Following a dark, isolating year of lockdowns and remote classes, USF needed light. The Indian Student Organization (ISO) delivered radiance to campus on Nov. 10 with their annual celebration of Diwali, the Festival of Lights.
Diwali is a celebration in India that dates back thousands of years. It represents the triumph of good over evil in Hindu culture and lasts for multiple days, featuring lights, fireworks, shared feasts, music, and more. Though the ISO’s community commemoration only spanned a single day, it elicited a similar amount of joy and brilliance as its counterpart in India.
“It is special for us to bring this festival and a part of our culture to USF and celebrate with each other, especially during this time when we are remembering home, because many of us are away from our families and are unable to celebrate like we normally would,” said ISO President Namratha Kethineni, a junior biology major. Kethineni was pleased with the turnout for the event, saying that it was larger than it has been in the past, even with COVID-19 regulations in place.
The event space was lit up with fake candles adorning the tables placed around the room in the McLaren Conference Center, which was filled with students dressed in formal, colorful floor-length dresses and suits fitting for the occasion. Attendees were invited to dance, play board games, and receive henna hand tattoos in intricate patterns, which is a common ceremonial art form in India. A celebratory and vibrant spirit was felt around the room as the party went on.
“Of course, we would like here to have 1,000 burning candles all around the room, but we have our safe version because USF policy would not allow that,” said Marcella DeProto, the senior director of International Student Scholars Services (ISSS) which sponsored the event, with a laugh.
Festivities began with opening words and a presentation from the ISO’s executive board, and was followed by speeches from USF’s president, Rev. Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J., as well as Ambassador Dr. Nagendra Prasad, the Consul General of India at San Francisco, Vice President and Information Technology and Chief Information Officer Opinder Bawa, and tech entrepreneur Dr. Vishal Sikka. Every special guest encouraged the crowd to recognize the light inside themselves and the brightness of their futures.
“It’s interesting that you chose to have a festival of light at a time right after daylight savings time,” Fr. Fitzgerald said. “It’s during a time when days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer that I understand this to be a great festival of hope, that even when things are difficult for us, we can be confident that as a community, as families, as good people, we can create light and make room for light.”
Bawa spoke highly of the event as well and praised the ISO for their efforts. “I realized that when I came to USF eight years ago that we were hosting these events, but they weren’t as powerful and impactful as they could have been,” Bawa said. “And I really thought the ISO’s predecessors and the current board have shown what they really should be about, which is appreciation, celebration, and getting together, and they’ve done it so well.”
Many of the speakers also acknowledged the complications the pandemic has presented to students. “When we go through extraordinary challenges that the pandemic has thrown our way, when we go through that kind of experience, that kind of time, the festival of light, Diwali, becomes that much more significant,” Sikka said. “The light is really the light that is inside us that makes all the difference.”
Prasad reached out to the ISO to attend the event so he could connect with students from USF, as the Indian Consulate is less than a mile away from the school. He spoke of a new education policy in India that includes greater collaboration between educational institutions in the United States and India, as well as updates on vaccine distribution in India (they recently achieved 1 billion vaccinations thanks to health care workers) and marked this time as a celebration of the 75th anniversary of India’s independence. “The light is the symbol that drives away ignorance and brings in wisdom,” Prasad said.
“We felt honored by our guests’ presence,” Kethineni said. “They were able to connect with our students and give us some insight into what it means to be a part of the Indian community at USF.”
After the guests concluded their talks, dancer and choreographer Mana Unadkat took the stage to give a lively dance performance, bringing positive energy to the crowd. Attendees then made their way outside to take part in the incredible feast of Indian cuisine catered by Bon Appetit, including tikka masala, naan bread, samosas, and various desserts. The aroma of the food filled the air, and students could be seen chatting and laughing while enjoying the dinner together. Near the buffet was a table lined with real candles against the nighttime backdrop of the glowing city, where students could light a candle of their own in celebration.
“We’re so happy that we were able to bring a small piece of our culture to campus, and we hope we can continue to have more cultural events in the future,” Kethineni said.