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Borderless Festivities

Online and social media help NRIs hold on to tradition.

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History and circumstances may have flung overseas Indians to the farthest reaches of the globe, but they remain undiminished in their infectious enthusiasm for festivals and rituals that define home. Increasingly, this zest for creative redefinition of what constitutes tradition is being facilitated by technology, fusing the present with the past, mixing nostalgia for an irrecoverable time and place with the constant reinventions of history. Social media is the newest addition to the repository of technological ammunition that global Indians have appropriated in the service of their reconfigured tradition, as they "tweet" Diwali celebration updates, bookmark Eid dinners "Delicious," or "livecast" videos of the midnight mass on YouTube.

South London Durga Puja in Mitcham, Surrey, has a Facebook page for Bengalis in England to indulge in their roots and revel in the beats of the dhak (a version of the drum). Part of the Greater London council since 1965, Surrey makes for a perfect venue for a ritual that is as dear to the Probashi Bengali's heart as Rabindrasangeet and maachher jhol, and what better way to spread the word than the world's favourite social media network?

Social networking has revved up every aspect of human interaction and Indians scattered across the globe have seized upon platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Orkut, Bigadda to showcase their identity and the rituals that help maintain it.

After relishing the pleasures of electronic mail and immersing themselves in the exquisite intimacies of instant messaging, or airing one's self-important opinions at a niche chat room, came the next milestone in the history of pumped up communication. Social media networks offer people a personal corner in the virtual world that is an extension of their home and life. Decorating it ("customization" in the geek lexicon) was akin to doing up your house or dressing up - a way of creative self-expression, with some handy tools and applications. When social media exploded into the world of "cool," people found in it an infinite universe to reach out for and forge new connections, or dig up long lost friends, and most of all expand their professional and social networking circuits.  

As word-of-mouth was replaced by buzz on the Internet, event management in the age of social networking has become quite a cakewalk for global Indians, who till the virtual soil to sow the seeds of reinvigorated ritual.

Sarita Bhattacharjee, of Dallas, Texas, says, "Using Facebook to connect with family and friends on every occasion has made life so much better. Putting up pictures for everyone, especially those who live in India, brings me such joy!"

Sarita Bhattacharjee performing at Durga Puja ceremony in Dallas, Texas
For Bhattacharjee, who is a member of her local cultural committee, it's not just the big occasions that call for massive "Facebooking," but also the small wonders of life, such as birthdays, baby showers, sacred thread ceremonies, or friendly dinners that are equally memorable and demand a well-annotated virtual album. A pharmacist by profession, Bhattacharjee is most famous as the local danseuse and community choreographer, who trains children and women, and sometimes men, during elaborate performances and cultural functions. Correspondence to decide meeting venues, posting updates, and all public information are shared over Facebook, according to Bhattacharjee, with only confidential communication, such as matters pertaining to sponsorships, financing, and other logistics, relegated to email and cell phone exchanges.

While community events such as Bhattacharjee's local "Antorik Durga Puja Samiti" in Dallas hinge on the collaboration (online and offline) of members of the committee, public events such as the annual Diwali celebrations in Trafalgar Square, London occur on a far bigger scale, with the Mayor of London a member of the motley board of organizers. Several Hindu religious groups and non-profit organizations - like Oshwal Association of the UK, Chinmaya Mission UK, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's The Art of Living, Brahmin Society of North London, International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) UK, Metropolitan Police Hindu Association, Vishwa Hindu Parishad UK, National Hindu Student's Forum - have come together since 2001 to realize the collective dream of Indians in London to see their festival of lights celebrated in style in the heart of the city's most famous landmark. The organizers of the event use the Web (www.diwaliinlondon.com) and Facebook  to mobilize participation in the annual celebration that is among the "must see" events identified in the official Visit London tourism guides. The images of South Asian and other Londoners dressed in colorful traditional Indian clothes assembled at Trafalgar Square on Diwali is a tribute not just to multiethnic ethos of the British capital - it is also a statement about being at home in a foreign country, albeit many would argue that London is scarcely "foreign" to an overseas Indian.

Diwali Updates

Cultural rituals and functions are among the biggest draws for Indians, the second largest ethnic minority group in Britain, after Blacks. Updates on Facebook, Twitter and Orkut, are crucial to exchanging information on the culture gigs in town. Major British cities, such as Leicester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Bedford, Bristol, have Diwali, Holi, Dushhera events at city halls, public parks and other major venues. They are occasions for Indians in England to visit family and friends residing in different cities and to soak in the vibrant cultural programs and enjoy a good celebration. Social networking is the nodal point at which the various strands of festivities converge and cross-pollinate by infusing each other with ideas and glimpses.

For Pawas Bisht, a doctoral student at Loughborough University, slipping off to Leicester is easier than coming to London to participate in Diwali celebrations. Bisht, a documentary filmmaker from Nainital, makes sure to record his cultural interactions during Diwali in Leicester, with his English, European and African friends, celebrated with cakes, cheese and wine and the occasional sweet bought at the Indian corner shop and share them on Orkut and Facebook.

For Adila MIrza, a reporter with a Delhi-based tabloid, annual trips to Dubai during Eid-ul-Fitar (in August) and during Christmas, are the star attractions of the year ever since her parents moved first from Abu Dhabi to Kerala and then to Dubai several years ago. A precocious 22-year-old, Adila's Facebook pages buzz with activity and photo updates as she gets together with her family at large in Dubai and gorges over Islamic delicacies, such as kebabs, biriyanis, haleem, halwas, interspersed with rides in games fair at Zabeel Park, seeing Al Seef fireworks, window-shopping at the world-famous gold souks, indulging in the balloons and bubbles fiesta at Dubai's Marina Hall, and enjoying a panoramic view of glittering Dubai by night atop the Burj Khalifa. For Adila Facebook is handy not just for reporting, but when she's out having fun.
Suvajit Chatterjee, a software engineer now living in Perth, Australia, saves up his leaves and holidays for the festivals. When not visiting Kolkata, their hometown, Suvajit plans trips to Sydney and Melbourne, for the festivities that he discovers through the social media.

People like Bisht, Adila, Suvajit and Sarita, are well-heeled in technology and affluent enough to afford the required gadgets such as laptops, smartphones or tablet computers. However, they have a hard time convincing their parents to also set up social media accounts. While Suvajit and Sarita created accounts for their parents and showed them how to use it to stay in touch, Adila and Bisht were mildly surprised to see their parents "befriending" them on Facebook, although now they have acclimatized themselves to the "prying eyes" of the older generation. Party girl Adila thinks her parents are "cool" with her outings with friends, and she does not forget to wish them on Eid. Similarly, Bisht "likes" his father's comments on his photographs of life and times in Loughborough, and they often end up having a lengthy conversation on Facebook instead of Skype, where they usually video-chat on Sundays.

It is a pattern that Tairah Firdous, a human rights activist based in Montreal, Canada, has discovered. While her father has a Facebook account, Tairah's mother hasn't created one and relies on her husband to fill her in on her daughter's progress on a documentary film.

Redefining Religion, Challenging Tradition

Has the growth of social media led to transgressions of traditional bound definitions of home, homeland and homepage? Has religion been pushed out from the domain of private observance into the public world of tortuous Twitter debates, ferocious Facebook fights and fierce YouTube demonstrations? The effect of social media has clearly not been just a simple reiteration of identities along religious lines, although many media scholars contend that the social media explosion has heightened religious fervor and stronger identity-based assertions. What used to be group activity, such as belonging to a faith-based group or promoting religious beliefs as part of a collective, in the age of social media has coagulated into an individual pursuit of freedom of expression vis-ˆ-vis tradition, cherished beliefs and passed down conventions.

Immigrant and diasporic Indian communities are one of the most vocal groups around the world whose public display of faith and religiosity often go hand in hand with their political outlook and relationship with both the homeland as well as the adopted country. In recent years, global Indians have emerged from a muted, publicly secular and privately religious minority community that steers clear of the rough and tumble of the mainstream politics of their adopted country, to an aggressively self-asserting and self-confident body of mobile entrepreneurs and white collar professionals, who contribute significantly to drive the economic engine of their new homeland. In the USA and UK, a massive transnational network of cyber-users, web impresarios and technologically-armed Indians shape the global flow of cultural capital as much as it enhances the financial and data traffic.

Challenging, and sometimes dissolving the boundaries between categories like the Non-Resident Indian (NRIs), Indian Americans, British-Indians, Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs), etc., social media often flatten out the hierarchy that would be still relevant in the offline world. Religious reiterations as well as their secular and anti-religious counter-arguments, assume a hightened pitch in the highly sensitive and contested world of Facebook and Twitter battles. Notions of transnational religious citizenship are augmented as zealous groupies belonging to faith-based political tribes use the social media to drive home their ideas. On the other hand, student politics and youth activism increasingly become a matter of airing one's thought, no matter how nebulous or well-collected, on social media and getting instant reactions, comments, like and dislike notifications, thus creating an alternative and heightened forum for young people to express themselves and understand the sentiments of religious or cultural other.  

Says Ashwin Sharma, a lecturer at a UK university: "Social Media is the perfect virtual counterpart to the global churn of people, media technologies, capital and language flows that mixes things up, altering discourses on religion, tradition, nation. Cyberculture is a whole new level of social communication that does not just reflect the real, but actually creates it."

Often, social media actively contests the mainstream projections of identities and vehemently questions stereotyping along religious and racial lines. For example, while local Indian ethnic media, particularly the Hindu print and web-based media in America, do not overtly question the faith-centered beliefs of the Indian American community, the student community scrupulously engages in rigorous debates on the resurgence of virulent religion in Indian American public life and the ideologies at work. Even as they organize the ritual Diwali bash, or Eid gathering, Indian student groups at universities and colleges also engage in lively discussions and engrossing dialogues, which often are extended on social media.

Garga C, a postdoctoral fellow at a topnotch American university, who is also a keen cultural commentator, shares his views on being a moderate Hindu Brahmin in the age of fashionable secularism, atheism or fanaticism: "It's a difficult job explaining to others that I like wearing the badge of being a Hindu Brahmin, belonging to Kashyap Gotra, and can still participate in the conversations on secularism. I write about the many-faceted role of tradition, its riveting contradictions, but I do not disregard it like many of my fellow urban Indians, whose logic dictates an equivalence between projecting religious indifference/ignorance and being hip, cool and modern. I post the online links to my articles on Facebook and appreciate the comments and feedback that carry the conversation further."

Similarly, Nayantara Kabir, a Chicago-based fashion designer, does not shy from infusing her boutique casual wears with traditional embroidery laced with Islamic motifs or Hindu symbols, as her Facebook page amply demonstrates. Kabir does not distinguish between the festival wear and the regular wear as she caters to the rising fashion aspirations of Indian Americans, who not only want to appear part of the general American populace, but also wish to stand out in the crowd. Kabir's special line of Eid and Diwali dresses mirror each other in a curious case of religious intercourse, as motifs, symbols, patterns co-mingle. Kabir also gets suggestions to improve and change some of her fabric creations in via her Facebook page.

Accessories to celebrations, such as beauty tips, ethnic cosmetics like sindus, mehendi, heena, bindis, gold and silver jewelry, brocaded skrits, lehengas, sarees, blouses, sherwanis, shawls and other couture paraphernalia, also get a boost through social media advertisements. Many ethnic stores have elaborate social media pages that engage potential customers in conversations about their products and their meanings.

The home pages of the web and social media sites correspond with the designing of actual homes and renegotiate their ties with homeland. Festivities give added visibility to the ethnic traditions and social media become tools that not only augment selling opportunities for ethnic business, but also act as lucrative platforms to continue and change the tradition.

Indian festivals in countries as far and diverse as Mauritius, Australia, South Africa, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore. Guyana, as well as United States and the UK are points of intersection for not only the ethnic Indians living there, but also serve as fascinating opportunities for locals to get a peek into Indian values and rituals. Stressing on collective joy and harmony, these festivals have now found an enabler in social networking. The idea at the core of both is to bring people together, reestablish connections and string the world into a knitted community, amplifying exchange and interaction. It is a platform to mix the old and the new, the past and the present, the aged and the youth.  

Virtual Religion

Durga Puja in Kolkata is jut a mouse click away for overseas Indians

Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai and Durga Puja in Kolkata are now just a mouse click away for overseas Indians.

At this year’s Ganesh Chaturthi, the Andhericha Raja and Lalbaugcha Raja, two of the most famous Ganesh Mandals in Mumbai, streamed their aarti rituals online, enabling thousands of their overseas disciples to witness in real time the colorful spectacles that envelop Mumbai for more than a week.

Overseas Bengalis are likewise able to participate in virtual Durga Pujas in Kolkata through web services, such as utsavlive.com and bangalinet.com. Utsavlive.com streamed durga puja ceremonies, including mahalaya, anjali, aarati, and sindoor khela for overseas Indians in collaboration with Washington Bangla Radio. At Bangalinet.com, devotees can light lamps, garland their deity, play dhak and perform aarti — all virtually. Theholidayspot.com, which celebrates all major events, holidays and festivals, allows devotees to perform pujas during their favorite festival and get virtual prasad as well.

Christian groups are finding modern twists for their timeless faith. The Catholic Diocese of Lucknow has created an online prayer request, which has received thousands of prayer appeals from Indians from as far away as Australia, Canada and the USA.

Several major Indian temples now stream ceremonies and take online prayer requests online. The DivineIndia.com portal offers online darshan and video streams ceremonies at 151 temples, 53 dargahs, 41 gurdwaras, 24 churches, and 363 other shrines, including mosques, churches, derasars, and monasteries.

At prarthana.com overseas Indians can submit prayer requests at Tirupati, Palani, Thirunallar and Guruvayur for between $15 to $18.

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Tagged as:

Life | Religion | NRI | Lifestyle | January 2013

Image gallery

Ganesh Chathurthi celebration inMumbai. Hindu devotees celebrate the birth of Ganesh in Flushing, New York. Diwali celebrations in London’s Trafalgar Square. Over a million people gather at the Batu Caves for the annual Thaipusam festival in Kuala Lumpur. Diwali in London’s famous Trafalgar Square

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