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After a year in the dark, Hindu YUVA brings the light back for Diwali Night

The Bhangra Elite perform at the UNC Diwali Night on Oct. 29. The Bhangra Elite strive to promote and educate the UNC dance community on Punjabi culture through high-energy and traditional dance.

Last year, the pandemic reduced Diwali to muted at-home prayers and flickering doorstep diyas.

Colloquially known as the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali marks the celebration of hero Rama’s rescue of Princess Sita, and has historically been a cacophony of music, food and community building.

After the event was canceled due to COVID-19 last year, Hindu YUVA — a socio-cultural organization that hosts Diwali every year at UNC — knew it was important to host the event and give students a chance to reconnect.

“In terms of this year, I think Diwali is even more important because a core tenant of Diwali is family and being connected," Nitisha Jagarlamudi, YUVA’s Diwali Night coordinator, said. "And I think the past year we’ve all been isolated and I know it’s been really tough times on campus."

With a budget nearly quadruple the amount used for previous Diwali Nights — about $18,000 —  YUVA transformed the hallways of the Student Union into fantastical displays of glittering embroidered umbrellas, vivid arrays of flower garlands and golden silk sheets.

But YUVA President Navya Dixit said there was another reason the expenses were higher. University of Pennsylvania-based Penn Masala, the world's first South Asian a cappella group, performed at this year's Diwali Night.

With Penn Masala performing, Dixit said, YUVA expected to have double the number of guests this year than in previous years.

"They've performed at the White House. They've done concerts across the country," Dixit said. "And we thought this was a great way to bring together the South Asian community on campus, get a bigger group together because they are very popular and famous."

For the hundreds of attendees who wore traditional saris and kurtas at Diwali Night, it was almost as if celebrities had graced the air of the Great Hall.

"It was literally one of the best nights," first-year Diya Amin said. "I have been following Penn Masala for a couple years so I was really excited to see them."

The night began on a high note as the crowd chanted along to the lyrics of classic and contemporary Bollywood songs alike. Penn Masala's segments throughout Diwali Night were split by other performances including Bhangra Elite, Ek Taal, Tar Heel Raas and Chalkaa, four South Asian dance groups at UNC.

“It allowed me to embrace my culture and show the excitement and energy Indian culture has and create a deeper connection with my culture,” said first-year Viti Pathak, a Bhangra Elite dancer.

The night came to a close with a smattering of boos from the audience — a response to a vetoing of a Penn Masala encore because the Union had to be shut down for the night. Traditional Indian sweets and savory snacks, like gulab jamun and aloo samosas, were served afterward, followed by a dance party with Bollywood hit songs.

“Sometimes when you’re growing up, you feel like you’re on your own in terms of your two identities conflicting," Pathak said. "Diwali Night showed me that there was an open space to explore both cultures and engage with others who have faced the same dilemmas as you."

Though UNC is often regarded as a notable Southern, predominantly white institution, Jagarlamudi said Diwali Night offers the opportunity to experience South Asian culture in its fullest capacity.

“I think growing up in a small town, I was always the only Indian,” Jagarlamudi said. “It’s just a really great way to celebrate your culture and, you know, celebrate with people who come from similar backgrounds as you, and really just experience a culture we don’t really get to see in the mainstream here in the U.S.” 

Just as Penn Masala aimed to bridge their Indian roots and American nationality together with mashups of old hits like “Viva La Vida” and Bollywood anthems like “Jashn-E-Bahaara,” Indian-American students could do the same - even if just for one night - in the reverberating, glowing halls of the Union, where Diwali made its long-awaited return. |

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