Lights, Food, Dance: Bowdoin Celebrates First Diwali Festival

diwali_13112015_11132015 (22)Apekshya Prasai ’16 and Dhivya Singaram ’17’s efforts to decorate for Bowdoin’s first Diwali festival celebration did not go unnoticed. Students, faculty, staff, and their children — some dressed in South Asian attire — ooh-ed and ah-ed as they entered Dagget Lounge in Thorne dining hall. Tables were lit with candles and decorated with chrysanthemums, white string lights were wrapped around columns and draped across mantles. The scents of Indian food wafted throughout the room.

This is the first year Bowdoin has hosted a Diwali festival. It was the creation of Prasai, Singaram, and several other South Asian students. Recalling the planning of the celebration, Prasai said “Diwali is a festival that is so close to my heart and that of several others at Bowdoin. Every year it came and went and left me with such a longing for home and my family. This being my last year here…I really wanted to do something that could bring an element of home to Bowdoin.” Singaram and Prasai worked with Bowdoin’s Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Bob Ives to make the event a reality.

As the more than 50 people who had RSVP’d for the event found seats and filled their cups with mango lassis, Singaram, who co-hosted the event with Prasai, introduced Sree Padma Holt, research assistant professor of Asian Studies.

Holt began the evening by explaining the meanings and history of the ancient Diwali festival. “There are so many festivals big and small in Hinduism,” she said, explaining that Diwali’s “significance has been interpreted differently in different areas of India.” The holiday focuses primarily on “expelling darkness,” although this darkness, too, has “different interpretations and meanings.”

She proceeded to explain just a few stories of the origins of Diwali, and the traditions associated with it, including cleaning one’s house and decorating it with lights.

diwali_13112015_11132015 (1)With a heightened understanding of the meaning and significance of the Diwali festival, attendees began dining on an Indian meal catered by Shere Punjab, an Indian restaurant in downtown Brunswick, a favorite of Bowdoin students. Plates were piled with chicken tikki masala, naan, rice, saag paneer, and ladoo (sweet dough cooked in a ball-shape), which were made by by Singaram’s family.

And then there was dancing. After the dance floor was opened by Anokha, a Bowdoin student group that performs South Asian dance. The dancers performed a traditional Indian folk dance, Dandiya Raas — and the whole room was quickly filled with dancers of all ages, dancing to modern Indian music from famous Bollywood films.

For Prasai, the best part of the evening was the dancing. “The ambience in Dagget last night was very homely and resembled the kind of socialization that I would see back home. Lots of table talk, children running around, colorful clothes, lights, music and sweets are classic staples of Diwali celebrations. But my favorite part was dancing. I have never seen faculty, staff and students dance together and celebrate like that before. It was phenomenal,” she said.

Invitations to this Bowdoin’s first Diwali festival were extended to the whole Bowdoin community. For some, like Sam Kyzivat ’18, this was the first Diwali celebration they had experienced. “This was my first Diwali. It was such a beautiful evening — I can’t wait for next year!,” he said.

For senior Serena Taj ’16, the event harkened back to family gatherings for the holidays from her childhood. Taj said that this was her first Diwali festival as well, but the food, clothing, and dancing reminded her of cultural traditions around holidays in her own family from Pakistan.

Many students who don’t have similar traditions in their background appreciated the glimpse into another culture. “It’s exciting to see people showing part of their culture that’s not often on display at Bowdoin. It’s awesome seeing everyone having fun as a community,” Maya Reyes ’16 said.

Photos by Dennis Griggs

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