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Made in India, Remade in America

A look at how Indian festivals are being transformed in America.

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Durga Puja on the beltway? Diwali in a Phoenix community center? Ras Garba in a New York school auditorium? A spectacular burning of Ravana in a public park in New Jersey?

Yes, and why not?

All these Indian festivals are slowly inching their way to becoming American celebrations, a part of the country's red, white and blue tapestry.

Even that most commercial and true-blue icon of America - the NASDAQ - has recognized Diwali with blazing lights in Times Square.

Diwali celebrations in Phoenix, Ariz.
Years earlier the Empire State Building had already taken note of Diwali with special saffron, green and white lighting on the apex of America's most famous icon.

Last year, New York City officially recognized Diwali by granting it the most coveted gift in the city - suspension of alternate side parking rules for the festival in traffic congested Manhattan.

Diwali at North Pier Beach in Durban, South Africa
And when the Diwali Mela takes place at South Street Seaport, it is duly noted on the calendar of the New York tourism website.

All these events are purely American - not something you would see on Diwali in India. Mere beginnings, but they are having an impact on the larger perceptions of Indians and their culture.

Diwali celebrations in San Fransisco, Califormia
Diwali, the most important festival for Hindus, is celebrated throughout the Hindu world including Fiji, Guyana and Trinidad. In addition to the spiritual significance the day holds for Hindus, Sikhs celebrate Diwali in celebration of the release of the Sixth Guru, Hargobind, from captivity by the Mughal Emperor Jehangir, and Jains commemorate Diwali as the day Lord Mahavira, the last of the Tirthankaras, attained Nirvana, or liberation, after his death in 527 BCE.

Diwali celebrations at The White House
There are an estimated two million Hindus in the United States. "Growing up in the United States, we see different festivals of various traditions being honored and celebrated and acknowledged by the American community, which is very open to this because America has always welcomed people of different nationalities," says Ishani Choudhury, Director of the Hindu American Foundation.

"Just as Rosh Hashanah, Ramadan and Kwanza are being honored, it's important that Hindu Americans whose children are growing up should know that their faith is also honored and acknowledged in the way these other faiths are. It's important on a higher level, because it helps you to maintain a bond that you have to your home state and country."

Cultural festival celebrations at Newark Museum of Art
HAF has made public recognition of Diwali a major focus of its work. "We firmly believe that as our traditions and our holy festivals become a celebrated part of the fabric of mainstream American life, we as a community take another giant step towards fulfilling both our Hindu and American identities."

In August Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced Senate Resolution 299, to recognize "the religious and historical significance of the festival of Diwali." A parallel House Resolution 747 sponsored by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) and Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) was approved by the Foreign Relations Committee of the House of Represntative by a unanimous vote.

Diwali celebrations at City Hall in New York City
But already Diwali is celebrated in New York's City Hall with a reception and also with a celebration at the White House.

Diwali, a word few Americans would know how to pronounce, is slowly infiltrating into the public consciousness. Last year "The Office" sitcom featured a Diwali office party, mainstream media has begun writing about it, and this year National Geographic issued a children's book Celebrate Diwali with Sweets, Lights and Fireworks by Deborah Heiligman, along with another on the festival of Id. Heiligman worked with Hinduism authority Vasudha Narayanan, professor of religion and director of the Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions at Florida University, to relate the story of Diwali traditions and customs.

South Seaport Diwali celebrations have introduced the festival to tens of thousands of mainstream Americans annually.
Diwali celebrations in the Diaspora capture its diversity - Latoya Khoza, a dance student in Durban, South Africa prepares for a classical Indian dance during Diwali in one image in the book. Another image shows a girl dressed in Diwali finery on Reunion, an island in the Indian Ocean. Yet another captures the celebrations in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Diwali at The Flushing temple in New York
Perhaps the image which conveys Diwali's all-pervasive nature is a photograph of young girls floating diyas and flowers on the Yamuna River in Agra, with the Taj Mahal, an Islamic monument, reflected in the waters.

Indian Americans have to improvise on the fireworks. Some buy sparklers and fireworks during Fourth of July and hoard them for Diwali.

Diwali celebrations at City Hall, New York City
The most common way Americans are exposed to Diwali is through Indian Americans - friends, family doctors and even relatives. From New York to California, Indians are sharing their food, dances and festivals with mainstream Americans.

Last year, the Newark Museum of Art held an India festival, with henna painting, dancing and music.

Phoenix, Ariz., holds a Discover India event, reminiscent of Diwali melas, which are such an integral part of the holiday season in India. Sarbari Chowdhury, president of the Indian Association, says the festival in Phoenix has tripled its audience from some 1,000 visitors to almost 3500: "We wanted to step out of the boundary of just the Indian community and make it a showcase for all of Phoenix with our dances, music and food."

South Seaport Diwali celebrations have introduced the festival to tens of thousands of mainstream Americans annually.
Phoenix's different Indian communities celebrate Diwali with private parties and regional festivities. The Bengali community celebrates Durga Puja on a grand scale. Bengalis have a ritual of lighting 14 diyas on every entrance and doorway and preparing a special Diwali dish from 14 different leafy vegetables. In America the traditions get an interesting American twist. 

"In Calcutta we used to get prepared bunches of 14 leafy vegetables, ready to cook, from the market. When you go to the supermarkets here, it's sometimes hard to get 14 different leafy vegetables and we sometimes have to mix up celery and lettuce and mint. Here we have to improvise."

She recalls that in Calcutta her family would build a Diwali ghar, a house of mud and clay, in the back garden lit up with diyas and decorated with dolls. "Here all this is not possible, but when my children were very small, I would use play dough to make the house for them, and get earthen flower pots from Home Depot and set them up with tea lights."

Diwali firworks at the BAPS temple
The festivals also have to adapt to the American environment: large scale celebrations have to be held off till the weekend, no matter which day Diwali falls on.

Phoenix may be a long way from Kolkatta, but the Bengali community holds special Durga puja celebrations, spread over two days -still truncated from the week long celebrations in India. The Diwali festivities have also ballooned since Phoenix now has about six temples in the vicinity.

In New Jersey preparations for Navratri are in full swing, as they are in Fremont, Calif., and in every enclave with a major Gujarati population. Ras Garba which is such an intricate part of this festival has been gaining in popularity with other Indian communities - thanks to Bollywood films where top stars show their skills with dandias. Now even Americans are getting the hang of these wooden sticks as they party with Indian friends or as guests at desi weddings. A telling point about American diversity is that you get to see an unbelievable mix as cultures collide and often embrace. At weddings you see blondes in evening dresses clicking the sticks and moving to the music of the dhol with Indians in wedding finery.

The Navratri Garba 2007 bash, celebrating devis and devtas, is being held on two full dhol music laden Saturdays in Fremont, Calif., - in the Holy Spirit Church! The setting does not seem at all incongruous to the participants who are looking forward to dancing to the beat of Rhythm Master Dimple Patel and Group.

Slowly but surely Indian festivals are transforming and becoming a part of the mosaic of America. Just as Christmas is celebrated by many Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, Diwali and Navratri may one day be celebrated as yet another festival by the mainstream, becoming one more American festival to be enjoyed by all. Who knows, in true American fashion, one day perhaps there will also be a Bloomingdale's Diwali sale or even a Macy's Diwali Parade!  

Subscribe to comments feed Comments (1 posted)

raju September 23, 2011 at 12:13 AM
first of all indians means not only north indians,south indians are also indians,y there is no mention about south indians festival????
total: 1 | displaying: 1 - 1

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NRI | Magazine | November 2007

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