Ottawa·Community Heroes

Mom-daughter duo brings cultural joy to Bengali community

When Bengali seniors in Ottawa call Mamata Dutta and her daughter, Karina Dutta Karmakar, looking for food and entertainment, it's a no brainer for the duo to help them out.

'Aunties and uncles' blessed by duo's offerings of traditional foods and Bollywood dance classes

Karina Dutta Karmakar, left, poses with her mom, Mamata Dutta. The two women are avid volunteers who found unique ways to help their Bengali and South Asian community members during the pandemic. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Community Heroes is a CBC Ottawa series highlighting people making a difference in small or big ways in their neighbourhoods during COVID-19.

When Mamata Dutta's phone rings, it's not uncommon for her to hear this question: "Mamata, please, if you don't mind, would you please make one dish for me?" 

Dutta says it breaks her heart when she gets those calls from seniors in the South Asian community, living in Ottawa retirement homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"They are feeling the desire of traditional food, and also entertainment [and] cultural activities from their roots," she said. "We have learned through the years so much from them. So now they are in need of our support."

So when they give Dutta a call, she knows it's time to whip up one of her Bengali delicacies, from luchi — puffed deep fried bread — to aloo gobi, a cauliflower and potato curry.

"I cook for them, I take to their place, and they enjoy their food. Their enjoyment and happiness I see, that makes me very happy," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. 

"That is my passion."

A photo of Bengali seniors enjoying Dutta's specialties before the COVID-19 pandemic. Seniors now call Dutta and put in special requests to bring them homecooked meals. (Submitted by Karina Dutta Karmakar)

Like mother, like daughter, Dutta says — although Karina Dutta Karmakar, an engineering grad working with Transport Canada, is giving back to her community not through food, but by dance.

"I loved dance since I was born," said Dutta Karmakar, who trained in Indian classical dance and specializes in Bollywood dancing.

Dutta Karmakar is the artistic director of the non-profit Jannat Performing Arts, founded by her dance troupe. Pre-COVID-19, they taught, choreographed and ran dance productions and donated the proceeds to charities.

"When the pandemic hit, it was definitely a big game-changer for any dancer ... because the studio is like our temple," she said, adding that despite their lack of access to dance spaces, she didn't want to stop.

"I just need to dance to make myself feel better." 

Karina Dutta Karmakar holds Ghungaroos (bells that are tied around the ankles of Indian classical dancers), a Kundan necklace (traditional jewelry used in classical dance), anklets and a waist belt. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

She taught her first free virtual workshop on Zoom last April.

Since then, she's offered more than 30 Bollywood dance classes, teaching hundreds of people aged six to 80, and from as far away as India, New York and the U.K. She even offered a special class for "aunties and uncles" in her South Asian community — a term of endearment.

"It became a whole family affair," she said, explaining that entire households would log on together. "It was just so nice to see all the families connecting together."

'She's brought so much joy,' says auntie

Mistu Mukherjee is one of those "aunties." When she found out about Dutta Karmakar's Bollywood class for beginners, she was thrilled but nervous.

"It was funny because we arrived at the first class, each and every one of us brought our daughters — for emotional support, a little bit for tech support," she joked.

"It was just so fun because as parents, we watched our daughters dance from afar [during lessons] and now, so many years later, we're all dancing together."

WATCH | Bollywood dancing a lifelong passion and way to uplift others for this engineer:

Ottawa engineer offers free Bollywood dance classes during pandemic

CBC News Ottawa

2 months ago
Karina Dutta Karmakar has danced her whole life. When the pandemic hit, she found a creative way to bring that joy to others virtually. 1:42

Mukherjee says the Bengali community is struggling with isolation and she thanks Dutta Karmakar for helping them see their friends in some shape or form. 

"Through her dance, she's brought so much joy to her community," said Mukherjee.

Both mom and daughter won local awards for their work this year. Ottawa's FACES Magazine named Dutta "Volunteer of the Year," and Dutta Karmakar "Best Dance Instructor."

One of Dutta's homecooked meals. Luchi, puffed deep fried bread, is on the left. (Submitted by Karina Dutta Karmakar)

Do you know a community hero in your neighbourhood? Email us with their story.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now