Preserving, Teaching, And Experiencing Indo-Caribbean Arts And Culture | Denyse Baboolal, JayaDevi...

Indo-Caribbean culture isn’t often seen or represented in mainstream society and media. For Denyse Baboolal, it’s who she is at her core, which is why she founded the JayaDevi Arts Incorporation, a non-profit organization that preserves, teaches, and presents the arts and culture of Indo-Caribbean communities. With her experience, Denyse works everyday to rejuvenate cultural and artistic life, restoring self-esteem to the next generation of the Indo-Caribbean population in America. 

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Denyse Baboola Jayadevi Arts Inc

Denyse Baboolal defines what it means to take opportunity as it comes and pursue the moment, fuelling the American Dream. She grew up in Trinidad, and when she first came to America she didn’t want to have the deepest connection with her culture, and she definitely wasn’t intending on opening and running what would become one of the only Indo-Caribbean arts and culture non-profit centers in the nation. 

Denyse is a motivated, hard-working, and dedicated individual, so what she did know was whatever she would end up doing, she would excel at it, and that she did. 

Her story began in Trinidad. Growing up with her three brothers was not exactly “a bed of roses” as is common in many family’s neither rich nor poor. However, her grandmother knew early on that Denyse was special, and had a gift in the arts that should be shared with the world. She volunteered to pay her tuition for dance school when she was around 7-years-old.

A few years later, she recalled participating in a nationwide competition to represent her secondary school and ended up placing second. However, her mother was displeased with the results, knowing that her daughter was the best dancer that graced the stage that day. The judges then told her mom that she lost vital points due to her costume, hair, and makeup. 

As the years progressed, Denyse’s desire to explore the world only grew stronger. She initially wanted to go to India through a scholarship program, however, her parents didn’t want her traveling there by herself. Denyse was the first-born and only daughter of her family, so her parents were very protective of her and her gifts. Years later, her parents got the opportunity to migrate to New York, Astoria specifically.

“The area itself was mainly filled with Greek and Italian families so, for lack of a better term, I became a ‘white girl.’ I dyed my hair blonde and wore blue colored contacts, I was not Indian in my mind.

I attended the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and there I met other individuals of Indian descent. I remember getting into an argument with one student in particular who was running for President of the student government. We had an interaction that really changed my trajectory of thinking, he tried to get my vote one day and I sort of brushed him off. He ended up saying to me ‘all that blonde hair and blue eyes, you’re still a,’ and then he said a word that is known as a slur for Indian people. That bothered me so much…

That negative interaction weirdly pushed me to go to the Indian Descent Club. When I got there, I felt like such a fish out of water. I couldn’t identify with anything they were saying, or any of the movies they were talking about. I just didn’t have any personal connection or association with it. Something inside me, however, wanted to keep going,” Denyse explained.

Denyse reflected on when the club had an end-of-year concert in which they were looking for an authentic Indian dancer, to which she obviously volunteered. “They all looked at me like ‘what the hell white girl?’ But they humored me and said I could go for it.”

At home, her mom helped her construct a costume, and found her old cassette tapes of music to start practicing. Part of her costume involved an extension hair piece which was very dark, so her mom told her it was time to say goodbye to the blonde. When she arrived at the concert and was called to the stage, no one recognized her. 

She performed a traditional Kathak Indian dance to everyone’s shock, but Denyse knew she had that, and so much more to offer. 

Denyse Babool Jayadevi Arts Inc

Afterwards she recalled what her peers said to her as they were celebrating her performance: “Denyse, you need to preserve your culture,” and from there a spark was ignited. 

Denyse Baboola Jayadevi Arts Inc

Months later, Denyse became involved in the student government, and would end up becoming the Vice President along with the same individual who was voted President. As the two worked together, he knew he wanted to show her the ways in which Indian culture was present in the City, while also teaching her more about their rich history. He took her to Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, where they saw a large population of Indo-Caribbean people, food, shops, clothing, and more. 

It was here that Denyse would be introduced to the Rajkumari Cultural Center, a “leading not-for-profit, multi-arts organization revitalizing the cultural and artistic life of Caribbean and South Asian immigrant communities through grassroots, research based arts-education programs, presentations and festivals.” 

Denyse was able to meet with the dancers and the individuals who founded and ran the center; the late Artist and Activist, Gora Singh, and his sister, Pritha. They brought Denyse into the center and grouped her in the arts and culture center to be a principal choreographer teaching dance. She would also perform, and eventually was brought onto the board, where she would become Director of Operations. 

From 1995 to about 2009, Denyse was involved in everything non profit. “I did everything, from fundraising, to setting up cameras at events, networking, and more. Through these years, I realized that this is where I needed to be.”

Working at the Rajkumari Cultural Center, however, wasn’t Denyse’s full time job. By day, she was a top seller for Verizon, then after clocking out at 5 o’clock, she would immediately make her way to the Rajkumari Center to either rehearse, choreograph, perform, or anything else that was needed. She was working tirelessly, but she loved it. 

On her weekends, she could have up to seven performances that she was either participating in, or involved with behind the scenes. Denyse credits her time in student government for her ability to adapt and learn about the business side of things with the Center. 

Due to all of her hard work behind the scenes, Denyse would only dance for the most prestigious of people and events that the Center would be involved in. She danced for the Mayor’s office, and was one of the first Indian dancers at Brooklyn Carnival when they finally let Indian and Indo-Caribbean dancers join the festivities to show their specific style of dance and culture. 

She’s performed at Women’s Night at the Brooklyn Library, and The Gracie Mansion when Rudy Giuliani was in office. One of her performances, however, stands out among them all.

“One of my most memorable moments was performing at Lincoln Center in 2000. I danced 11 dances. It was chaotic and afterwards my ankles were so bruised and I could barely walk for a few days, but it was such a rush. My reward was being featured in a full page story in The New York Times that year.” 

After years of experience  in New York dancing, singing, acting, performing spoken word, managing, fundraising, all while getting her associated degree from BMCC, A Bachelor’s of Science Degree from Empire State University, a Masters degree in Nonprofit management from Capella University, and working full time at Verizon, Denyse would soon find that it would be time for a change. 

She ended up traveling to Canada to attend a religious festival. While she was there she met a young man who lived in Florida. Here began a new chapter in her life. They began dating, which required Denyse to travel to Florida frequently. As she became more acquainted with the area, a thought dawned on her. She noticed there were no authentic religious stores centered around Hinduism, that were also strictly vegan, in the state. 

She was already growing tired of working in a corporate setting, so she resigned,  gathered her savings, and moved to Florida. In July 2008, she opened a Puja/religious store. In September, people within her community heard about her experience in dance, and the mother’s she knew wanted her to teach their children.

At first, Denyse was hesitant. She just spent years in the world of dance and the arts in general, and came to Florida to turn a new leaf. The community moms came to her one day with enough money to pay for three months of dance classes, so by mid-September, she was dancing once again.

“I had 40 students the first day. It was overwhelming but there was only one other dance group in the area so there weren’t a lot of outlets for the younger generation of dancers.”

Denyse held the dance classes in her store. As time went on she realized that her dancers would need costumes, makeup, and other supplies, so she would utilize her experience in the nonprofit world to fundraise. 

She would call her colleagues in New York who told her that she should really utilize the skills she gained at the Rajkumari Cultural Center and start her own non profit organization. Again, Denyse was hesitant, because while she knew how to run the inner workings of a non profit space, she never started her own before. 

Through her hard work, dedication, and a deep passion for her culture, she was able to apply and open her organization. Two years later, she officially gained non profit status in August of 2010. 

JayaDevi Arts Inc. (JAI) was officially born. Denyse chose the name JayaDevi specifically after an amazing cultural experience in South America: 

“We went to Guyana, South America for a weekend festival where everyone was given a dance. I was asked to do the invitation dance of JayaDevi, which a lot of people didn’t think was fair because they wanted to hold that honor. However, that discouragement was quickly out of my head when I danced. I was given the divine blessing and a thank you for doing that dance in particular, which is why it stuck with me,” Denyse stated. 

Denyse Baboola Jayadevi Arts Inc

“Jaya translates to victorious, and Devi translates to goddess, so we are the victorious goddesses. By adding the ‘Arts Inc.’ at the end, it not only emphasizes our role as a non-profit, but allows us to utilize the acronym JAI, which translates to victory, so it all ties together.”

Denyse Baboola Jayadevi Arts Inc

About two years later, Denyse closed her religious store, which forced her to move her dance classes to her home. Three years later, Denyse and her JayaDevi dancers were performing at a major cultural festival event in Florida. This was an annual event for Holi in multiple locations. They were there from 8 am to 10 pm, as they had to perform for 15 different events throughout the festival. 

Unfortunately, they didn’t receive the warmest welcome, and someone from the crowd even threw a beer bottle at them on stage. It’s important to remember that Denyse is teaching children and adolescents, so having that sort of reaction really made her angry, and wanting to do something to make a change. 

She once again utilized her colleagues in New York, who told her that if she wanted to have more control, as a non-profit organization, she would have to start her own annual events that would bring the community together in one park, united. 

Organizing to make the event happen was the easy part, fundraising for the event and gaining people’s support, was a challenge. However, like everything else in her life, Denyse was not one to give up on her goal. She’s now held the event for 12 out of the 15 years that JayaDevi has been around.

The event is called the “United Phagwah/Holi Celebration of the Festival Of Colors and Diversity.” She gets a crowd of around 3,000 to 5,000 individuals, and the community keeps growing. The event is the only one co-sponsored by Florida state and Broward county in the entire US. 

“Now we’re one of the top dance schools, and I credit a lot of that to the amount of diversity we have within our organization and the dances we teach. We teach Indo-Caribbean dances such as chutney soca chutney, East Indian classical dances, Reaggaton, Reggae, Soca, and much more. It was always an important part of my mission to make JAI as inclusive and diverse as possible. Whatever we do, we deliver.”

Denyse has received many accolades throughout her career for the amazing work she does and dedication to her culture and community. She was honored in the Marquis Who’s Who of top professions, has received lifetime achievement awards, and was honored as a Top 25 Pioneering Prominent Indo-Caribbean Woman in New York. 

Beyond the work she does for JayaDevi, Denyse is also a Governor of the National Association of Nonprofit Organization and Executives (NANOE), a certified nonprofit consultant, a grant panelist to Florida state Cultural Affairs, and a grant writer.

In the US, there was previously only one registered non-profit focusing on preserving Indo-Caribbean arts and culture, and that was Denyse’s parent company, the Rajkumari Cultural Center, which is no longer around. To date, JayaDevi is the sole non-profit with the mission of maintaining and displaying the diversity and beauty of Indo-Caribbean arts and culture. 

In addition to the dance school, JAI offers artist management services. For example, should an event need an appropriate artist, like an Indo-Caribbean singer, dancer, tassa drumming artist, etc, JAI can fulfill their needs.

JAI also is focused on offering the Indo-Caribbean communities in America a place of safety and refuge. For example, JAI has a private womyn’s group called “NARI,” which translates to women in Hindi. “This Womyn’s Support Group is a common ground for Womyn to express, vent, discuss and strengthen  in the areas of domestic violence, rape, spirituality, identity, culture, race, and other social issues. NARI is not only for Indo-Caribbean women but also men who are abused, and anyone else.”

“In our culture, women are hesitant to seek therapy or help for their mental health and wellbeing. However, when you’re having difficulties in life, you need to let it out so it doesn’t fester and build within your body. As a group we all can get together and vent about the difficulties of life as a woman within our various Indo-Caribbean cultures and the traumas that can unfortunately come from our environment. We especially help women in abusive relationships in any way we can. They may not leave, because there’s cultural aspects that make it impossible, but we give them the space to feel safe and heard.”

Within that group, Denyse also helps women who went through a similar identity struggle that she did when she was younger and not wanting to embrace her culture. 

Denyse Baboola Jayadevi Arts Inc

“We deal with a lot of teenagers going through an identity crisis’ who are struggling mentally. It’s difficult to see so many young girls who hate their names and appearance because they’re representative of their culture, but I know what that’s like and the struggle that comes with it, so if I can help by just being an ear to listen, I will. In general, at our core, we’ll always support our community.”

Denyse Baboola Jayadevi Arts Inc

“We also once had a man come to our NARI group once because he just needed an outlet to speak, as his wife was very abusive towards him. Sometimes we bring in a police officer to reinforce the rules. We want to be a place of safety for our culture and community. 

The green card logistics is actually the reason a lot of the Indo-Caribbean women we speak to also stay in their abusive relationships, so we’re constantly doing what we can to educate them, help them fill out the proper paperwork, and get them in a safe situation where they can continue on their path of getting their green card and full independence.”

“United Phagwah/Holi Celebration of the Festival Of Colors and Diversity” is for West Palm, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami, essentially South Florida. Based on desires from community members outside of South Florida, Denyse also started a celebration for the Festival of Lights called the “FL Divali Motorcade, and Lakshmi Nagar” which started in 2023 and continues annually. This is a procession of vehicles beautifully lit up and colorfully decorated. Participants also dress up in the likeness of their favorite God or Goddesses.

Denyse will continue to grow this safe space for Indo-Caribbean communities who want to maintain their culture and traditions. JayaDevi Arts Inc. is about preserving culture and sharing it with the world, but it’s also about protecting and building this specific community of people who don’t necessarily see their culture represented often in mainstream media and society. She’s truly a beacon of hope for every individual she comes in contact with. 

Looking towards the future, Denyse is hoping to create after-school programs, as well as a summer camp, at JAI to give young generations of Indo-Caribbean students the chance to learn more about their culture. She knows that in this day and age kids just go home from school and lose themselves in the media, so she wants to create a space where they can enjoy learning about where they come from, and experience it firsthand. 

In general, Denyse Baboolal has become a beacon of hope for Indo-Caribbean Americans and Natives who are needing an outlet to learn, experience, and truly feel the beauty of their art and culture. She will continue to work everyday to reach as many people within her community as possible. We all could learn from someone as honorable, tolerant, and supportive as her.                                                       

To learn more about JayaDevi Arts Inc. and the inspiring work Denyse Baboolal and the organization do everyday for the Indo-Caribbean community, check out their website by clicking here!