November 16, 2015

SASA's Diwali shines a festive light before the dark, impending winter

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As the sun set at 5:00 p.m., students, families, and even visitors from distant suburbs flocked to the candle-lit Rockefeller Chapel, some removing their shoes to sit on the front stage while others lingered in the pews before the event. The strings of first-year student Nikhil Mandalaparthy’s violin rung out through the hushed chapel, setting a reverent tone for the ceremony.

This past Friday, the South Asia Students Association (SASA) hosted their annual celebration of the biggest Hindu holiday of the year, Diwali, the festival of lights. This four-hour event began with a spiritual ceremony in Rockefeller Chapel followed by RSO performances in Hutch, offering participants a chance to reflect upon the triumph of good over evil and the delectable spices of Udupi Palace’s chicken curry.

“Most South Asian holidays are for one community and not for another,” postdoc Prabhava Upadrashta said, “They’re for Jains but not Sikhs, they’re for Vaishnavites but not Shaktivites. But Diwali is a very special South Asian holiday because ultimately, at its core, it’s just a very basic, philosophical tenant—that there is something divine in all of us. And that is the light.”

Jayasai Rajagopal and Elora Basu, two fourth-year members of Hindu Student Sangam, opened the spiritual ceremony—a ritual prayer called the “puja”—with speeches explaining the origins and purpose of Diwali. This Hindu word translates as “row of lamps,” which people light on this day to express their joy at overcoming spiritual darkness. Two vocal solos followed these speeches, as well as performances by the University of Chicago’s South Asian Music Ensemble and Chicago Aag.

Then the core of the ceremony began: Upadrashta walked participants through the five phases of the puja, each one devoted to a different Hindu deity, and his Sanskrit chants were supplemented with a PowerPoint presentation detailing their meanings. Upadrashta briefly recounted the tales of Hindu goddesses and heroes like those of Lakshmi, Lord Krishna, and the Pandavs, making the ritual accessible to practitioners and non-Hindus alike. At the end of the ceremony, participants processed to the front of the chapel to receive the offering before proceeding to the celebration in Hutchinson Commons.

At the door, SASA members had to turn away dozens of attendees, quickly selling out of their remaining tickets. The lucky few, many dressed in vibrant saris, filed through McCormick Tribune Lounge to receive a plate of rice, curry, and paneer before taking a seat in Hutchinson Commons.

Chicago Aag kicked off the performance portion of the evening with two a cappella mash-ups of traditional Indian and modern pop songs. This co-ed group managed to harmonize classical raga beat patterns with riffs of Maroon 5 and the occasional beatboxing flare, earning the cheers of the crowd.

Apsara, the all-female classical Indian dance team, took the floor next, accelerating the pulse of the room with the invigorating techno fusion of Slumdog Millionaire’s “Liquid Dance.” Clad in patterned dresses, gold jewelry, and dramatic makeup, this tight team commanded the stage as the audience called the dancers out by name, clapping wildly.

Chicago Raas offered a slightly different take on traditional folk dance, expertly twirling their sword-like green sticks and long metallic skirts to a racing beat. Their bodily movements, however, were only half the show: unlike Aag and Apsara, their facial expressions were exuberantly animated, many wide-eyed dancers showcasing two full rows of teeth while singing the lyrics.

It was hard to believe that any performance could compete with the first three groups, but the audience knew that UChicago Bhangra (UCB) meant business when they spent the first five minutes of their show laying out a grid of cones. Dressed in colorful, embroidered vests, this team began their dance holding light wooden props known as “saaps” that expand and collapse to emit a loud clapping sound. They leapt from cone to cone, switching props when the music changed and dancing to themes like “Balle Balle Hogay Mitro” by DJ Sanj and “Galwakari” by Kaka Bhaniawala. The room was practically pulsing.

The rowdy audience didn’t stay seated for long. A dance party soon erupted on stage as a mosh of performers and attendees got down to beloved Indian pop songs like “My Desi Girl” from the Bollywood hit Dostana, shouting the lyrics as a conga line wove through the crowd. At last, the party moved to Hutchinson Courtyard for the highly anticipated sparkler ceremony.

With only a couple lighters, students had to gather in clusters to pass on the flares from one sparkler to the next. Hot from dancing, full on curry, and satisfied with that perfect sparkler Instagram, laughing students illuminated the cold, dark courtyard, celebrating the triumph of yet another renewing Diwali.

Stay tuned for the SASA spring showcase tryout information.

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