Unsuspecting New Paltz residents and visitors got a surprise last Sunday when a Bollywood flashdance broke out at Water Street Market. Most of the dancers were students from SUNY New Paltz, who participated in the event to promote the Diwali Festival of Lights slated to take place at Elting Memorial Library this Saturday, October 25. The event will begin at 4:30 p.m. and continue into the evening.
After the flashdance, anyone who wished to learn how to dance the Garba — an Indian folk dance that uses dandiyas (sticks) — was invited to learn the movements with Mala Desai, a Queens-based teacher of Odissi and Indian folk dances who has taught the art form in this country since 1995. She’ll perform at the Diwali Festival on Saturday, as will the student Bollywood dancers, and anyone from the community who learned some steps from Desai on Sunday is invited to dance at the festival, too.
This will be the second time the celebration of Indian culture will be held at the library in New Paltz. The Diwali Festival’s inaugural outing in 2013 was a great success, with more than 400 attending; twice the number anticipated, said Elting Library board vice-president Linda Welles. To accommodate the number expected to attend this year’s event, the festival will be held outside in the parking lot at the corner of Church and North Front streets. “I think it will have more of a festival feeling this year being out of doors,” said Welles. “People will have more room to move around.” Seating for 120 people will be available, but many more will have space to roam and watch entertainment or take part in activities. Indian-themed games and activities will be offered to kids inside the library. Admission is free. The rain date is Sunday, October 26.
In India, Diwali is one of the biggest events of the year, a five-day festival celebrated throughout most of the country. Held in the autumn (in October or November, depending on the cycle of the moon), it celebrates the harvest but also marks the start of winter. Each day of the festival has a different meaning, with the main festivities occurring on the third day, when candles and small clay oil lamps called diyas are lit and fireworks are set off. The “Festival of Light” signifies the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. The fourth day of Diwali is celebrated as New Year’s Day, with gifts and sweets exchanged and new clothes purchased. In signifying fresh beginnings, houses are cleaned and decorated with colorful rangoli patterns — Hindu folk art — and blessings are given to honor the elephant-headed Ganesha, remover of obstacles, and Lakshmi, Hindu goddess of good fortune and material and spiritual prosperity. On the fifth and last day, brothers and sisters get together and share food to honor the bond between them.
The Diwali Festival of Lights in New Paltz will find the library grounds adorned with numerous strands of tiny lights and hundreds of paper flowers (“if not thousands,” said Welles, who noted that volunteers of all ages from the community have been making decorations at the library for weeks, some people even taking supplies home and then bringing the finished creations back in. “When people get to the festival and see the decorations,” said Welles, “that represents the contributions of many residents.” Volunteers created many clay diya pots that will line the ramp going up to the library, each a colorfully painted variation on the traditional ones and adding another point of light.
Attendees will be greeted upon arrival by SUNY New Paltz exchange students from India, who will offer women flowers to wear in their hair and the traditional marking on the forehead. “We’re trying to make it as authentic as possible,” said Welles. The students will also give out tickets to exchange for small boxes that contain samples of traditional Diwali Indian sweets and savories along with rice. There is no charge for these, but at least one vendor will be available to sell authentic Indian food, and there will be a jalebi-maker. Jalebi, explains Welles, is a traditional Indian sweet made out of a yogurt mixture squeezed from a pastry bag into calligraphic shapes that are fried in oil and then dipped in a colorful sugar syrup. The jalebi will be available to try for $1, and not only are they best eaten warm, said Welles, but it’s fun to watch the process of them being made.
The entertainment, mostly Indian dancing but perhaps a skit telling the origins of Diwali as well, will be in a big tent starting at 5 p.m. and again at 6:45 p.m. Activities available at nominal charge include the opportunity to have one’s head wrapped in a colorful turban (appropriate for men and women, said Welles, and the person keeps the turban) and a booth where one can be wrapped in a sari and have a photo taken against a backdrop painted by a local artist. Henna decorations can be applied and new this year will be a fashion show for men and women who arrive dressed in traditional garb. The show will take place during the first block of entertainment time, said Welles, with a prize for men and women awarded at the end of the second block of entertainment. The library event will offer a raffle, too, with prizes donated by local businesses.
Activities for kids in the library’s reading room will include crafts, games and henna decoration. One of the crafts will be to make “Lakshmi’s footprints,” which refers to the Diwali tradition of welcoming the goddess Lakshmi into homes at New Year’s to bring good fortune. The kids will outline their bare feet and then decorate the footprints. Another activity will be the game Langdi, which is Hindi for a game much like our hopscotch, that Welles said every SUNY Indian exchange student volunteering for the festival remembers playing as a child.
Funds for the festival come from the library program budget and donations from local businesses. “Admission is free because all of our programs are free,” said Welles. The inspiration for last year’s inaugural event arose in part from library volunteer Sudhir Kumar, who helped organize the festival for the benefit of the Indian students at SUNY New Paltz, but also because the library has a commitment to educating the public about different cultures. “That’s part of our mission,” said Welles. “We live in a world that requires us to be citizens of the world, and this is our little contribution to that.” The library is hoping to bring back the Chinese New Year celebration again in February that they did two years ago, she added, and they’ve also celebrated Mardi Gras and Cinco de Mayo.
But so far, nothing has gone over quite as big as the Diwali Festival did last year. “It’s exciting for several reasons,” said Welles. “We have a fairly large population of people in New Paltz and the surrounding areas who come from parts of India and other countries that celebrate Diwali, and SUNY New Paltz has a large number of Hindi-speaking exchange students for whom this is their opportunity to celebrate their holiday. For the rest of us, who don’t know very much about this holiday or this culture, it’s an opportunity for us to learn and to participate. The Indian culture is very colorful and filled with fascinating rituals.”
Elting Memorial Library is located at 93 Main Street. For more information, call (845) 255-5030.