Last year, President Obama and the First Lady danced with Indian children in recognition of the Hindu holiday Diwali. The holiday is often called the Festival of Lights. Hindus decorate their homes with strings of lights and light oil lamps at ceremonies.
Members of the India Association of Kalamazoo will hold their Diwali event on Saturday at 5 p.m. at Loy Norrix High School's auditorium. Tickets for the general public are $10.
Janaki Sunkara is the social secretary for the association. She says Diwali is the biggest event of the year in India. The celebrations look like Christmas and the Fourth of July rolled into one. Sunkara remembers one party where everyone got quite a shock while practicing a Diwali tradition:
“They did fireworks in the back yard and the neighbor called the police,” Sunkara says laughingly. “So police came in and he was like ‘Ok, who is the owner of the house?’ So when he found out that it’s Diwali and we were just celebrating.”
Sunkara says while the food and company is the fun part for adults, the kids favorite part is the fireworks. Gracie Kayani of the India Association explains the three meanings behind Diwali:
“From the untruth, lead me to the truth. From darkness, lead me to the light. From death, lead me to the immortality. That’s actual meaning of Diwali,” says Kayani. “And when we light a candle or the row of lights, it is not just that what we mean is that light is lighted and it is there, but it is the light that you will kindle into each other’s heart.”
Diwali is usually celebrated over five days. How you celebrate depends where you live in India or other parts of the world. Sunkara says in South India where she’s from, the first day is like spring cleaning—everyone tidies up the house and does laundry. On the second day, they decorate:
“With the clay lamps and the dais, and create design patterns called rangoli on the floor using colored powders or sand,” Sunkara explains.
Sunkara says on the third day many South Indians worship Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity.
“Some of the states—especially I think in North India—they do celebrate this as a New Year because the financial year starts for them,” says Sunkara. “So it is so important for them that they do Lakshmi pooja [worship].”
Families and friends exchange gifts on the fourth day. And on the fifth and last day, Indians honor the bond between brothers and sisters. Married sisters often invite their brothers to their homes for a meal.
Sunkara says some of these traditions are so old it’s not always clear why they started. But Sunkara guesses the fifth day is supposed to be a lot like the holiday of Rakhi, often held in August. That’s where sisters make their brothers a kind of bracelet and then brothers give their sisters small amounts of money.
“It’s like he’ll be there for me to protect anytime that, you know, I need him to rescue me. You know, some kind of like bonding,” says Sunkara.
On Saturday, Kayani says Indians ages 6 to 60 will perform choreographed dances to favorite Bollywood tunes. Kayani says the Diwali event is like a big family gathering.
“Different states speak different languages. We do have different type of food and we do dress differently. But we all come,” says Kayani.
Kayani says it’s also a way to help children stay connected to Indian culture. Kayani says everyone is invited to attend the event. Most of the songs are in Hindi and other Indian languages, but she says anyone can have a good time.
“Not necessarily everybody understand. Not everybody understand even the national language. But music has no language,” Kayani says. “When we really listen to it, we can enjoy the dance and the rhythm and color and costume.”