Diwali without Diyas at USC

The Association of Indian Students celebrated the festival of lights with an event at the Bovard Auditorium — with song and dance and traditional Indian food.

Poorvi Singh, a sophomore at Marshall, opens up the event with classical Kathak dance.

Dressed in sparkling kurtas and salwars, among other traditional Indian dresses, nearly 750 people showed up at the Bovard Auditorium Friday night to celebrate the festival of lights, known as Diwali. The celebration gave USC’s Indian population a home away from home. With the pandemic holding many hostages last year, this became a chance to be immersed in community, culture and camaraderie.

The event was organized by the Association of Indian Students (AIS) in collaboration with other student organizations, and included performances ranging from soulful classical dances and acapella music to groovy Bollywood numbers.

Anurag Unnikrishnan, a graduate student at Viterbi, has been the president of AIS since Spring 2020 and organizes cultural events for the community throughout the year.

“It’s the only festival that, when it’s occurring, you can see it happening from space,” Unnikrishnan said. “The entire region of India is lit up with lights, diyas [lamps] and firecrackers.”

Diwali is one of the major festivals celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists in India and around the world. It usually lasts five days and symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. The first day of Diwali marks a new year filled with wealth and prosperity in Hinduism. Some celebrate it as the day when, according to Sanskrit tradition and the epic “Ramayana”, Rama returned to his kingdom and his wife Sita after serving 14 years in exile.

The event started with a ‘Happy Diwali’ video message by the Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, “Let the diyas’ light shine bright and show us all the way forward as we tackle challenges and work to build a brighter future. Have a joyful and safe Diwali. Namaste and fight on.”

A member of the Hindu Student Organization (HSO) sets up a shrine with the idol of Ganesha—an elephant-headed Hindu god.

The first performer of the evening was a dancer from Singapore. Poorvi Singh, a sophomore at Marshall, has been dancing for 12 years and graced the audience with a Kathak performance to the song “Namo Devi” — a tribute to the goddess.

“It’s great that we’re able to celebrate even so far away from home and being able to dance is just a plus,” Singh said. “I’m excited! All my friends are coming to watch.”

The lighting of diyas is one of the signature elements of the celebration. Diyas are small lamps usually made from clay with a cotton wick dipped in oil. While the fire hazard is not permitted at USC, the AIS got creative with some electric diya lamps that they set up around the stage.

“Around USC, a lot of Indian students have also had Diyas and phul jharis [sparklers] lit at home,” Unnikrishnan said. “But it’s more about getting people together.”

After an hour of music and dance, the attendees got to take home boxes of traditional Indian food — vegetable pulao, tarka daal, paneer makhani and gulab jamun for dessert.

Among the people gathering to celebrate was Jaya Rajwani, a graduate student at Viterbi studying computer science and artificial intelligence.

“This is the first Diwali I celebrated away from home in Pakistan. It did feel empty at first but I’m so glad to have a close knit community of people from across the globe who not only respect but are eager to learn about cultures and celebrate a festival like Diwali together,” Rajwani said.

Kartik Sheloy, another Viterbi graduate student, said he was excited to see his friends perform.

“The way we celebrated Diwali was exchanging sweets like we used to do back in India,” Sheloy said. “We just wanted to feel at home even though we are so far away.”

The attendees included students, staff, faculty, and their friends and family. Unnikrishnan said they had to turn away a great number of people because COVID restrictions limited the auditorium capacity.

Earlier this week, New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney introduced legislation in the House to make Diwali a federal holiday officially recognized in the United States.

This story was updated due to misnaming a source as a religious director for USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.