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Diwali: One Step towards Cultural Awareness by Julie Jones

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

On November 7th, I attended SACE’s Diwali 2015 Showcase: Inside Out. Diwali is a cultural dance show named after the largest and most important Hindu festival of the year. Characterized by colorful costumes, energetic movement, and smiling faces, Diwali is a masterpiece of showmanship. Each act is comprised of dozens of Vanderbilt students dancing in a fusion of Southeast Asian dance styles mixed with modern, Western themes. Tying all of these facets together was a storyline that adapted elements from Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out, including a hilarious rendition of the character Fear by our own Kirtan Patel. This appeal to popular culture also included puns and jokes about Vanderbilt, specifically tailoring the performance to the intended audience of Vanderbilt undergraduates. Overall, Diwali is a prime example of the best aspects of cultural sharing and mixing that takes place at Vanderbilt; but without an active audience, it faces the danger of cultural appropriation.

Diwali introduces Vanderbilt audiences to a plethora of Southeast Asian cultures through dance and music. It is evident that Vanderbilt widely appreciates this form of cultural sharing given that tickets for Diwali were sold out days before the show. One performance that showcased cultural sharing was the first dance in the show, called the traditional dance. It began with performers in vibrant traditional outfits silhouetted by green light against the backdrop of the stage. Three groups of dancers intertwined, their movements representing the story of three women combatting for the hand of one man. In the end, a single dancer entered the stage, her pleading movements reaching towards every group of dancers to bring them together. The man chose this woman because of her compassion, and the dance ended in a sentimental love duet. This dance combined traditional dance styles, costumes, and storylines to teach a lesson about Indian culture and heritage.  It is evident that Diwali, with its high student involvement, is particularly suited to educate the Vanderbilt population about different cultures through performance.

Diwali also mixes Western, American culture with traditional Southeast Asian cultures. One dance, Fusion Black, combined modern hip-hop styles with typical Indian dance. Dancers were costumed in black-and-white plaid and high tops that contrasted with the colorful skirts and saris of the other dances. Indian beats convalesced with American hip-hop songs that had the audience singing and laughing. This bricolage, or a mixing of several cultures (Sturken and Cartwright), combined Southeast Asian dance and American sound without a dominance of Western themes. Instead, Southeast Asian students were able to celebrate their traditions while also appealing to a mass audience of primarily white students. Furthermore, elements of Western culture are just as applicable to Southeast Asian students’ lives as they are to a stereotypical “American” student. Many Southeast Asian students were born in the United States, and many others have called the United States their home for several years. By fusing several cultures together, Diwali enables students to celebrate the hybridity of their identities.

While Diwali does a fantastic job of sharing and fusing cultures, it should not be the only measure audience members take to experience Southeast Asian culture. Performance is an exemplary method for sharing and understanding culture, especially for an introduction to a culture, but it cannot invoke complete understanding. It is true that Diwali is one of the largest student events of the year in terms of number of performers and number of audience members, but how much of this exposure is passive? How many audience members sit in their seats and cheer on their friends only to leave and forget the show moments later? While the dancers, Southeast Asian or otherwise, spend months learning classic Bhangra and Raas moves, the audience has no further connection to Southeast Asian cultures unless they seek to understand and participate. One must extend this experience as motivation to attend other cultural events, such as the Diwali celebration, SACE meetings, or classes focusing on Asian-US relations. By continuing these experiences, one can become an active participant in one’s journey to cultural awareness. However, without active participation, excitement over Diwali can quickly cross the line into cultural appropriation, which is the taking of tradition, style, or other cultural elements for oneself without consent (Sturken and Cartwright). Students who proclaim to love Southeast Asian cultures just because they attended Diwali simply assimilate these traditions into their Western, majority lives. Performance should be understood as a gateway that teaches and entertains one enough so that they will go back for more, but it cannot be the only act.

Diwali is a fantastic cultural showcase that captures audiences with its relevant appeal to popular culture along with its methods of cultural sharing and performing. It is especially necessary for Vanderbilt minority students whose narratives are often overshadowed by the majority. This is a forum for celebration and learning for all populations at Vanderbilt. However, Diwali is not the only expression of ritual at Vanderbilt. To truly be a culturally aware Vanderbilt student, one must engage with other students, organizations, and events.

Works Cited

Sturken, M., and Cartwright, L. “Viewers Make Meaning”. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.


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6 Comments on “Diwali: One Step towards Cultural Awareness by Julie Jones”

I think the issues you brought up about cultural appropriation were interesting. However, I think Diwali seems to be more focused on the mixing of cultures, that you mentioned, than the act of displaying purely Southeast Asian culture. By taking an American movie like Inside Out, blending all of the different styles of music, and having all ethnicities of Vanderbilt students involved in the production, the Vanderbilt Diwali Showcase is meant to show the way there is an amalgamation of cultures on our campus. Yes, they are taking another culture to display this, but the way the culture has mixed with others, it has created something new. They could have included some information in the program to explain more about what the significance is of each style of dance, but I understand why they did not feel the need to. Someone could just as easily make the argument that they should explain the history of rap music and its significance for fear of culturally appropriating African American culture. As long as the audience understands that they are receiving this new combination of cultures rather than authentic Southeast Asian culture, which I feel Diwali really emphasizes throughout the show, Diwali is not an example of cultural appropriation.

Cassandra Oliver on December 6th, 2015 at 3:18 pm

Thank you for sharing your experience with Diwali, I have always wanted to see the show and was hoping this year would be my chance but I was unfortunately away on a field trip that weekend. Your vivid descriptions helped me get a sense of what the performance was like and made me even sadder to have missed it! The massive popularity of the Diwali performance indicates that many within the Vanderbilt community have an interest in exploring other cultures. You make a very good point, however, that simply attending Diwali doesn’t give someone anything close to a full understanding of South Asian culture. It serves as an exciting and whimsical glimpse into the styles of dance, music, and celebration of this culture and the journey of someone with this background finding their place at Vanderbilt. This journey, however, is something most people at this university can relate to no matter where they came from. Though someone from a minority background may face more obstacles in this regard then someone from the white majority, the emotions felt throughout this journey, such as fear, anxiety, and hope, are the same. This aspect of the story line of the performance, in addition to the blending of Western styles of music and dance, hopefully serves to make South Asian culture more relatable and accessible to many audience members. The function of showing the commonalities among cultures could be just as useful in encouraging audience members to further explore and experience other cultures as highlighting the uniqueness of the particular culture being showcased. Diwali seems to have beautifully merged these two functions which will hopefully inspire viewers of the performance to actively seek out more knowledge and understanding of South Asian culture.

Carson Hedberg on December 6th, 2015 at 8:17 pm

I enjoyed this post because it does an excellent job of analyzing how important the audience is when it comes to performance. In the case of Diwali, it isn’t really enough that the audience be engaged in the show, but also that something be learned from the experience. Theatre has the unique opportunity to draw the audience into the world of the performers, and in this case into some aspects of culture in Southeast Asia.
I also find it particularly interesting how the Diwali Showcase is able to attract such a diverse audience for a show that represents a relatively small portion of the campus. Typically those that dance in the Diwali showcase are not culturally connected to Southeast Asia, yet interest among students is always high. I think this ability to attract such a diversity in performers is a true strength of the showcase. In attracting such a diverse group of dancers, and performers alike the Diwali Showcase is better able to disseminate cultural understanding across campus. However, I completely agree with Julie’s point that it is not merely enough to see or perform in the showcase, but also to become more culturally aware and seek out information about cultures that differ from your own.

Jasmine Reid on December 6th, 2015 at 10:29 pm

Before the showcase, I had no ideas of what to expect from “Diwali” because it was my first time in attendance; however, whatever I expected on that night, “Diwali” definitely exceeded my expectation! “Diwali”, hosted by SACE (South Asian Cultural Exchange) and themed after the movie Inside Out, did astonishing job sharing and introducing different cultures.
I believe that understanding different cultures is one of the most important aspects for people who live in such a diverse society; therefore, I agree to your point that people should actively engage with other students, organizations, and events and extend their experience as a motivation to attend other cultural events to truly be a culturally aware Vanderbilt student. As a Vanderbilt student, I often thought that there were not many events in campus that share multicultural experiences which promotes an understanding of people from different countries and their cultures. Actively engaging and creating more events like “Diwali” will definitely help people to understand differences better and accept diversity.

Seunghoon Song on December 7th, 2015 at 2:16 am

I think you raise some excellent points about Diwali being appropriated by the audience if standing on its own. I have a harder time coming to terms with the assertion that an audience member would necessarily be guilty of cultural appropriation should they not attend any SACE meetings, etc. I do not believe that simply observing, and enjoying the performance for its artistic qualities would be appropriation. As you said, I think we would run into the issue of appropriation with an audience member who goes to one performance and claims to be an expert in Southeast Asian culture.

I think the performance lends itself to being applicable to most every audience member’s life. The theme of blending is highly prevalent, and thus, is something that nearly every student can relate to. There are very few Vanderbilt students who live completely homogeneous lives. Heck, the majority of students are “immigrants” to southern/Nashville culture in some form.

Zachary Hamer on December 7th, 2015 at 10:56 am

Hi Julie,

I really appreciated your point on having a more active audience and community in cultural affairs on our campus. This was my first Diwali experience and I thought the showcase an incredible fusing of cultural traditions with a modern twist. I knew that Diwali was a popular event however I was very surprised when the line to Langford was all the way to the intersection of the med center. The campus wide support and excitement for Diwali was something that I have only seen a few other times and while it is encouraging that Vanderbilt students want to take part in new cultural experiences, you are correct in asking how many of them seek the many other cultural opportunities on this campus?

Diwali did a great job of connecting to it’s audience while still keeping it’s tradition and historical background intact. It challenged it’s audience members as well as created a forum for discussion on how different cultures and backgrounds fit on Vanderbilt’s campus. While I agree that simply attending Diwali will not fix the many problems our campus faces on cultural awareness vs cultural appropriation however, the excitement for the showcase is a step in the right direction. Hopefully those that enjoyed Diwali will also attend ANYF or go to the next SACE meeting. I am certain that Diwali will continue to be a popular event on Vanderbilt’s campus and hopefully it will foster more involvement in other cultural activities throughout the year.

Allison Isabelli on December 7th, 2015 at 2:25 pm

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