New York City’s iconic Times Square transformed into a vision of South Asian culture on Saturday, as thousands of revelers gathered for an early celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights on Saturday, October 8th, 2017.
Diwali, also known as Deepavali, is the biggest and most important holiday in India. It lasts for five days, and coincides with the Hindu new year. Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs celebrate the religious occasion every autumn in countries throughout South Asia and beyond. In the United States, major Diwali festivals have lit up communities from California to Texas to North Carolina in recent years.
The massive Times Square event ― the largest Diwali celebration outside of India ― has been growing in size since its debut in 2013, attracting large crowds including many people from the city’s numerous immigrant communities. It’s the largest South Asian ethnic event in New York City, where at least 3 million residents ― more than one-third of the population ― are foreign-born, per the Department of City Planning.
The greater New York area is home to some 717,000 Indian citizens, according to the latest U.S. Census estimates. Nationwide, people of Indian origin represent about 1 percent of the population. In fact, India is currently the largest source of new immigrants to America, surpassing Mexico and China.
Diwali at Times Square is the creation of Neeta Bhasin, president and CEO of marketing firm ASB Communications. Bhasin, who moved to the U.S. from India four decades ago, says she is dedicated to teaching people about Indian culture and traditions.
“Being an immigrant woman, I felt compelled to showcase the beauty and the richness of our culture, and what better way than bringing our incredible festival of Diwali, that celebrates the victory of light over darkness [and] knowledge over ignorance, to the center of New York, Times Square?” she asked.
She believes the annual event is “more important now than ever.” In the wake of the 2016 election, Americans have witnessed a rise in polarizing, anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric from White House officials, including President Donald Trump. One of Trump’s earliest and most controversial executive orders, widely referred to as the “travel ban,” restricts immigration and general entry to the U.S. from specific countries for purported national security purposes. Human rights groups have claimed the ban is unconstitutional and promotes xenophobia.
In order to “stand against hate and prejudice,” Bhasin says, it is “extremely important for us to learn from each other. Indian culture is part of American culture, as is Mexican, and Chinese and the many cultures that together make up the beautiful tapestry that is the American culture,” she said. “We want to spread a message of acceptance and integration, love and harmony in a society that feels extremely divided at this moment.”
Saturday’s event featured a variety of Indian dishes, a digital fireworks display and a lighting ceremony of traditional lamps known as Diyas ― an important Diwali ritual.
It also boasted a lineup of celebrity performers, including Bollywood choreographer Terence Lewis; actors Sanjeeda Sheikh and Aamir Ali; as well as singers Hamsika Iyer, Mickey Singh and Raman Mahadevan.
In a statement issued prior to his performance, Lewis said he hoped the festival would “spread a little bit of love and happiness” during a time when “there is so much hatred, there’s so much violence [and] there’s so much intolerance.”
For Iyer, who traveled from her home in Mumbai to perform at Times Square, this weekend marks her first-ever trip to the U.S. She said she is very grateful for the opportunity “to share the Indian-ness ― music and culture and everything that is very India ― with the audience here.”
Sankara Eye Foundation and Event Guru Inc. brought another fun-filled day to the city that highlighted Indian cultural dances and musical performances, along with shopping opportunities, Indian cuisine, interactive diya lighting ceremonies and digital fireworks display.
The Diwali festivities started with the diya lighting ceremony on stage and was followed by the auspicious Ganesh Vandana by Indian American child prodigy Sparsh Shah. Kimaya Chalpe, an Indian American student at New York University and a San Francisco Bay Area native, performed both the American and the Indian National Anthems at the event.
The “Light Up Times Square Concert” showcased dazzling performances by television stars Sanjeeda Sheikh and Aamir Ali. The attendees also enjoyed performances by Hamsika Iyer of “Chammak Chhalo” fame, and “Hey Baby” singer Raman Mahadevan, who had the audiences dancing to their tunes.
The event was attended by dignitaries such as Sandeep Chakravorty, Consul General of India; Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, Manhattan Borough president Gale A. Brewer, district leader Neeta Jain, and representatives from the offices of Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Comptroller.