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Diwali at the world’s top universities

Indian students at major international universities are sharing their culture through fabulous Diwali bashes

education Updated: Oct 25, 2011 17:33 IST
Rahat Bano

They are thousands of miles away from home on Diwali but Indian students are going — firecrackers blazing — to recreate the festive atmosphere at the world’s top academic institutes — Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics (LSE).

Diwali is going to be hot and happening at the Oxford Diwali Ball (slated for November 5 this year). Diwali Dhamaka at the London School of Economics will offer a buffet, “extraordinary” student song and dance performances and a DJ playing Bollywood numbers.

At the University of Oxford, the Diwali Ball, will feature a traditional three-course Indian meal, a surprise headline act (a British-Asian music artiste) and stalls serving mango lassi, pani puri and other Indian snacks. The grand finale will of course be a fireworks display.

“The Oxford University Hindu Society is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Every year since the society’s inception, we have hosted the Oxford Diwali Ball,” says Jamie Patel, secretary of the society and a second-year medical student. “Exeter College is the only Oxford college to celebrate Diwali on the exact day (October 26) of the festival with fireworks and feasting,” says Patel.

As for the turnout, “students from Cambridge, Oxford Brookes, London universities, and even Bristol are attending the ball,” Patel adds. Cambridge University India Society (CUIS) is arranging for a coach to take students to the Oxford Ball, informs CUIS president Malti Bipin Vaghela.

“Non-Indians make up around a quarter to a third of our guests at the Diwali Ball each year, and they love the idea of immersing themselves in a completely different culture for the night!” says Patel.

At Cambridge, the Hindu Cultural Society’s Diwali dinner is one of the highlights of the group’s calendar. Prayers and a sumptuous Indian meal will be organised at Wesley House on November 12, informs Nikhila Ravi, president of the society. As part of the post-dinner entertainment a classical dance drama based on an aspect of Hindu mythology, involving dancers from the Cambridge University Indian Classical Arts Society will also be staged. “The emphasis this year is on the cultural aspects of Hinduism, with a modern twist. In addition to the dance drama, we are going to act out the Ramayana, Harry Potter-style,” says Ravi. Complete with sparklers to light up the night, “it will be a celebration, a religious occasion, a cultural feast, a gastronomic delight but a completely alcohol-free party! Despite the intense Cambridge work schedule, students always take the time to come and celebrate Diwali with friends,” she adds

The students invite non-Indians too. “The puja is an optional part of the celebration. So religion aside, people of all faiths enjoy the cultural aspects. They’re left amazed by the rich traditions of India, the vibrant community spirit and of course, they rave about the lovely Indian vegetarian food,” says Ravi.

“This year’s Dhamaka promises to be bigger and better than ever before,” says Siddharth Gopakumar, former president of LSE’s India society, Society for the Promotion of Indian Culture and Ethos (SPICE). “We are for the first time doing it as a joint university event, with King’s College London (KCL) and we also have a fashion show being co-organised with Strand of Silk, a fashion house in the UK specialising in contemporary Indian clothes,” says Gopakumar, a second-year accounting and finance Indian student who grew up in Oman. Last year the event had 250 people and this year many more are expected.

The event draws “quite a few students”, many of them from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The queue, however, is growing longer. “We had Europeans, British as well as Chinese come last year. Some come for the food, some come to dance to Bollywood music and some just to support their Indian friends and celebrate Diwali with them,” adds Gopakumar.

According to him, the LSE bash is bigger than that of other London universities. “We always have a number of UCL (University College London), KCL and Imperial students coming to our annual event, which has been running for over 10 years now,” he says.

In the United States, The Hindu Students’ Council of Yale have revived the 1990s tradition of Diwali festivities since 2005 after a long break. The hour-long Diwali pooja includes meditation/prayer and singing of Hindu hymns. The event is open to Yale undergraduates, graduate/professional students, faculty, staff, family, friends, community members, and “anyone else who’s interested.”

University of Pennsylvania’s Indian Association, Rangoli, too is gearing up for a bigger bash this time. “In collaboration with four other organisations from Penn and Drexel University, this Diwali will be our grandest event,” says Rishabh Rajiv, president, Rangoli.

The festival, an annual feature at Penn for the last couple of years, will begin with a Rangoli competition, in which participants will be provided with dried flowers and coloured powders. “Following the results, we will have a Diwali puja, and prayers for Lord Rama, Goddess Saraswati and Lord Hanuman. Bands Penn Nasha from Penn and Nova Nassa from Villanova University will present a few of their popular numbers. The floor will be thrown open to the public to dance to dhol beats and Bollywood tunes.

Scrumptious snacks and lavish dinner featuring desi cuisine will be served as well,” says Rajv, doing an MS in computer and information science there.

“Usually celebrations involve traditional Indian food and a DJ. However, this time we are planning a brief puja as well for evoke the true spirit of the festival and to make everyone feel as if they are not away from home.”

Diwali Night at the University of Wisconsin Madison is also quite a big affair now. Organised annually for five years by the Indian Graduate Students’ Association (IGSA), a registered student organisation, it features Indian and other dances, music and dramatic plays followed by fireworks display and dinner. This year the organisers offered free dinner for up to 350 UW-Madison students, staff and faculty, on a first-come-first-serve basis, at the function on October 23.

“In terms of events organised by student organisations on campus, our show is one of the biggest, attracting audiences of 1250 (house full) or more every year,” says Mufaddal S Soni, president, IGSA, UW-Madison, who is also working towards a PhD in biochemistry.

On the agenda: From dance to pani puri
* The Oxford Indian Society is organising a Diwali Dinner, a with a three-course dinner including starters, main course and special kheer for desert, on October 26.

Tea /coffee will be served after dinner. The food has been “subsidised” at £12 per head. Oxford University Hindu Society’s Diwali Ball, slated for November 5, will feature a traditional three-course Indian meal, plus mango lassi, pani puri and other snacks.

* This year, University of Wisconsin - Madison’s Indian Graduate Students’ Association decided to offer a free dinner for up to 350 UW-Madison students and staff