The Diwali Foundation’s Power of One Awards in New YorkIt seems a bit surreal to be talking about Diwali in January but just as 2017 was ending, the Diwali Foundation Power of One Awards were announced at the United Nations, a perfect grace note to a year that’s seen a lot of turmoil. Co-sponsoring nations with India were: Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, France, Georgia, Germany, Honduras, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Moldova, Morocco, Nepal, Panama, Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Vietnam and Palestine
These awards were initiated by community activist Ranju Batra, who had spearheaded the movement for the Diwali Forever Stamp in 2016. For Indians across the world, that had been a moment of pride as the Festival of Lights was finally recognized by the US postal service as a vital part of the American fabric. For children who grew up in the 70’s in the US that national honor for Diwali was particularly sweet as during their growing up years many of their friends in school had no idea of what Diwali was or even how to pronounce the word!
Over the years, Indian immigrants have celebrated Diwali in their own fashion, in their own communities but it is only recently that American institutions and organizations have also started joining in celebrating this Hindu and Indian festival.
Diwali at Gracie MansionSince the last two years New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has been inviting the Indian community to Gracie Mansion for a celebration of Diwali. Hosting the celebration with de Blasio is First Lady Chirlaine McCray who always wears an Indian Punjabi outfit for the occasion. In 2017, the evening began with an invocation Sanskrit prayer officiated by Dr. Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society, and a ceremonial lighting of the lamps with the Mayor and First Lady who recognized stand up comic Hari Kondabolu by proclaiming it ‘Hari Kondabolu Day’. Kondabolu gave his own funny take on Indian-Americans and life in New York. There was a sense of pride as so many Indian-Americans wandered the manicured lawns of Gracie Mansion, tasted Indian appetizers and sweets and watched the lights of New York harbor. Later they had a chance to take official photographs with Mayor and First Lady, the end to a perfect day when walking in their Indian attire was absolutely the right thing to do on the Upper East Side. It was nice to see so many New Yorkers clad in kurtas and sarees, all able to celebrate Diwali with their Mayor.
Diwali at City HallCity Hall also hosted a Diwali celebration in its august chambers with New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Rory I. Lancman and several council members during the Diwali season and honored Indian-Americans who have contributed to the larger community. They all gathered around a traditional brass diya stand to light the lamps for Diwali, and Dr. Krishna Pratap said a world peace prayer.
The honorees included Indian-Americans who have helped not only the Indian community but the larger mainstream community, each in their own way. Entrepreneur Harshit Chugh, Shaanti Bhavan Mandir, community activist and television broadcaster Renee Mehrra and community leader Jarnal Singh.
It seemed a bit surreal to me to sit in these handsome centuries-old chambers with this newest batch of immigrants and see them perform not only bhangra and garba but also Bollywood dancing as the somber founding fathers looked on from paintings and sculptures. America on the move! And yet it seemed the most natural thing in the world to be eating samosas and chaat in this most American of institutions and carrying home a box of mithai from the hosts! Indian immigrants and Diwali had arrived…
Diwali at the Met
Several New York arts organizations also showcased Diwali including The Metropolitan Museum of Art which hosted a lively celebration of Diwali for the nonprofit organization Asian Women in Business (AWIB) with henna and Indian sweets. Two noted dancers highlighted Indian dance – Pallavi Shaikh showcased Kathak, presenting the Ram stuti as written by the renowned Indian poet, Tulsidas. Jayashree (Jay) Jaidev, a classically trained Bharata Natyam dancer performed the the Mallari (a song that is usually presented as the God being taken in procession ), celebrating Rama’s victory over Ravana & his return to Ayodhya as the rightful King.
There was also the presentation of an innovative video about Diwali, directed by Shailja Gupta and produced by Pocket Box Office. It was performed and shot live in a street style documentary format by Gupta and Nirupa Umapathy giving their own take on the festival of Diwali. The appreciative audience included women from South East and South Asian countries.
There was also a fascinating tour of the South Asian Galleries with curator Dr. Kurt Behrendt, Associate Curator of the Department of Asian Art, who wove the festival of Diwali into this tour. It seemed quite meaningful to be having a ‘darshan’ of all the Hindu Gods on Diwali and getting illuminated on the background of these iconic art works.
A very Special Diwali Video from young Indian-Americans
Diwali at the United Nations – The Power of One Awards
Last year the world organization – the United Nations – had the Diwali lights shimmering across the façade of its famous building. Diwali had certainly arrived – and what a lovely message it sent to young Indian and Hindu children growing up in America.In December Ranju Batra, USA Chair of the Diwali Foundation initiated the Power of One Awards with the assistance of high-powered friends at the United Nations. As her husband Ravi Batra, who is the National Advisory Council South Asian Affairs Chair pointed out, these Power of One Awards are essentially the Oscars of Diplomacy for helping ‘Good beat evil and suffering.’
The five high-powered international diplomats who were honored reiterated the importance of Diwali on the world stage. As India’s Ambassador Syed. Akbaruddin said: “The message of the festival of Diwali- ‘triumph of good over evil, light over darkness’ is a reaffirmation of the foundational objectives of the UN Charter and its purposes and principles, which stand as a force for universal good. The United Nations and each of its members bear a strong responsibility towards humankind to ensure for it and future generations an equal, just, peaceful, safe and secure world.”Ambassador Matthew Rycroft, CBE, Permanent Representative of United Kingdom to the United Nations noted, “Let me talk about the power of one, the power of light. What comes to mind for me is the United Nations itself. The United Nations is the one. The United Nations is the light. The United Nations Charter is what illuminates the way. At its best, it is the United Nations around the world that brings hope, instead of fear. So, this, I think is an award dedicated to the United Nations itself!
The one single, best, most powerful, best illuminating thing that’s happened in my time here is the agreement on the global development goals. The next 15 years will show how the whole world tackles these issues of development – to make sure that we really end poverty. That we really protect the planet. That we really bring prosperity to all people.”
Ambassador Nawaf Salam, Permanent Representative of Lebanon to the UN, and just-elected to the International Court of Justice was one of the honorees. He said, “I’m indeed very honored to get this award tonight, representing Diwali: the power of light, especially that in our world the forces of darkness are gaining ground, whether in the form of hatred, exclusion, injustice and increased violence. Light is also associated with hope, and that is what we need in these difficult times.
Diwali is the power of one. The United Nations is also power of One while respecting all our diversities at the same time. The other example I can think of is the great Indian state, which is at the same time One and multicultural, multi-religious, and multi-civilizational.”
One of the honorees was Ambassador Lakshmi Puri, ASG & Deputy Executive Director UN Women, who said: “As an Indian and a UN diplomat my vision has always been that of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam – the whole world is an interdependent family and our destinies are connected each to each and across all borders and spaces.” . She went on to add, “And yes I do believe in the power of one, in each of us being a lamp to illuminate and transform the world through the power of ideas and knowledge, advocacy and movement building, setting of global standards and values to realize the ideals of the United Nations and the Perfect World we all dream of, want and deserve .The power of one is about passion, commitment and indomitable courage and keeping faith with the causes we serve no matter the difficulties and setbacks .It’s about not giving up ever.”
As for the Power of One Awards, it’s very much a work in progress and one looks to see how large the canvas will be. At the end of this celebratory session at the UN, there was an auspicious beginning to Diwali in December – a small box of Indian mithai or sweets on every table.
Yes, Diwali is here to stay in America and one hopes it becomes very much a part of the mainstream with even a possible school holiday in the works!