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Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard Joins Diwali Celebration at Centennial Park

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By Smita Daftardar

Diwali is one of the most important festivals celebrated with gusto by the Indian community worldwide. The thriving Indian community of Atlanta is no exception to this festival fever, and the World Hindu Council of America (VHPA) Atlanta continues to provide a public platform for the enthusiasts who love to celebrate the Festival of Lights with their extended family of compatriots. VHPA, Atlanta chapter hosted its annual Diwali Celebration the “Festival of Lights” a free public event celebrating the rich cultural diversity of India, on Oct 27th, 2013, at the iconic Centennial Olympic Park in Downtown Atlanta. The event saw an attendance of about 1500-1700, attracting patrons as well as curious tourists and passers-by.

The daylong event started with the traditional prayers recited by students from VHPA Balvihar Hindi School and a beautifully choreographed Ganesh Vandana by the talented Bharatnatyam student Yumin Shivdasani. VHPA Atlanta Chapter President Mrs. Kusum Khurana welcomed the attendees and lighted the ceremonial lamp. This was followed by almost 5 hours of nonstop entertainment – melodious songs and spectacular dances.

Like every year, the cultural program was designed to showcase the rich performing arts of India: traditional, contemporary, fusion, classical, folk, Hindi films – you name it! The variety presented by the artists transported the audience from the streets of Mumbai to the lush fields of Punjab, from foot tapping Tamil songs to soulful strains of Rabindra Sangeet. A group of young kids from Cobb Balvihar performed a dance on  “Rang De Basanti”, which was followed by a traditional fast Bhangra by another group of young children, trained by Shri Vishal Sharma, former captain of the UGA Bhangra team. The volunteer teachers of Balvihar (Cobb) presented an impromptu dance, greatly appreciated by the organizers as they waited for the scheduled artists to appear! Kalaivani Dance and Music Academy students performed a traditional Bharatnatyam piece and a fusion dance to the music of “Talking Drums”, which got an encore due to popular demand. The talented ladies from Ananda dance group performed a fast paced fusion dance, and a lively Bhangra, the irresistible beats prompting many in the crowd to join in the dance on the green lawns of the park!  Mahek Shah of Mahek Dance academy and Aadithya Prem, talented Bharatnatyam dancers well known to the community, presented beautifully choreographed dances. One of the dances, a duet, summarized Ramayan’s story, the music for which was done in a rare raga called Suposhini.  The other dance, a solo by Aadithya, was a fusion of Thaye Yashoda and summarized the story of Krishna killing Kaliya.  A Bharatnatyam solo by Mahek’s 6 year old daughter got a huge round of applause!!  Sagnika Mukherjee presented a three dance medley set to Rabindra Sangeet, her elegant footwork, fluid movements and facial expressions beautifully in sync with the melodies, making the dance seem almost effortless!!  In between the colorful dances, the audience got to enjoy melodious songs from some great local artists.

The amazing father-daughter duo, Shyam Gupta and high school sophomore Vidushi Gupta, presented a highly entertaining medley of songs, depicting a range of moods.  Sarayu Narayan, another high school junior, with her honey sweet voice did justice to popular songs like “mere dholana sun…” Indian Idol contestant Swati Mishra, a talented vocalist and instrumentalist, brought the house down, rather, up on the stage, with her lively rendering of latest Hindi film numbers, with members of audience joining her on stage to rock to the beats!!  Volunteers from Balvihar Shri Raman Shivram and Shri Nishith Oza took everyone down the memory lane with beautiful tributes to the legendary Manna Dey, who passed away recently. The audience were treated to some great duets and solos in Hindi, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu by DJ for the event, Srinivas Durgam and his singing partner Bhanusree, who sang the song “Gumsum” from movie Paa in five different languages! The program was efficiently emceed by the talented and witty Sabitha Ragunathan, a member/volunteer of VHPA, Atlanta Chapter and copy editor of Hindu Vishwa magazine.

The Festival of Lights program was graced by two illustrious guests, Shri Rudi Webster, a famous cricket player, author of numerous books and current Ambassador to US from Barbados and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, representative from Hawaii and the first Hindu member.  Mr. Webster’s address especially reminisces of Sachin Tendulakar and received an enthusiastic applause from the cricket crazy Indian audience. Tulsi Gabbard’s presence had an electrifying effect on the crowd, with her greetings of “Jai Shri Krishna” from the podium, and talk of Geeta and Karma Yog in her address!! Notably, Ms. Gabbard, a practicing Hindu and a vegetarian, is the youngest legislator ever elected in the history of Hawaii and the youngest woman elected to state office in the nation.

Every year, volunteers of VHPA, Atlanta Chapter come together to plan the Festival of Lights and, with the help and support of the community, are able to bring a quality program for everyone to enjoy.  The success of any event depends on a variety of things. In Rancharitmanas, Goswami Tulsidasji describes “Ram Janma” in these words:
जोग लगन ग्रह बार तिथि सकल भये अनुकूल
चर अरु  अचर हर्षजुत राम जनम सुखमूल

Meaning that all factors: the time, day, date, positions of planets & stars, all became favorable, so that the auspicious event bringing universal happiness, “Ram Janma” could take place.  While the significance of Ram Janma is hardly comparable to the Festival of Lights conducted by mere mortals, and not even remotely being attempted, the analogy does hold!  All factors crucial to the success of the program turned favorable: generous donations from sponsors, logistical support from volunteers, presence of talented artists, an appreciative audience and last but not least, the blessing of a beautiful sunny autumn day from heavens above!! A program of this magnitude won’t be possible without sponsors and donors and VHPA, Atlanta Chapter would like to extend sincere thanks to all major sponsors and donors for the Festival of Lights: Shri Shakti Mandir with their generous donation of food for about 2000 people, and many other businesses and individuals who contributed not only cash but provided prizes for raffle drawing, and other necessary items. Also, a group of young and energetic students from Georgia Tech belonging to Sigma Phi Epsilon provided a much needed critical help in setup and in ferrying heavy food items by taking time off their busy weekends.

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