Students, faculty and community members packed themselves into the Gund Commons ballroom on Saturday to celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights. The building’s exterior was adorned with rangoli (an art form consisting of colorful patterns drawn on the ground) and diya (oil lamps made from clay), both typical aspects of the festival celebration. Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History Wendy Singer told the story of the King Rama and Sita from the ancient epic poem, the Ramayana — considered the origin of the Diwali festival by Hindus in North India — using puppets she acquired in her travels to the country. Singer’s speech was followed by a classical Indian dance performance to a medley of Bollywood songs pertaining to the festival.
The event, co-hosted by President of International Students at Kenyon Elvin Shrestha ’19 and South Asian Society President Sriya Chadalavada ’19, began as an event for students who may have been homesick at the time of the festival.
“I remember sophomore year, looking on Facebook at photos of my family celebrating Diwali,” said Shrestha,.“I remember telling Sriya, ‘Oh my god, I miss Diwali.’ She said that we could have it here, but I thought that was ridiculous. Who would come? Who cares about Diwali?”
According to Shrestha and Chadalavada, more than 350 people, including President Sean Decatur, attended the first Diwali dinner held last year.
This year, the line for food wrapped all the way around the walls of Gund Commons. Participants began the event by lighting the diya and drawing rangoli, after sunset they set off sparklers, a fire-safe alternative to the traditional fireworks.
The diversity of religious beliefs and practices in South Asia posed a challenge to Shrestha and Chadalavada, who aimed to make the event as inclusive as possible.
“The reason I celebrate Diwali is very different from the reason Sriya does,” said Shrestha. “I’m from Nepal, Sriya’s family is from South India, and then things are very different in Bangladesh. The one unifying theme is that it’s the festival of lights. It’s supposed to signify the victory of good over evil.” Although Diwali is typically associated with Hinduism, Sikhs, Jains and even some Buddhist groups celebrate the festival. Among Hindus, Diwali is associated with different gods in different regions.
The Diwali dinner is not just a cultural event — it’s also an opportunity for Kenyon’s community members to enjoy authentic Indian food. This year, dahl, chicken tikka masala and Hyderabadi dum biryani were served, along with hundreds of glasses of mango lassi. “Diwali is a big highlight of my time at Kenyon,” diner Rose Bialer ’20 said. “The community here is always warm and welcoming, and the food is fantastic.” The food this year was provided by Dakshin, a restaurant in Columbus.
“It’s so comforting to hear that even though Kenyon is not the most diverse of places, diversity is still at the front of a lot of people’s minds,” Chadalavada said. “It’s great to see people wanting to learn more, and wanting to reach out.”