President Obama took a break from work this morning to participate in cultural events here in Mumbai, India. Mr. and Mrs. Obama attended a Diwali candle lighting and literally colorful performance at a local high school and the festivities brought both the Obamas to their feet.
After lighting candles at the Diwali alter, which won the couple a round of applause, the president and first lady were treated to synchronized dances by young girls dressed in bright oranges, greens, blues, and pinks. The dancers called for the first lady to join them and she jumped at the chance. After some encouragement, and a bit of resistance, the president finally gave in and joined the boy dancers, to the joy of everyone in the room, and was qucikly surrounded by the children.
Diwali is a five day religious holiday for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike. Popularly known as the festival of lights - as illustrated by all the fire works witnessed by this producer from the hotel windows last night - Diwali marks the return of Lord Rama from his fourteen-year-long exile and his vanquishing the demon-king Ravana and celebrates the triump of light over darkness.
In remarks Saturday evening, Mr. Obama called it an honor to be the first president to celebrate the festival of lights at the White House last year.
"I know that today, families are lighting their Diyas and giving thanks for their blessings and looking ahead to the new year" the president said. "So to all of you who are observing this sacred holiday here and around the world, Happy Diwali and a Saal Mubarak."
Whenever the president travels, the White House makes a point to incorporate cultural events into Mr. Obama's schedule. His three day visit to India is no different and aids say, these kinds of stops, in addition to the more official "work" events, are meant to enhance U.S. relations.
"A presidential trip to India, these have -- really is a powerful message to the people of India and to the people of the United States about the importance and depth of the relationship, and that's a very important thing to do, obviously, particularly in democracies, to really have a powerful demonstration," said National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to reporters aboard Air Force One en route to India. "And there's no more powerful way to do that than a presidential trip to a country like India."
The first couple have already visited the 26/11 Memorial, commemorating the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai and the Mahatma Ghandi museum - Mani Bhavan. Before celebrating Diwali at Holy Name High School, the Obamas visited a classroom in the school where students presented environmental themed dioramas which include an eco-friendly village, and a project promoting solar energy, and energy conservation.
"Young people are much more aware and focused on environmental issues than our generation, " the president said to the traveling press. "I noticed this with Malia and Sasha. I noticed with this presentation as well."
After a town hall with students this afternoon in Mumbai, the president and first lady then head to New Delhi to visit Humayun's Tomb - a 16th century Mughal emperor, after which they will have a private dinner with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.