Diwali festival lights up NYC
Diwali showing signs of permeating into American culture
The week dawned gloomily in New York, but the drab mist was little match for the holiday at hand: Diwali, the festival of lights that symbolizes the triumph over darkness.
Celebrated across South Asia in some fashion by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists, the multi-day festival has secured a sturdy foothold far from the subcontinent in places with significant diaspora populations — like New York.
"One thing I would say — the whole country celebrates, right? So it’s lit up," fashion designer Prabal Gurung said of celebrations in Nepal, where Diwali is better known as Tihar. He sees signs of Diwali's increased popularity in New York. But, he said, the whole city "is not celebrating yet — so I'm just giving them a year or two."
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Gurung was one of the hosts of Diwali New York, a glitzy soiree held Saturday at The Pierre, fittingly a Taj Hotel. The party, now in its third year, highlights Diwali by bringing together high-powered South Asians with other New York luminaries — people who "the world saw as leaders and role models," said host Anita Chatterjee, CEO of A-Game Public Relations.
Five miles east of the five-star hotel, those already familiar with the holiday were embarking on preparations for their personal celebrations. Earlier Saturday, the first of the five-day celebration, the streets of Jackson Heights were replete with reminders of the festivities.
The many sweets shops of the Queens neighborhood, known for its South Asian community, were packed to the gills with little room for movement. In the stands outside Apna Bazaar, a grocery store, a sea of small clay pots and wicks for Diwali lamps lay alongside fresh bunches of cilantro and above bags of onions. Handwritten blue signs advertised Diwali specials for everything from 40-pound bags of rice to ghee, tea and pitted dates.
Every year, Sapna Pal comes to Butala Emporium to do her Diwali shopping. Carrying a basket brimming with tea lights and other decorations, the Delhi native said her Diwali celebrations in the United States are usually intimate family affairs because most people prefer to pray in their own homes.
When asked if she misses Diwali in India, Pal — who has lived in Queens for almost 25 years — responded: "Yes! Every day, every year, every year." But she nonetheless still enjoys Diwali here, looking forward to the sweets — gulab jamun, rasmalai and different types of barfi are among her favorites — and the puja ceremonies.
Outside a Patel Brothers grocery store branch, Bhanu Shetty has run a pop-up Diwali stall for two decades. Her son Pratik says the temporary Flowers by Bhanu stall typically draws around 3,000 customers over three days. She is more circumspect: "People come."
"We’ve always been known for flowers, but just for these three days we showcase all the temple offerings," Pratik Shetty said, motioning to 3D stickers, garlands, stencils for the colored powder designs known as rangoli, pictures and, naturally, flowers. Most of the flowers are locally sourced, but the Diwali specialty is the $5 lotus imported from India.
Ratan Sharma, a manager at India Sari Palace, says sweet shops and grocery stores are the biggest beneficiaries of the Diwali shopping. But his clothing store does well, too: "Once a year we give a benefit to the customers," she said, "and they take advantage of it." Sharma said the silk saris — typically on the more expensive end — are the most popular item during the annual Diwali sale.
Jackson Heights is a multiethnic, multi-religious neighborhood, and some stores still featured signs offering Eid sales. Suneera Madhani, the Pakistani American founder of Stax, attended the Diwali party at The Pierre as a gesture of South Asian solidarity. She says she would love to heighten Eid's profile in New York in a similar manner.
The Diwali gala was certainly high-profile: Host Radhika Jones, the top editor at Vanity Fair, mingled with Ronan Farrow and Kelly Ripa, all clad in South Asian fashions. Chatterjee said her firm helped connect some non-South Asian attendees to designers, including fellow hosts Falguni and Shane Peacock.
The party was at time raucous, with several bear hugs that lifted grown men clear off the ground. Gurung, clad in a glittering Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla ensemble, tore up the dance floor to the 2014 hit "Baby Doll." He was subsequently handed blotting paper by a pink salwar kameez-clad Ripa, whose husband, actor Mark Consuelos, pat the table to the beat. Padma Lakshmi and Sarita Choudhury embraced for the camera, with the former demonstrating some hip-shaking thumkas.
"Our generation has really embraced our culture and the expression of it," said another host, Anjula Acharia, Priyanka Chopra Jonas' manager.
Normally, she'd be spending the holiday with her illustrious client. But, marveling at the progress Diwali has made outside of South Asia and its diaspora, she said she's spending it this year with President Joe Biden.
"A few years ago, it really occurred to me: Diwali is not on the New York social scene in a way that I felt like it deserved to be, needed to be and I wanted it to be," said restaurateur Maneesh Goyal, another host and the mastermind of the event.
While he said that Diwali is "personally" a day of reflection, it's also about celebrations and "happiness, positivity, bringing people together."
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For Diwali to really permeate American culture, Gurung said, it will take "just us showing up consistently, constantly in the most graceful, beautiful, thoughtful way." The resonance of the holiday's themes alone — the victory of good over evil, light over dark — should do the rest of the work.
"It’s the right time," he said. "And also, it’s about time.