Bright Marigold garlands and traditionally clad young girls with Aarti thali welcoming guests; spirited flash mobs gyrating to peppy Bollywood beats; flamboyant cultural photo ops with matching props; Katputhli (puppet show); yoga sessions; an exhibition featuring artwork by artists of Indian origin; an authentic Golu (festive display of dolls and figurines) setting; kids painting diyas; a podium brimming with back-to-back Indian music and dance performances – A familiar sight at a mall in India? Perhaps. But such a cultural immersion at a popular mall right in the heart of Metro Atlanta? Say what?
Far from home, never from heart- India American Cultural Association (IACA), in collaboration with North Point Mall showcased Diwali with a grand celebration on November 11th, 2023 at the North Point Mall in Alpharetta. Festivities set the mall abuzz with a panoply of performances, pageantry, fanfare and bazaar, culminating with fulfilled sparklers for kids. With close to five thousand attendees throughout the day and 50 motley of vendors, the Diwali commemoration was a spectacular success echoing the spirit of the festival of lights beyond seven seas.
The end of Indian summer and monsoon rains that make way to cooler evenings hails the onset of the festival season, amongst which Diwali or Deepavali, the festival of lights marks the highlight of the season. The festival derives its name from the row (avali) of clay lamps (deepa) that Indians light outside their homes to symbolize the inner light that protects from spiritual darkness, new beginnings, and the supremacy of knowledge over ignorance. Spanning five days, Diwali in India is equivalent to Christmas in America. There are many similarities in traditions including exchange of gifts, delectable dessert trays and lighting (of different kinds) too!
Honorable Consul General of India, Mr. L. Ramesh Babu, who recently arrived in the state and Mayor of Alpharetta, Mr. Jim Gilvin presided as chief guests of the celebrations. Invited guests of honor included Mayor of Johns Creek; Mr. John Bradberry; Fulton County Board of Commissioners, Ms. Bridget Thorne; State Senators Mr. Shawn Still and Ms. Nabilah Islam, Johns Creek City Council members Bob Erramilli and Dilip Tunki.
“In an effort to reach the Indian community in North Atlanta, IACA in collaboration with North Point mall initiated another flagship event Diwali which was attended by over 5000 people. We are overwhelmed with the response,” Chand Akkineni, BOD, IACA said. The Diwali collaboration is the brainchild of Akkineni who also initiated another flagship event of IACA – Festival of India 27 years ago, among others.
Senator Jon Ossoff in his video message underlined the festival’s significance in fostering unity, hope, and the triumph of good over evil. “It’s no secret our politics are dividing us right now, and we see around the world the conflicts tearing human beings apart. But Diwali reminds us to have hope that we can still choose good over evil, that we are still united as one, and that we can come together to solve our common problems and make our world a better place,” he said.
Dr. Bhagirath Majmudar, in his keynote address highlighted the significance of assimilating, embracing cultures and Hinduism’s emphasis on the universality of the spirit. Citing the Shloka “Sarve bhavantu sukhinah,” which prays that everybody be happy, healthy (disease free), witness auspicious happenings and nobody face misery or distress, he said it emphasizes the unity of minds to create healthy and powerful organizations for the prosperity and happiness of all and to promote solidarity. Each guest acknowledged Indian community in their respective speeches as mosaic of immigrants who have carved a niche in society. The Indian American community is strong in its numbers, but more importantly, successful in endeavors it has ventured to undertake over a spectrum.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens signed a Diwali proclamation recognizing November 13, 2023, as the day to commemorate and celebrate the festival of Diwali. Earlier, Governor Brian Kemp signed a proclamation on August 23, 2023, declaring October 2023 as Hindu Heritage Month in Georgia. In an official proclamation, Cobb County Chairwoman Lisa Cupid also declared October as ‘Hindu Heritage’ month. October has been chosen to celebrate the Hindu heritage as most of the prominent festivals such as Navaratri, Dussehra, and Diwali are celebrated during this month.
“Diwali starts with good fortune and time for all. IACA proudly celebrated Diwali in partnership with North Point Mall for the first time this year. Hopefully this is going to be a memorable beginning for thousands of attendees who got a glimpse of Indian culture and art. It will be IACA’s endeavor to grow this initiative in the coming years with community support,” Ani Agnihotri, Chairman, IACA BOD, said. A myriad of activities with a full calendar were efficiently effectuated to engage every age group and each inimitable individual all throughout the day. Bold and beautiful décor by Essel Events, Sera Smart Villages, Heartfulness, Lavender Lane Décor, Flexiarts, Devsevent Creations added vibrancy to the pathways that featured multifarious vendors that were spread across the mall.
“From vibrant flowers and glowing diyas to the rich tapestry of Indian culture, Diwali decorations unfold: Aarti welcomes Lakshmi, colorful marigolds embody purity, handcrafted temple pillars stand proud protecting the Crafts villa, echoing rural traditions; Golu showcases diverse deities; Incredible India complimented by Konark Chakra traces cultural roots, and Art Auto narrates the Epic Ramayana,” Synthia Padala, Design Coordinator, expressed. Sandhya of Lavender Lane Decor designed an immersive Diwali photo booth featuring a culturally significant Auto transformed into an ornamental masterpiece, adorned with hand-painted illustrations from the Ramayana epic and Diwali, aiming to impart knowledge through engaging, hands-on experiences and celebrate the Festival of Lights with diverse Indian artistic traditions.
Crafts Villa designed by Synthia Padala of SERA SMART Village (NGO) harmoniously blended hand-made wooden crafts reflecting rural life in India, a bronze Villa crafted by Anusha, and meticulously recreated South Indian temple pillars by Rajni from Essel Events, adorned with vintage-style curtains, Ganesha-adorned table covers, overflowing garlands, and traditional flower rangoli, embodying vibrant symbolism with marigold flowers for brightness, positive energy, and purity in Diwali. Madhuri Devs event creations infused joy into Diwali decorations through vibrant hues, intricate Diya patterns, and lively displays that evoke a sense of celebration. Peace echoed in the serene arrangement of flickering Diyas, creating a tranquil ambiance amidst the festivity. The essence of prosperity was captured through opulent embellishments, ornate designs, and elements symbolizing abundance, signifying a bountiful and auspicious celebration.
The Georgia chapter of the Odisha Society of the Americas adorned the Diwali celebrations at IACA with a 12ft by 8ft banner featuring the architecturally significant Konark Chakra, a symbol of Odisha’s rich history and heritage, as a backdrop, symbolizing the cultural richness shared at the G20 summit and Times Square. Highlighting the ornate mosaic of India’s diverse cultures, the spectacular performances included dances and music of south, north, east and the west with local performers ranging from ages six to sixty-five. underlining the diverse The festive extravaganza also featured themed vivid Fashion shows emphasizing the various regions of India and the festival of lights.
Culture came alive as artists showcased their regional attire and art forms. A simultaneous presentation of flashmobs and more performances on the other end of the mall occupied visitors at that entrance as well. “It’s never easy to put together a cultural program involving 50+ performances. The cultural team spent an enormous amount of time preparing and it showed. Everything ran on schedule like a well-oiled machine! Very proud of the cultural team!” Dr. Raktim Sen, Cultural Director expressed. “IACA made history by organizing a grand Diwali celebration in North Point Mall in North Atlanta. This was a great example of corporate public partnership with over 5000 guests enjoying the spirit of Diwali. Daylong Event culminated at 8:30 PM with grand Sparkles play by over 500 kids,” Kaushal Tripathi, President, IACA said.
Yoga, with its deep roots in Indian spirituality, highlights the importance of inner wellbeing for living a joyful life. Throughout the day, various sessions including meditation and healing practices were hosted by MCKS Pranic Healing, Sahaja Yoga, Yoga with Kajal, Art of Living, Aum Wellness Studio, Isha Foundation, and Sky Yoga. “The primary objective behind organizing these sessions was to offer participants an opportunity to experience a few moments of quiet amid the vibrant Diwali festivities,” Gita Vemparala, Yoga coordinator, said. Artwroks of artists Ekta Jain, Akshata Chakkarwar, Rina Datta Chakravorty , Sarika Jaswani, Sadhna Windlass, Paromita DasGupta Ghosh , Ruma Das , Shachi Srivastava, Anu Shibu, Sujatha Maturu, Chaitali Sawdekar Joshi, Rashmita Tiwari, Aditi Chakrabarty, Veena Pothula , Shivanshi Sahay, Jaya Saxena, Shilpi Chaudhary Mcreynolds, Anjali Bhatia, Vinod Sharma, Mohan Lal Sharma, Dinesh Sharma and Nabanita Das bedecked the Scene Art Gallery located inside in the mall.
Delectable spread of Indian food and sweet boxes awaited guests with food trucks in the parking lot and vendors inside the mall. “Our diverse vendor presence added immense value to the event, and we are grateful for the effort, dedication, and high-quality products/services they have showcased. We have received positive feedback from many attendees as well as several vendors responding asking when our next event is, they had generate good sales/leads and wanted to have bigger presence at the event!” Suma Potini, Vendor coordinator remarked.
One of the many attractions for kids included Diya Decoration sponsored by Think Tales Academy, where plain earthen diyas morphed into colorful lamps for kids to take home as souvenirs. Another charming entertainment was the Kathputli show by Swati Zingade. Native to Rajasthan, India, it is a string puppet theatre. Putli means a doll. Kathputli is a puppet made entirely from wood. Being a string marionette, it is controlled by a single string that passes it from the top of the puppet over the puppeteers. The traditional Golu set up by Ananthaadi Rayara Matha drew attention from kids, grown ups and especially visiting parents from India. Golu is a South Indian festival that involves the artistic display of dolls and figurines on multiple steps. The term “Golu” comes from the Tamil word “kolu,” which means “arrangement”. Many families place nine steps, each step representing the nine days of Navratri.
The night ended de-light fully with kids playing with sparklers with their families. The organizing committee included Chand Akkineni, Ani Agnihotri, Kaushal Tripathi, Meher Lanka, Vishwanath Ganti, Ranjithaveena Pol, Priya Ranjan Misra, Dr. Raktim Sen, Chaitali De, Suma Potini, Synthia Padala, Praveena Kommidi, Gita Vemparala, Ganesh Myaka, and Jyothsna Hegde. Sponsors for the event included Macys, KR Elixir, T R Reddy, Bhavya Chaudhary & Associates, Inc, Tangent Services Corporation, Mumtaz Fashions, Kunnatha Injury Lawyers, and Om Duggal. EventTitans served as the tech partner and media partners included Khabar, NRI Pulse Atlanta Dunia, and TVAsia.
While Diwali is popularly known as the “festival of lights,” its most significant esoteric meaning is “the awareness of the inner light.” While humanity can be guilty of jealousy, greed, hatred and many vices, it is said that the Deepas (lamps) represent the clearing of those traits from the soul (and the home), for as the oil (which represents these negative traits) is used up and disappears it leaves the soul (represented by the wick) clear as the inner self becomes enlightened. Diwali is India’s biggest holiday, but it’s also celebrated around the world—including at the White House. In 2009, former President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to observe Diwali, and in 2016, he marked the holiday by lighting a diya (lamp) in the Oval Office. US President Joe Biden extended his greetings for Diwali this year urging Americans to “reflect on the strength of our shared light and embrace the enduring spirit of this holiday and of our nation.”
“We are very happy and proud to welcome the IACA and Indian community into North Point Mall, our home – to share our home and for them to teach us about Indian culture and customs and celebrations and bring the community to us. We look forward to doing this again next year,” Nick Nicolosi, General Manager, North Point Mall expressed. Meghan Meeks, the Marketing Director for NP who worked closely with IACA leading up to the day, echoed similar sentiments.
With a diversity score of 96 out of 100, Alpharetta is much more diverse than other US cities (per bestneighborhood.org). Per 2022 census, the city is home of 22.2% Asian population. It only makes sense then for various cultures to familiarize and uncover similarities that bind each other as people. This year Diwali lit up several cities across Atlanta. The hosting of Diwali in the mall is perhaps the small step towards mainstreaming of a festival that will lie in the narrative of assimilation of the diaspora. The quest for Diwali resonates with the very American ethos of pluralism, and only natural for Indian Americans today to invite all Americans to join in a celebration that epitomizes the ancient Sanskrit paean to peace.
– Jyothsna Hegde