‘Just One of the Bhais’: Diwali 2016 balancing celebration with social awareness
Diwali, a Hindu holiday celebrated across India and throughout South Asia as the rise of light over darkness and good over evil, is taking on its 25th year as a schoolwide cultural performance put on by Ashoka, a South Asian student association. Each year, the group plans a show, beginning as early as April of the previous school year, to commemorate this “Festival of Lights,” which encompasses dance, music, theater, fashion and, this year, poetry and a social awareness component, via cultural student groups.
The skit that runs throughout the show upholds a narrative reflecting the particular year’s overarching theme, which this year’s is “Just One of the Bhais” (“bhai” is Hindi for “guy”). The theme focuses on female empowerment and access to education in Sri Lanka, a small Asian country that has been embroiled in a years-long civil war.
This year’s philanthropy, which will receive all proceeds raised from Diwali, ties in directly with the theme.
“The organization for this year, Emerge Global in Sri Lanka, raises money to provide infrastructure, safe spaces and arts and crafts opportunities to girls and young women in Sri Lanka who have suffered violent pasts,” senior Saniya Suri, president of Ashoka, said. “Emerge Global makes sure their lives aren’t put on hold because of such traumatic events and that they feel empowered both to develop a camaraderie with other girls and to have an education.”
Roshni Bagli, junior and co-director of Diwali’s skit this year, said that it highlights both the difficulty for one young woman to attend a certain university simply because of her gender, as well as the pressure often put on students in South Asian education systems to memorize textbooks word for word (as opposed to actually understanding the material). Despite such heavy themes, the skit is packed with self-conscious humor and witty one-liners to keep the show enjoyable and lighthearted, in the spirit of the holiday itself.
Those who’ve attended in previous years can expect some other changes this year, too.
“We’re opening the show with more of an educational component this year, by having a piece on South Asian countries represented in our diya lighting, a ceremony of lighting lamps to welcome everyone to the show,” Neeti Shenoy, junior and one of the co-cultural chairs directing Diwali, said.
A new student group, Azadi, will also be added to this year’s Diwali lineup. Members of the organization, which focuses on activism and advocacy to address social justice issues affecting South Asia, will perform a spoken word poem on the Kashmir conflict.
Rishika Singh, a junior and the other Diwali co-cultural chair, said that she found a home in the Washington University South Asian community by participating in Diwali both freshman and sophomore year and by joining the new Diwali committee last year to assist with logistics, public relations and other backstage preparations for the show.
The performance provides a unique platform by bringing together a host of student groups who have the opportunity both to mix and mingle with one another and to bring awareness of Wash. U.’s South Asian cultural identity to a broad audience of students, faculty and staff.
“Although Diwali is a big event for the South Asian community, I find that it’s very inclusive of everyone. If you want to participate in any way or explore the cultural significance behind the holiday, you can—and you can be from any heritage. Diwali at Wash. U. celebrates the fact that people here love to learn about the world,” Mariel Liebeskind, sophomore and a captain of Wash. U.’s Bollywood fusion dance group Chaahat, which will perform in Diwali, said.
Singh added that the large audience Diwali attracts—tickets are almost entirely sold out once again this year—makes it a special opportunity to share not only South Asian culture, but also the universal idea of light over darkness with the Wash. I. community.
“Around this time of the year, school can really bring people down,” Singh said. “Diwali can provide an outlet or serve as a fun stress reliever and a way to spend time with friends that won’t make you feel like you should be studying instead.”
Catch Diwali at Edison Theater on Friday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 5 at 12 p.m. & 7 p.m. Tickets cost $10 and can be purchased at the Edison Theater box office or by visiting edison.wustl.edu.