran on Tuesday, November 21, 1961,  that was carried by the Associated Press. She stated that she and her troupe members were aware of the practices of racial segregation in the South and were therefore reluctant to travel to that region in their cross-continental tour. They had been assured there would be no problems. However, in addition to Bossier, they encountered incidents in Charlotte, North Carolina, where one restaurant manager wanted to fix them a place to eat in the kitchen, and another where they were subject to unpleasant, audible comments from other patrons. Again, Indrani did not want to go to the local press with this story, and just quietly leave town, but the story was leaked. 

Once the story was carried by the Associated Press, it attracted attention worldwide. The U.S. State Department issued an apology, as did evangelist Billy Graham, who was visiting New Delhi, India for the World Council of Churches General Assembly. He and other “churchmen” personally visited Indrani’s husband Habib Rahman, a New Delhi architect who spent six years in the US and graduated from MIT. Graham, who grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina said, “We want to explain and express the embarrassment we feel.” 

After the Bossier City incident, it was unclear if the tour would continue to the two remaining southern spots. The decision was made in the affirmative, and Indrani performed in Raleigh-Durham North Carolina at Duke University on Tuesday night, November 21st. The troupe stayed at a nearby hotel, but ate their meals on campus. This performance was followed by one in Berea, KY. Later shows were in states such as Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and ended in New York City. Indrani moved to New York City permanently in 1979, and continued to teach, perform and lecture there until her death in 1999.

If you have stories or photographs of someone who broke barriers in Bossier Parish, we’d love to see or hear them, and perhaps make copies for our collection with your permission. We are located at 2206 Beckett St, Bossier City, LA and are open M-Th 9-8, Fri 9-6, and Sat 9-5. Our phone number is (318) 746-7717 and our email is [email protected]

For other fun facts, photos, and videos, be sure to follow us @BPLHistoryCenter on FB, @bplhistorycenter on TikTok, and check out our blog http://bpl-hc.blogspot.com/.

Original Postcard of Kickapoo in Bossier City (says “Shreveport” as a general location), Corner of Highway 80 and Highway 10 (Benton Road). “The Kickapoo Plaza Courts consists of 94 cabins, 6 types of Trailer Parks, Service Station, and Café.” 1950. Bossier Parish Libraries History Center collection.

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