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The Changing Face of Diwali

October 2003
The Changing Face of Diwali

A look at how the festival has changed over the years in India, and how Indians abroad still keep it alive


By Abigail Rodricks

It is perfectly natural for Indians living in the West to be overcome with nostalgia when heart-warming festivals like Diwali come around. But they can draw solace from the fact that, back home, the festival of light is no longer what it used to be.

What was once revered as a time for prayer, and a time to celebrate new beginnings, has turned into yet another Hallmark event, a crass commercial festival during which merchants tout "festival bargains" and consumers feel the urge to splurge. While Mumbai's bazaars lend themselves to garish Diwali shopping extravaganzas, Delhi's contribution comes in the form of all-night card parties which give people an opportunity to flex their gross spending power.���

As India struggles to keep up with time and technology, and gradually succumbs to that overwhelming monster?globalization?the festival has undergone a series of subtle, and not-so-subtle, changes. On a more mundane level, earthen diyas have been replaced by fairy lights and delicate paper lanterns by plastic ones. Rangoli now comes with stencils for those who don't have time to create their own designs. But the more serious change comes in the very ethos?the celebrations tend to be a rowdy display of spending power, and the joy of giving has been replaced by the insatiable desire to receive. Giving usually translates into a time for businesspeople to cultivate their contacts by sending them ?Diwali gifts'. In fact, certain officers in the income tax department are known to receive enormous boxes of sweets with an unwritten message which has very little to do with Diwali!

Shop Till You Drop

With Diwali, like Christmas, becoming a season of giving?even if it is not exactly selfless giving?manufacturers and shop-owners view it as a time to rub their hands with glee. Shops come up with a mind-boggling variety of consumer schemes and gimmicks to entice the consumer to come in and pay obeisance to Laxmi, as it were. Shop windows scream ?Diwali sale' even if washing machines have absolutely nothing to do with the festival of lights, and the deals get juicier as merchants turn desperate to wipe out competition.

As the festival approaches, publicity teams work overtime to devise new ways of packaging their products to capture the festive spirit. Card manufacturers run their presses overtime, though these days some are mourning the introduction of e-cards that have eaten into their profits. Firework producers have been crying foul at being asked to repackage their wares, and remove images of Gods and goddess from the box covers, but they also work full-throttle. Even today, one can see pyramids of colorfully wrapped boxes of mithai and dry fruits, and numerous kiosks selling fireworks lining the streets in almost all cities and towns. Some things never change?they only get more extravagant. By the end of the festival season, even the most prudent buyer is left with a dent in his pocket, but after all, its "festival buying" so who can complain?

Hotels, restaurants, specialty stores, fashion designers?no one wants to be left out of the party. Says Jaya Joshi, marketing and communications manager at the Hyatt International, "This Diwali we are planning a festival called Diwali Wishes, at one of our restaurants. The festival will be on from October 15 to 25 and the cuisine served will be a traditional Indian spread with dishes from all over India. There will be other festivals also happening in the month of October, like the German beer festival, which aren't directly related to Diwali but will certainly help with the celebrations."

A manager from the ethnic clothing boutique Fabindia says, sotto voce, "For the Diwali season we intend introducing more silk products, for that rich festive look." Meanwhile, fashion designers capitalize on the ?look' in their own (more pricey) way. For instance, ?AND', Anita Dongre's signature line, will have exhibitions abroad in time for the Diwali season, hoping to tap the NRI market. "We will participate in a show called The Call Of The Peacock in Singapore, where we are representing the country," says Manuja Shroff, who handles AND's public relations.

Who has the time?

As far as younger people are concerned, the Western work culture seems to have caught on, and, as in the West, almost taken over. For a number of people caught up in long work hours and deadlines, festivities are not a priority. Take the case of Tara, a Bollywood starlet, who has her hands full with four film projects. She says wearily, "I've been in India for over a year and a half, and I haven't yet experienced a Diwali celebration. This year, too, I have no real Diwali plans. I'll be busy shooting."

For others, like DJ Kim, who was raised in Canada, festivals like Diwali are viewed as times of merry mayhem, but not much else. She approaches Ganesh Chathurthi, Holi and Diwali with a mixture of detached fascination and amusement. "There are so many holidays in India. In Mumbai, Ganesh Chaturthi is only just over, and the atmosphere for the entire ten, twelve days was crazy, and now we're into Diwali" she says, with a laugh. But religion is the last thing on people's minds. Rather, it is the chaos that comes with the festivities that affects them. Kim cannot get over how "it took me three hours to reach my residence which was just half an hour away."

Let's Get Outta Here

For the urban elite, as well as the aspiring middle classes in India, staying at home for Diwali has become pass�, even if it means missing the rangoli and rasgolla. Combining Diwali with a little vacation get-away is the way to go. Goa was the hotspot everybody was flocking to last year, where the festival was celebrated with rave parties on the beaches of Baga, Bambolim and Calangute. For the more conservative, it was a Diwali bash at one of Goa's many five star hotels. This year, it is no different. "On the domestic front, there have been numerous inquires and bookings for destinations like Goa, Kerala and Rajasthan. Besides the regular favorites like the Far East, people are now opting for Diwali vacations in Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Australia and New Zealand. This year, there is a lot of pent up traveling, as people were forced to postpone their holidays due to SARS and the Iraq war," says travel company SOTC's Fredrick Diwecha.

"People tend to choose local destinations over foreign ones during the festival season. Most hotels here organize something special during these periods. There is an event happening every evening, like a Karaoke or housie night," explains Zubin Kutar of Traveljini, which offers package tours for Goa hotels. Tour operators are looking forward to a busy festive season and are doing their level best to lure the Indian traveler. During the season, a six day SOTC package to Thailand is only US$ 595.

It's no wonder that Diwali at home is slowly going out of style just like many other rituals. After all, it is close to impossible to wake up early to conduct a pooja or even stay up late to light diyas while on a Nile cruise.

The Brighter Side!

But Diwali, being the festival of light, has to have a brighter side to it! In India, one of the most positive aspects about Diwali, even today, is that despite its Hindu overtones, Diwali has brought people of different religions together and, like Christmas, it has turned into almost a secular universal ?seasons greetings' type of festival. After all, children love sparklers whether they are raised to be Christian, Hindu or Muslim. Interestingly, a section of Muslim Bohris from Mumbai routinely perform even the Laxmi pooja at their places of work because it is deemed to bring peace and prosperity.

DJ Kim suggests that this may be one of the more positive aspects of celebrating Diwali in India versus abroad?the level of outside participation by other communities. "Here, during Diwali, even my Muslim friends and colleagues take part in the celebrations ? just as people of other faiths participate in Christmas in the U.S.," she says. "It is viewed more as a reason to celebrate and have fun rather than a purely religious occasion."

Another positive change that has come about is that it is no longer a festival of noise. No more do people have a license to inflict ear damage, not to mention nasal ailments, which the noxious fireworks bring about. In the last decade, thanks to the vigorous efforts of a few sound pollution activists, the courts have declared a time limit for any festival noise?be it fireworks or blaring loudspeakers. In Mumbai, for instance, if anyone is caught sending off rocket-bombs post 11 p.m., those affected can call the local police and be assured that someone will be right over to put an end to the disturbance.

Reflecting on this significant change, Amir Morani of Morani Fireworks, explains, "We do not deal in loud crackers and noise pollutants. Sky displays are now our forte." Morani fireworks has been for the past five decades, the country's leading fireworks manufacturer specializing in Diwali pyrotechnic extravaganzas.

Besides sound pollution, there is also the issue about the fireworks industry using child labor. Social workers have been spreading the word against their manufacturing process, and as a result, today, most schools show documentaries about child labor in the fireworks industry. One of the signature facets of Diwali, the fireworks, is thus being slowly muted if not completely abolished?and may well be for the greater good considering the civic lesson in social responsibility that children are learning.

Says Sharad Sanghi of Netmagic Solutions in Mumbai, "I don't buy my children crackers, just a few sparklers. Only last year, the schools made a conscious effort to educate children about the ill-effects of crackers, like noise and environmental pollution. My wife and I have never encouraged lighting loud crackers or bombs. It is also terrible when you think about the child labor involved in the production of crackers and that nothing is being done to stop it. But the noise during the ten days doesn't really bother me. After all, I did live in India before all this, so I'm used to it."

Television actress Shweta Keswani feels, "The reduction in noise is a good thing. The emphasis here has been more on crackers and fireworks than on anything more meaningful. The only place in Mumbai where the people really take the trouble to decorate their surroundings with some zeal is Lokhandwala complex in Andheri, which is where I stay. The entire length of the road is lit up with colored fairy lights, and it looks lovely, reminding us of why we are celebrating this holiday." She continues, "Lately I think people have grown aware of the increasing noise decibels and are more careful. I think this is a welcome change. As for me, I enjoy the quieter pleasures that Diwali brings, like decorating one's home with rangoli and diyas."

Dispersing Ignorance

There is no doubt that Diwali is not the same without the flamboyant fireworks, and many mourn their demise. But others are searching for more enriching ways of celebrating Diwali, hoping to make the season as meaningful as possible.

Even today, the goddess Laxmi continues to be welcomed into every home because she represents prosperity. Even those who may not get into an elaborate pooja, or get up at the crack of dawn to bathe with uptan (gram flour paste), will at least take the time to light diyas. These are symbolic of ushering light into your home to disperse the darkness of ignorance. It is said that if the diyas in your home stay lit until the wee hours of the morning, Lakshmi will shower her blessings on your home for the rest of the year. These days, many may prefer to leave an electric bulb on as a back-up. But then, who can fight technology?

Indians Abroad Light It Up

Ironically, it is the Indians living away from India who often extend themselves to celebrate the festival in a semblance of its original avatar?with lavish poojas and warm get-togethers with friends and family. As Sharad Sanghi recounts, "When we lived in New York, Diwali used to be a day-long community event. In downtown New York, there would be a fair of sorts with Indian food stalls, and we used to get together and celebrate with our friends here. At the end of the day, there would be a fantastic fireworks display. Every family I knew, including my own, would have a pooja on Diwali."

Similarly, model Vikas Bharadwaj, who spent 17 years in Los Angeles, recalls how he spent his Diwali there. "Diwali in L.A. is celebrated in a ball park. We burned an effigy of Ravana. Of course, unlike the case in India, here, for noisy crackers and fireworks you need permission from the city." Actress Ms Keswani echoes the nostalgia of celebrating Diwali abroad?in her case, Singapore, which has quite a substantial Indian population. "There was a lot of lighting up. No crackers and noise, but entire streets were decorated with strings of lights and it made a very pretty picture."

Their memories reflect the tendency among non-resident Indians to clutch on to their culture in an effort to retain a sense of self in an alien environment. Festivals are a perfect occasion to renew one's ?Indianness' and introduce it to younger generations who are otherwise turning into the Indian parent's worst nightmare?that American kid next door.

Closer home, in Atlanta, Malini Khorana, a marketing professional at A.C.Nielsen, has started preparing for her annual Diwali bash. She says "It's the one time in the year to be with friends, remember our heritage, and make a fresh start for the New Year. And because many of us don't have immediate family here, our friends are our family."

Clearly, for many living away from India, Diwali will remain a wonderful and colorful memory. Arvind Benegal, security consultant and long-time resident of Atlanta, muses nostalgically, "The last time I celebrated Diwali in India was in October 2001?after a fourteen year gap. That was about the same duration that Rama spent in exile before he returned to Ayodhya!" Diwali will always be remembered as a happy time. "It is a festival like none other. It brings together disparate folk with almost no bearing on religion and catalyzes humanity into one big family. I often wish Diwali was celebrated year-round. The world may be a much better place?."

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