Local dance academy students took the community on a journey through different parts of Indian and Hindu culture at the FoCAL Center on Saturday, Oct. 29, for Forsyth County Schools and OneForsyth’s inaugural End of Diwali Celebration.
Nazeera Dawood and Rupal Vaishnav with OneForsyth both served as emcees for the night, welcoming the crowd to what will now be an annual celebration of Diwali in Forsyth.
“[We’re] here to celebrate and to support what is a growing Hindu American and Indian population here in Forsyth County,” Vaishnav said. “So I’m proud to be here today. I’m proud to be part of a community overall that embraces the change, embraces the different cultures, embraces the diversity but at the same time keeping to its core values of why we live in Forsyth.”
Several elected officials in the audience came up to the main stage before the performances to share their own support of this tradition in the county and in other parts of Georgia.
Forsyth County Commissioner Cindy Mills said she was excited to see the community come together to celebrate its diversity through a common language — dance.
“Us being able to share with each other is very important, so I’m very grateful to be part of OneForsyth and be with this group,” Mills said.
Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux and a representative from Gov. Brian Kemp’s office also said they were grateful to see a celebration of Indian and Hindu culture in Georgia and hope to continue those traditions for years to come.
“I appreciate all of you,” Bordeaux said. “I appreciate the wonderful diversity of our community and the economic and cultural vibrancy that our Hindu community brings.”
Dawood and Vaishnav then invited Commissioners Mills and Alfred John up to the stage to light a few candles — a significant tradition during Diwali, the festival of lights.
Before the music and dance got started for the night, Siva Velu, a resident spiritual teacher at Chinmaya Mission in Alpharetta, spoke to the crowd about that tradition and the significance of Diwali to India.
Diwali is celebrated over five days, landing on Oct. 22-26 this year. During this time, Velu said many seek the blessings of Goddess Lakshmi, who is “full of everything” and represents wealth and vitality.
Velu explained it is also a time to remember stories of King Rama, seen as the perfect role model and leader for young kids today. Stories of Rama depict him defeating an evil demon and rescuing his wife and brother. And when they made it back to their kingdom alive, Velu said Rama’s people greeted them with a row of lights.
That row of lights signifies for many what Diwali means, in basic terms, today.
“The significance is about victory of good over evil,” Velu said.
The lights also depict hope, success, knowledge and fortune while spreading a message of friendship and togetherness. That is why the tradition of lighting a lamp during Diwali has remained for what Velu said is thousands of years.
Velu said tradition continues to spread to other countries, with about 15% of the world population celebrating Diwali each year and 12 countries having declared it a national holiday.
“The message is spreading and the significance is spreading so much,” Velu said.
And for the first time, the tradition has started in Forsyth County Schools with the showcasing of local talent and Indian dance forms.
To start the performances, the Heritage School of Performing Arts in Cumming performed pieces of music mainly from northern Indian culture featuring energizing musical chants from ancient scriptures, khattak dances, classical dances, influences from Mumbai and Bollywood beats.
Students from Atlanta Nritya Academy and Darshini Natyalaya both also performed classical dances from the eastern side of India and the southern part of the country, respectively.
Then Muzhangu Parai Dance Team gave a grand finale performance, dancing while creating their own beats with Parai drums strapped around their chests.
The Parai drum originates in southern India and was used primarily by those who speak Tamil, one of the longest surviving classical languages in the world. One performer with the group said the word Parai means “to speak” or “to tell.”
“Back in the early Tamil culture and civilizations, it was used for things like declaring war, gathering meetings, passing information and celebrating victories,” he said. “Today, it’s played at festivals, holiday events, any Indian cultural [celebration].
“Unfortunately, due to the social stigma present in India, it is looked down upon as an inferior art. So this performance will be one of the countless attempts to keep this art in existence.”
After their performance, the group got a standing ovation before inviting the crowd up to the stage to learn a few of the dance moves for themselves.
Dania Peguero, Community Engagement Specialist with the school system, presented certificates to each of the dance academy directors and thanked everyone for coming out to the event. Vaishnav also thanked the crowd for their support and encouraged them to invite others next year.“I want to fill this entire auditorium up, so spread the word,” he said.