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Diwali 2015: A Blending of Cultures by Kevin Adams

Posted by on Monday, November 16, 2015 in News, , , .

On the night of November 7th, hundreds of students waited in line outside Langford Auditorium, anxiously awaiting entrance to the annual showing of Diwali. The performance shares its name with the Hindu holiday that occurs in autumn, translating to the “Festival of Lights.” Put on by student members of the SACE (South Asian Cultural Exchange) at Vanderbilt University, they designed the performance to exhibit South Asian culture through dances and musical acts. Although students put on Diwali every year at Vanderbilt, this was my first time in attendance.

The performance was a combination of dance, drama, and music. The student producers based the theme on the Pixar film, Inside Out. Following the first semester of a South Asian college freshman named Sid, the drama explored the hardships of adapting to college life and finding where you belong at Vanderbilt. Intermixed with the drama scenes were music and dance performances. Performers dressed in traditional garbs of South Asian culture and the music was a mixture of traditional South Asian music and modern pop music.

The dances were exciting and upbeat, exclusively featuring Vanderbilt students as both the dancers and choreographers. Each dance had a different title and a different style. Some featured more traditional music and more performers, but others were smaller and more modern. The mixing of styles was reminiscent of the Broadway musical, In the Heights, in which Latin American music was mixed with hip hop in order to portray the different cultural influences on the characters. The songs in Diwali were a mix of South Asian styles of music and pop music, representing a blending of cultures. The opening act exemplified this aspect, featuring a hip hop performance with the singer rapping over South Asian beats.

Although based on South Asian culture, there were many performers who were not of South Asian descent. This implicitly expressed the idea that people of different cultures should share their traditions and customs with one another. There is no reason why someone of a different ethnicity should feel that they are not allowed to join in and experience the culture of another group. This is an important value to be ingrained at a school like Vanderbilt. Students come from many different backgrounds and parts of the world. Performances like Diwali encourage people to seek out new experiences and not be afraid to mingle with those whom they may perceive to be different.

The themes from the popular movie, Inside Out, were also helpful in bringing familiarity to the audience. Taken from the movie, five characters—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear—represent Sid’s emotions and allow his feelings to be voiced as he goes throughout his semester. However, Sid is not just an amorphous blob on which to project ourselves. He is simply supposed to be relatable. He has his own culture and background that is separate from ours. Throughout the performance, Sid struggles with his identity. He wants to branch out and make new friends at school, but he doesn’t want to lose touch with his roots. His emotions voice his conflict throughout the performance.

Sid crosses the bridge between South Asian culture and students who are unfamiliar with it. Sid is a character that almost everyone at Vanderbilt can relate to. All of us were once freshmen trying to find our way in college. That’s a shared experience between almost all students at Vanderbilt. We are meant to feel a connection to Sid. Even though freshman year feels a long way away for some of us, most of us remember what it was like to be in Sid’s shoes. And while his culture is South Asian, that detail isn’t actually that important. He represents the struggle faced by all students, regardless of the culture from which they come. We all have our own unique backgrounds. While some may have it harder than others, almost all of us had problems similar to Sid’s. The performance made it easier for us to understand Sid’s struggles by establishing common ground between him and us, the members of the audience.

While the SACE certainly created Diwali to increase interest in South Asian culture, specific details of the culture were not emphasized. The audience didn’t learn much about the traditions of South Asian culture. The dances were fun and entertaining, but mostly served to celebrate their heritage rather than to explain their customs. It was never truly clear what the significance of the different types of dances were or how they conveyed specific aspects of South Asian culture. But in a way, that actually expanded the reach of the performance. It wasn’t only about South Asian culture. It was about the importance of culture in a broad sense. Diwali acknowledges the fact that many different groups are going to come together at a place like Vanderbilt and does a fantastic job conveying the uncertainty felt by many students. Performances like Diwali serve as reminders for us to be mindful of the cultures of others and know that others are as eager to share their experiences with us as we are with them. They ultimately help to inspire a more open and accepting community.


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4 Comments on “Diwali 2015: A Blending of Cultures by Kevin Adams”

I thought that modeling Diwali after Inside Out was a clever idea. From my understanding, Diwali signifies traditional themes like light over darkness and good over evil. The Vanderbilt Diwali performance seemed to focus on finding one’s place and seeking the light and clarity of one’s unique identity. By using Inside Out as a model, the performance was able to reinforce these themes as well as follow an incredibly popular and relatable structure. As a huge fan of Disney Pixar’s Inside Out, I found this as an incredibly entertaining and accessible way to present a festival that might be new to many Vanderbilt students outside of the SACE community.

I agree with you that while Diwali did not focus on specifics, its broader impact was probably even more important. Vanderbilt, like all college intuitions, should be a place where unique ideas, cultures, and customs are shared and experienced. If Vanderbilt students are to be globally minded individuals, they must learn that understanding and encountering other cultures is a valuable experience. Merely teaching students about different cultures only goes so far. By showing students that experiencing cultural events is both important and fun, they will pursue cultural events for the rest of their lives. This makes a more intellectually diverse and accepting society. By making Diwali an accessible and fun cultural event, Vanderbilt students may be much more likely to pursue these types of events in the future.

Robert Hart on November 24th, 2015 at 2:12 pm

Thank you for sharing your reflections about The Diwali Showcase. My perspective is one of someone heavily rooted in the South Asian culture and someone who was an integral part of the production process of the Inside Out story line.

In past years, the skits relied heavily on playing off of South Asian stereotypes to create interest and humor. Furthermore, the show had always been called “Diwali”. However, this year, the Diwali co-chairs wanted to take a step in a different direction in regards to how the Diwali show had been presented in the past. First, they directed the actors to stray away from indian stereotypes to create a script that would resonate with a broader audience. Second, and probably the most significant change, was that the show itself was renamed to “The Diwali Showcase” instead of “Diwali” because it gave a false representation of what the actual cultural and religious festival of Diwali means to many people. As a result of these changes, the show itself was not meant to be a holistic representation of South Asian culture. The actual festival of Diwali was celebrated the day after The Diwali Showcase in which people of South Asian descent and not united to engage in a sacred ritual.

I played Fear in The Diwali Showcase and the feedback I have gotten about the MC skits parallels what you talked about in your post. Although this showcase is ultimately put on to raise South Asian Culture awareness, it is more about showing to everyone that culture in general is accessible. Many of the non-South Asian participants in The Diwali Showcase also ended up attending the Diwali puja that happened the day after the showcase.

And finally, from my perspective, the show was most importantly about highlighting the commonalities amongst us all. Themes like isolation, community, and feeling at home are by no means exclusive to a certain group of people. Regardless of your race or your skin color, we have certain things in common that inherently binds us as human beings.

Kirtan Patel on December 4th, 2015 at 12:38 pm

The most creative part about this performance lied in fact that it was based on a popular Pixar movie. For someone like me who rarely attends performances, it gave me a way to connect to the messages in the performance. I am sure many others who attended the show felt the same way. Along with this idea, I found it unique that the South Asian performance was related to an American film. This allowed the message of commonality, as you referenced in your post, to be demonstrated.

I also found the music and the wide range of dances to be very enlightening and upbeat. The mix of traditional and modern seemed to show the transformations within Diwali itself. As you mentioned, most of the performers were not of South Asian descent. The ability for other cultures to participate shows the commonalities between people in the world and how we are all a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Spencer Ciesla on December 6th, 2015 at 9:21 pm

Kevin, nice post! I truly appreciated your comment of Vanderbilt’s Diwali hidden themes of inclusion and shared cultural experiences. Anyone and everyone can participate in Diwali, regardless of race. I see that you related with Sid. I did as well. That was the point of his character, and the emotions used him as a vessel through which to communicate to the audience. It was effective. Diwali does more to celebrate heritage than explain customs. This is important because for audience members who are unfamiliar, Diwali seems to be a celebration full of excitement that fills the senses and that is it. South Asian culture is more than that, but yes, Diwali was able to reach a wider audience.
Sid’s struggle is specific to his life as a freshman on Vanderbilt’s campus, but it is important to realize that his strife extends to all ways of life in which one is caught between cultures or searches for his/her identity. Diwali succeeded in capturing the emotions that arise from this type of struggle. There is a sense of duty to your own culture, but the one you are exposed to is the one you live every day. Identify comes from finding your place, whether it be in school, work, or the world. The cast portrayed what is like and how friends and sharing culture with others can make all the difference.

Onyebuchi Okeke on December 7th, 2015 at 11:13 am

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