Arundhatee Deb, graduate student in mechanical engineering, performs a classical Indian dance.
Rucha Railkar, president of the Indian Graduate Student Association, sings a soulful song while Dipan Pal jams along with the guitar.
Pooja Santhanam and Neetak Kumar, both graduate students at the university, perform a mix of popular Bollywood songs.
Sreeparna Sarkar, a doctoral student at the university, performs “Odissi,” a well-known dance in India, choreographed by her guru. The dance depicted pastime activities and miracles performed by Lord Krishna.
“Diwali is not a festival; it is a feeling,” Rucha Railkar, a doctoral student in chemical engineering, said to a full crowd of 100 people celebrating the festival of lights. On Nov. 13, the university’s Indian Graduate Student Association (IGSA) held its first in-person Diwali celebration since the COVID-19 pandemic began, making this year’s celebration a time to reflect with optimism.
Candles, or diyas, lit the Rodney Room of Perkins Student Center to exude enlightenment and hope for celebrants. Members of the IGSA greeted arriving guests with open hearts and warm smiles, immediately immersing them in the “Diwali feeling” of optimism.
Celebrants entered the room in vibrantly wrapped garments. Women’s ensembles paired embroidered sarees with layered necklaces, earrings and rings; performers were decorated head-to-toe with ankle bells and bunches of flowers throughout their hair. Most men dressed in matching shirts and trousers.
The IGSA serves as a consistent support system for international Indian graduate students. Incoming students from India are connected with other graduate students in their area of study to provide mentorship and to help them settle in. The IGSA holds events throughout the year, one being a celebration of Diwali, to promote diversity and awareness of India’s culture.
IGSA’s guest of honor, Dr. Ravi Ammigan, associate deputy provost for international programs, always looked forward to the festival of lights as a child.
“Growing up on the island of Mauritius, we always looked forward to this festival,” Ammigan said. “We could not wait to decorate our home with colorful lights, help with making sweets, prepare for prayers and of course, launch fireworks.”
While Ammigan emphasized how valuable Diwali was to his childhood, he also described the holiday’s unity.
“While Diwali is celebrated in a variety of ways across the globe and across cultures, it signals an atmosphere of love and friendship,” Ammigan said. “Like tonight’s program, it helps bring us together and create an important moment for community building with engagement over food, dance, art and stories.”
The exact day of the festival is decided by the dark new moon. The festival celebrates the defeat of good over evil and light over darkness. Celebrants reaffirm their friendships, goodwill and prosperity, all while nurturing cultural unity. These beliefs are manifested through music and dance performances, exchanging gifts, lighting firecrackers and feasting.
Vikram Thakur, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, described the importance of Diwali as a secular holiday.
“For the entire Indian subcontinent, this celebration signifies a time when the harvest is complete,” Thakur said. “So it does not matter what religious denomination you are.”
Both Ammigan and Thakur described how religions across the globe interpret different meanings behind Diwali, but the unity in the holiday is celebrating these differences.
“All festivities are about optimism,” Thakur said. “Life is tough; we all want to have some sort of belief that though we may have difficulty, tomorrow will be better.”
In the same light, Diwali focuses on conquering negative thoughts and spreading a positive aura, just what celebrants need after a pandemic.
Vidhika Damani, a PhD student in materials science and engineering at the university, reflected on her struggle of not being able to see her family during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was here all alone during the lockdown,” Damani said. “My friends are from the U.S., so they were able to go home. It was a challenging time. It reminded me of how much we take for granted when we are with our families.”
When India’s borders opened, Damani’s first visit with her family included face coverings, gloves and six-foot distancing.
“I was just happy to be able to see my family,” she said.
To carry on this strength to live through a pandemic without her family, Damani said that she held the “Diwali feeling” in her heart. Both Damani and Thakur emphasized how the “Diwali feeling” remains with celebrants everyday — light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance and good over evil.