‘Home away from home’: South Asian students celebrate Diwali on campus


Chloe Els

Members of the Emerson community enjoy dinner and music together to honor Diwali.

By Chloe Els, Staff Writer

Colorful lights and pulsing music emanated from the Little Building’s Student Performance Center Blackbox last Thursday evening as nearly 20 members of the Emerson community came together to celebrate Diwali.

Traditional Diwali celebrations differ culturally, but universally it is a time of joy spent with loved ones. Diwali lasts for five days, with the fifth day culminating in a large gathering of family and friends. Diwali—also known as a festival of light—is a cross-cultural holiday celebrated by a wide variety of South Asian religions including Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism.  

Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism have strong presences in India and surrounding South Asian countries. Hinduism is the predominating religion with approximately 80% of Indians identifying as Hindu. India’s Sikh population is primarily concentrated in northern India and comprises 1.7% of the Indian population. Jains also make up around 1.7% of India’s population, and live mainly in west India.

Hindus view Diwali as a time to usher prosperity into their lives. To do this, they light small oil lamps called diyas which symbolically welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. 

Diwali is a celebration of freedom for Sikhs honoring Guru Hargobind who fought in 1619, not only for his own freedom after 12 years of wrongful imprisonment, but for the freedom of 52 other princes. In honor of Hargobind’s hard-won liberation, Sikhs light lamps and candles to commemorate the victory of good over evil.

For Jains, Diwali memorializes Tirthankar Mahavira’s attainment of nirvana—spiritual enlightenment. This ascension aided Mahavira in promoting compassion and equity among Jains. Some Jains fast to honor Mahavira and some pray. Many Jains light diyas to symbolize knowledge against ignorance.

At Emerson, Diwali takes on another variation as South Asian students of various cultural backgrounds organize their own celebration. While the school has not made a distinction between types of Asian students, the Asian population at Emerson has increased from 3% to 5% of the undergraduate student body over the past five years. The number of students specifically from India has increased from 11 to 24 over the same time period.

Earlier in the week, students painted diyas together in anticipation of the Diwali celebration. They covered the small clay pots in shades of turquoise and yellow, personalizing a traditional symbol.

In the SPC Blackbox, Emerson students flicked on LED candles—an adjustment necessary to comply with Emerson’s fire safety protocols—and placed them inside the hand-painted diyas. They arranged the glowing diyas on tables and in a wide arc across the floor, marking off a stage for later Bollywood dance performances.

Attendees taped colorful streamers and banners to the walls, casting the room in shades of orange, teal, and purple. Just outside of the Blackbox sat a table laden with Indian foods like aloo gobi masala, pakora, paneer tikka masala, and butter chicken.

Sam Rajesh, a junior visual media arts major and spiritual life senator for the student government association, passed out kaju katli—an Indian sweet made out of cashews.

“We had a bigger turnout this year than last year,” Rajesh said, noting that this is only the second time Emerson has hosted Diwali celebrations. 

Rajesh is an international South Asian student who grew up in Dubai and said she hopes Emerson will continue to host events for South Asian students.

“We’re hoping to open up the Hindu community,” she said. “We want it to be a point of contact for students here at Emerson.”

To share her culture, Rajesh brought her friend Anna Brenner to the festivities. Brenner is a junior journalism major and an international student from China.

Brenner explained that as an international student, attending Emerson has opened her eyes to how difficult remaining connected to your culture can be. Especially because school breaks do not commonly align with non-Christian holidays.

“Here, you have to plan everything, and that takes a lot,” Brenner said. “You have to work to make things happen.”

Prior to the event, SGA President Pranit Chand said he has been working to establish a South Asian student organization. However, the process has been time consuming, so in the meantime, he has focused on organizing events like the Diwali celebrations.

While there is not an official South Asian student organization yet, he hopes the celebrations can bring students together and share South Asian culture with the student body.

“It’s a lengthy process,” Chand said. “I hope that can be my contribution to campus.”

As she had dinner with her friends, Urja Patel, a sophomore visual media arts major, expressed her happiness at attending, noting how comforting a culturally familiar event can be.

“I wasn’t [at the Diwali celebration] last year, but I’m glad I’m here now,” Patel said. “This feels like a home away from home now.”

Many of the attendants noted the jump in attendance from this year’s Diwali event compared to last year. The event drew in South Asian students at Emerson, including members of on-campus cultural organization Asian Students In Alliance, who attended to show their support.

ASIA serves as an all-encompassing organization for Asian Emerson students and welcomes South Asian students. However, it is not solely for the South Asian community as it welcomes students of any Asian identity at Emerson.

In the midst of the festivities, with all of the attendees gathered together, Chand thanked everyone for coming and expressed happiness at the increased turnout. He hopes the community can continue to grow even after he graduates in the spring.

“Every year we grow in size, we grow in strength,” he said.