The lights dimmed. A voice from above prayed for a celebration where “light wins over darkness when happiness wins over sadness.”
“Diwali: A festival of lights, is a celebration of good over evil,” said emcee Deveshi Chandan, her magenta and gold sari illuminated on stage in front of an audience of about 250 people celebrating Diwali, the annual Hindu festival marking the victory of good over evil.
ANKUR-IGSA, the University of Pittsburgh’s Indian Graduate Student Association, hosted the Diwali celebration in Bellefield Hall at the price of $8 for students and $10 for guests. The evening included 16 performances — of varied talent and energy levels — showing traditional and contemporary Indian song and dance as gifts to the gods. Some technological malfunctions and waning energy levels – the performances lasted for two and a half hours — aside, the celebration seemed less about talent or perfection and more about bringing together cultural community in Pittsburgh.
ANKUR-IGSA President Ananth Kotti said Diwali is the equivalent of combining Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“It’s all about the food. We just need an excuse to eat good Indian food,” Kotti said. This year, Pittsburgh-based Indian restaurant Taj Mahal catered the event, providing curry chicken, basmati rice and mango chutney.
As for the dancing, Kotti said, “even though you might not understand [Hindi], it’s just fun to watch.”
ANKUR-IGSA provides Pitt graduate students from India with transportation from the Pittsburgh International Airport, answers questions about housing and hosts four to five events every semester to foster community.
For many graduate students, such as Kinjal Sangani, this Diwali festival was their first away from home. Students come from all over India to one of Pitt’s 15 graduate programs to complete their Master’s degrees.
“I definitely felt homesick. ANKUR helped us a lot. Everything is new here, and we are all looking for guidance,” said Sangani, a native of Pune, India and a first-year graduate student in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
The emcees then prepared the audience for a trip through the streets of Mumbai with a dance performance by the five girls, including Sangani, of Mumbai Local. Dancing to a mix of Bollywood and semi-classical styles, the performance featured a mash-up of four Bollywood songs. They modernized traditional Indian performances by wearing “I <3 Pitt” t-shirts, black leggings and red scarves tied around their hips.
“It’s just easier,” Sangani said of the group’s choice to wear street clothes over traditional attire.
Trupti Bilgi and Anushree Godbole, students in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, wore traditional Indian turquoise and light green saris for their performance of “Saibo” from the Bollywood film “Shor in the City.”
Bilgi and Godbole, both 25 and roommates, chose the song because “it speaks to the environment of Diwali. It has a soothing melody,” said Bilgi.
They began graduate school in August, so this Diwali was their first outside of India.
“It’s really cool that even though we are in Pittsburgh, all the Indian people are together. We don’t feel that homesickness during festivals. We are connected,” Bilgi said.
Aaravi, a children’s dance group from the Indian Pittsburgh Association, put on a two-part performance. The first segment, performed by dancers ages three to seven, featured careful turns, slow steps and circling in and out. When the older children came to the stage, jumping and pumping their fists to the beat of a deep Bollywood bass, the crowd responded with cheering and clapping.
Following Aaravi, Mastaniz — a five-member Pitt female dance ensemble — fused modern culture with more traditional movements.
The first performance, featuring two dancers — one dressed in red and the other in a deep yellow — danced to slow Hindu music. The other three, wearing teal, deep magenta and dark black, twirled to a fast-paced, upbeat piece. At the end, the quintuplet formed a V, and all was going well until two of the dancers forgot the steps. The audience didn’t seem to notice, though, and the dancers didn’t seem to care.
There were other malfunctions throughout the night. During a performance by the Panther Belly Dancer’s Club, the auditorium lights were run incorrectly and turned off halfway midway through the dance. The belly dancers were unphased by the malfunction — their gold-coined, skirted hips continued shaking.
Between performances, the four emcees, Ansh Chand, Deveshi Chandan, Ayushi Divecha and Priyank Khama, joked and encouraged audience involvement — a welcome reprieve between more lackluster performances
“Krishna, God and Ghandi: What’s common between them?” Divecha, 28, asked. “They’re all born on a holiday, duh!”
Members and volunteers of ANKUR-IGSA formed Team Bam, the closing act, to “bring India to America,” according to cultural manager Prahlad Krishna. Team Bam’s performance drew on high energy moves, rather than on traditional culture or technical dance experience. Featuring only members and volunteers of ANKUR-IGSA, seven couples in street clothes jumped and pumped to popular Bollywood beats from Bollywood movies to reach as much of the audience as possible.
“If you fancy the beat, you can dance to it,” Krishna said.
Wesley Hood and Mackenzie Rodrigues contributed reporting.