It's Diwali time, the annual festival of lights that is celebrated by Hindus around the globe. It's the most favorite holiday in India, where it carries as much clout as Christmas. Like the latter, Diwali is steeped in cultural traditions that go back thousands of years, but observances can vary according to different cultures. At its core, Diwali is tremendously significant for those who practice the faith.
This weekend, there will be two Diwali festivals — or "melas" — in downtown Orlando, offering colorful backdrops for dancing and worship, beauty pageants and a lively parade. It will be the ninth annual event at Walt Disney Amphitheater at Lake Eola Park and the debut of a new festival at the Citrus Bowl, and both are expected by the organizers to draw several thousand in attendance. While the festival of lights is a spiritual event, a rift between two prominent leaders in the Hindu community has resulted in a Diwali mela melee this year (see sidebar).
Historically, Diwali melas take place over several days toward the end of October or beginning of November in India, often with large fireworks displays and colorful showcases of pomp and gaiety that honor Hindu culture. Because it's linked with the coming of the new moon and the New Year, the exact date of Diwali varies on the Gregorian calendar. Each day of the festival has its own significance and dedication; however, all are thought to bring happiness and wealth, and all center on the celebration of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. During Diwali, tiny wooden candle lamps called diyas are filled with ghee (instead of wax) and lit to ward off evil spirits.
"We light candles to symbolize knowledge over ignorance and good over evil," Geetie Gopie says. The Guyanese-born proprietor of the Nirvana Center of the Performing Arts has coordinated Diwali beauty pageants locally for the past three years. "This is a time when we can celebrate our heritage and show that goodness can conquer evil; that is the real significance."
Beauty pageants are a key component of both festivals. Come Diwali season, young women such as 18-year-old Aruna (Asha) Persaud prepare for the pageants that are held during the biggest Hindu celebration of the year. "It means a lot to be able to participate in a Diwali mela," says Persaud, who was born in Guyana and raised in New York until the age of 16.
"It helps to preserve Indian culture and that's really important in our community," says Persaud, who is performing at the Citrus Bowl mela. She spends about 10 hours a week preparing for the pageant, going to modeling and dance school, and choreographing her own dance routines.
Priya Ramsaywack, 17, is similarly dedicated. "I'm in the pageant because I want to promote our heritage and traditions. Nobody really knows that much about Indians or Guyanese people here, so these shows are important."
There is an unpleasant undertone to the pageants, even at small events at the local level: Just to participate costs about $2,000, Persaud's mother Seeta — a Guyanese Bollywood singer — estimates. Many of the girls are sponsored by local businesses.
There are four segments to the Miss Diwali pageant, each of which requires a different dress. The expenses start to add up, and girls without a financial backer are often excluded from the pageant.
Many of the girls complain the shows are judged unfairly, with family members of some participants serving as pageant judges. Gopie admits there have been problems. "These pageants have gotten really bad and it seems to cause a lot of controversy in the community," she says. "It's not easy for Indian girls to get on stage, especially in front of such a big audience, and when the judges are voting for their niece, it's not fair. I've seen a lot of girls walk away crushed and that's not what Diwali pageants are supposed to be about."
In many parts of the United States, Diwali celebrations are made up predominantly of first-generation and native-born East Indians. But in Orange County, the bulk of the participants are Indo-Caribbean. Guyanese and Trinidadian transplants are the dominant South Asian group organizing and participating in Diwali events here, with Gujarati and other East Indians represented in moderate numbers as well. It's certainly not the norm, but these true West Indians know how to adhere to their Hindu culture and still throw Diwali events infused with Caribbean flavor.
"There is definitely a Caribbean feel to our Diwali mela," says Harry Singh of Guyana, whose organization, Horizons of Indian Culture, is premiering its festival at the Citrus Bowl this year. "Whenever Caribbean people get together, it's a big party. The love that Caribbean people have for one another is quite different and people will be able to see that."
According to Singh, Caribbean business owners of various nationalities make up the bulk of his sponsors for the event. There will be a mix of South Asian and Caribbean food on hand for patrons to sample. Singh's parade starts at 3 p.m., departing from the Shri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir Hindu Temple in Pine Hills. The full motorcade procession with floats ends at the Citrus Bowl, where the party begins. By holding his mela at the huge venue, Singh hopes to attract not only a regional audience, but also Hindus traveling from as far away as Georgia and the Carolinas. Non-Hindus should also feel welcome, he says.
Singh's inaugural affair will compete with the established Diwali mela being held only two miles east at Lake Eola Park, put on by the Association of Asian Cultural Festivals Inc. Another Guyanese native, Lalman Persaud, is the head of that organization. Indians in the community have supported the Lake Eola affair for eight years, with last year's crowd estimated at more than 5,000 people.
As noted above, there's tension between the organizing groups. Each group has seen its fliers ripped down by supporters of the other group. The organizers of both events refuse to talk to one another, and have started a bitter war of words.
"I personally think they should have had one celebration," says Pandit Moniram Persaud, a local Hindu priest. "Diwali is a time for peace and love and unity, and when you have disharmony, things start to fall apart. For the Indian future it would be better if the two parties got back together."
Some members of the Hindu community think these conflicts are unfair to the kids and young adults who are performing in both festivals. Many of them, used to seeing familiar faces, will now be separated because of petty differences. If Diwali is supposed to be a celebration of knowledge over evil, one has to wonder why two men are letting their egos spoil the fun.
"When the leaders of our community are fighting, what are we teaching our children?" Gopie asks. "This is supposed to be a religious event and it's gotten out of hand."
Local Hindus are ready to focus on the spirituality of these events and not the two loud-mouthed men promoting them. During calmer moments, both Persaud and Singh say they are encouraging people to check out both melas, which means downtown is going to get an Indian party that shouldn't be missed.
Harry Singh and his former friend and partner Lalman Persaud, both from Guyana, are now bitter rivals. Interestingly enough, until January, Singh was a member of the Association of Asian Cultural Festivals Inc. and the master of ceremonies at last year’s Diwali mela event at Lake Eola. However, a debate over the two separate Indian-based public-access television programs they each produced for Bright House Cable ended the friendship. The two men have not done business together since.
It’s unclear if Singh was kicked out of AACF, or if he left on his own terms. What’s apparent is that Singh has nothing but scathing words to offer regarding his former friend.
“This lowlife scum is trying to drag my name to the drains,” wrote Singh in an e-mail to Orlando Weekly. “Lalman does not want to work with anyone who is a leader in the community. He is a lying scum.”
To be fair, a day earlier, Persaud initiated his own attack on Singh without prompting. “He’s a guy that wants to be noticed,” Persaud said via telephone. “He’s worried because everybody is going to Lake Eola. I trained this guy, and now he wants to cut our throats.”
Both men claim to be strong proponents of local Indian unity.