Community dances into Hindu New Year

Dance, music and costumes filled Coffman Union to mark Diwali.

by Bryce Haugen

Avi Kumar said he learned he was performing at the Indian Student Association’s Diwali celebration about two hours before the event.

As people filed into Coffman Union’s Great Hall – eventually more than 700 people attended – to celebrate the Hindu New Year, Kumar, an 11-year-old student at Wayzata Central Middle School, and a friend from his dance troupe rehearsed a skit.

Kumar’s older sister, physiology junior Vipasha Kumar, also performed at the event, singing the American national anthem, dancing and strutting in the fashion show. She said it’s important for children such as her brother to celebrate Diwali, both a religious and cultural celebration among Indians which, this year, lands on Nov. 1.

“It’s good to get them involved in the Indian community – to see how Indians in the U.S. adapt to Indian-American culture,” she said.

Just more than half an hour later, following the Indian and American national anthems and a humorous video, Avi Kumar’s group hit the stage in silver vests and glittery hats.

For most of the more than three-hour show, University students and other community members performed a mix of traditional and modern dances. Many dances incorporated ancient techniques, but were set to modern music from Bollywood – India’s more-prolific-than-Hollywood film capital.

Halfway through the event, during the fashion show, women wrapped in saris of varying colors, styles and decoration danced to Indian oldies. The show also featured men in suits and traditional Indian kurtas.

Before and during the show, audience members munched on Indian food, including naan, a flatbread. Marla Jadoonanan, a University alumna, offered the food for $6 a plate.

The student association, which has 800 members on its e-mail list, was careful to select dances and music that would entertain, but would not over-generalize the diverse Indian student community, said group co-president Twinkle Pandian. Because many Indians are non-Hindu, the event doesn’t emphasize religion.

“We want it to be open to anybody,” he said.

Pandian said the association’s celebration offers “a taste of Indian culture,” but shouldn’t be seen as representative.

“In order to express all that, you need more than dances and skits,” he said.

The event’s emcees employed humor throughout the night. At one point, they asked the crowd to guess distinctive features of various Bollywood stars which were displayed on a screen, including the eye of Aishwarya Rai, whom emcee and association co-president Rajiv Shah jokingly called his girlfriend.

Diwali, the festival of lights which marks the beginning of the Hindu calendar, is based on a part of “Ramayana,” one of the “epoch stories in Hinduism,” said Shrreya Dumra, an international business sophomore. The original celebration marked the Lord Rama’s return to the throne, she said.

Lord Rama was a reincarnate of the Hindu god Shiva – the protector.

Biochemistry sophomore Neha Desai said Hindus pray to a single god who takes many forms.

“We’re really only praying to one supreme being,” she said.

Different sects of Hinduism celebrate Diwali in different ways, she said. Her family fasts during the week after Diwali, gives gifts and says extra prayers.

Many non-Hindu Indians also participate in the cultural aspects of the holiday, she said, and many non-Hindus attended Saturday’s event, including political science junior Eric Beers.

Beers, who saw the show last year, said the Diwali celebration was worthwhile Saturday entertainment.

“It’s good for people to get a perspective on a culture that’s not their own.”