For thousands of years, Diwali remained a private, family event, with relatives getting together at the home of the eldest member of the family to celebrate three days of ‘togetherness,’ welcoming perhaps a new groom, bride or even a child in to the family.
The annual Festival was also an occasion for visiting relatives to call the members of the extended family, meet friends in the neighbourhood, and in the case of villages, the members of the ‘Panchayat’ (the Local Council).
It also became a custom in villages to organise ‘Melas,’ (Fairs) with street entertainment for people, amusement for children and stalls selling a few household items and snacks and sweets. This practice spread to major cities in the 1960s but each of these carefully preserved the community spirit. Diwali essentially remained a Hindu festival, with Temples, Parks and other places of public congregation presenting opportunities to spread the finest aspects of Hinduism, the need to promote the concept of ‘World Family’ and revisit the goodness inherent in men and women.
The reference to the demise of ‘Narakasura’ (a Demon) at the hands of Lord Krishna (an Avatar of Lord Vishnu) or that of the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya after vanquishing Ravana, the so-called evil King of Sri Lanka is often made to drive home the point that evil will always be destroyed and that darkness will certainly be overcome by light.
The presence of an increasing number of Hindus in the Arab Gulf since the 1970s and their growing prosperity as businesspersons and more importantly as high net worth individuals prompted commercial banks to organise dinner parties at major hotels. Arab ministers, and businessmen soon followed with ‘Open Homes’ in their houses on the day of Diwali or the following day. These events respected Hindu culture and custom and therefore essentially remained free of alcohol, non-vegetarian food and such other practices that would contradict the spirit and custom of Hindus.
Diwali in the Arab World
Diwali is not a holiday in the Arab Gulf but many private companies in many countries (Bahrain for example) would allow its Hindu employees to take the day off on full pay, with the condition that they forfeit the third day (holiday) of Eid Al Adha (marked from October 3 this year). Some Hindu businesses would be closed on that day (or open later in the day), distribute sweets and exchange greetings with their own people and with people of other faiths. Temples in most parts of the region (except Saudi Arabia where places of worship other than Mosques are banned) will observe Diwali with special Poojas and Programmes.
Diwali in New Zealand
Less than 15 years ago, New Zealand was a different place and celebration of Diwali was restricted to Indian associations, places of worship including Temples and Gurdwaras, at each of which Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, and others gathered to pray, exchange greetings and enjoy good vegetarian food. People of European, Maori, Pacific Islands and other extraction would respect the Hindu customs and beliefs and abide by its tenets and dictates. Everyone was happy and those who enjoy non-vegetarian food would wait for Eid-Al-Fitr or Eid-Al Adha to join their Islamic friends and those who prefer alcohol with their food would look forward to Christmas and New Year. Diwali was a Festival that evoked respect, dignity and honour of the Hindu population.
Many Hindu leaders including the Hindu Council of New Zealand President Vinod Kumar say that Diwali has undergone major changes in New Zealand over the past few years – changes that do not augur well either for the original concept of the Festival or Hinduism itself. It has become a haven for commercialism, with dances from Hindi films stealing the light and thunder of the day.
Mr Kumar said that organisers of major festivals have commercialised the event to such an extent that only those with large, commercial kitchens can establish their stalls.
“Stalls must be available only to charitable organisations since they would use proceeds if any, on community projects and for the welfare of ordinary New Zealanders. I have been told that the number of charitable trusts and organisations participating in these festivals has declined in recent years because they cannot compete with restaurants and others who have the financial means to set up commercial kitchens,” he said.
According to some elders, the world has become obsessed with ‘Bollywood,’ which they say is ‘a misnomer’ in the first place.
Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Khan, two top actors of the Hindi film industry, have since long called for the removal of the Bollywood tag.
“I just feel that the Indian film industry has its own identity and to be referred to in matching terms with Hollywood is perhaps not correct,” he said, speaking at The Great Gatsby Press Conference at the Cannes Festival last year.
If you are a resident of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, you would be among the hundreds of thousands of people visiting Diwali festivals organised by an increasing number of organisations, outside places of worship and Indian associations. Among them are private trusts, public bodies such as the City Councils and Government-funded organisations.
A great Cash Cow
“Diwali has become a cash cow and seeing the potential, more and more groups are being formed every year, Manukau Indian Association President Veer Khar said, writing in our October 1, 2014 issue.
“They hold separate events with the help of funding agencies and ‘sponsors.’ We now have about 20 Diwali festivals every year in Auckland alone,” he added.
Mr Khar described the justifications given for these events as ‘cunning,’ and that we hide the real issues behind them.
“Kiwi Indians deserve empowering events wherein they should be able to touch base with the rich cultural heritage, quality music, dance and drama and enjoy the taste of India. These events should also provide a platform for empowerment and a community exercise wherein the doers should be rewarded,” Mr Khar said.