Diwali Festival: Let there be light

By Catherine Smith

Join the Indian community as it celebrates the renewal of life with an explosion of colour, dance and food, writes Catherine Smith

Performers at the Diwiali festival. Photo / Brendon O'Hagan
Performers at the Diwiali festival. Photo / Brendon O'Hagan

Ella Kumar is one high energy organiser of her community. Born in New Zealand of Gujurat parents (her folks emigrated from Mumbai in the 1960s), she is proud of how her second generation has strengthened and grown Indian traditions in this country. Now in her second term on the Puketapapa Local Board, Kumar was excited to reflect on how the Auckland Diwali festival has grown - reflecting the growing strength of Auckland's community.

"In my childhood, Diwali wasn't strong at all. We'd celebrate between families with traditional food, and local connections, but it wasn't big. There just weren't the Indian businesses - in the 70s and 80s there was just the Indian Emporium in K Road. That was it. Mum had to make her own diyas [pots for the burning oil] or get them sent from India."

It wasn't until the surge of Fijian Indians after the coup in the 80s, followed by a steady stream through the 90s that the Indian community built up the numbers and consolidated its community identity. As is often the way of immigrants, family settlement clustered around neighbourhoods - Mt Roskill's Puketepapa includes White Swan, Lynfield, Three Kings, Hillsborough, and Stoddard/Owairaka.

Kumar compares being the only Indian among 10 senior students at her senior high school class to the 250 seniors at Mt Roskill Grammar now, more than half of whom are Indian. New census data is still being reported in detail, but in 2006 more than half the population was overseas born, mostly from "Asia": Kumar's estimates tell her that her board has the highest number of Indians, around 20 per cent.

"Now of course there are major clothing, food and other businesses here. The gold trade is the biggest here," she says."School fundraisers are the biggest around our festivals, like Diwali. There are all local sponsors, it's grown so much."

So, too, Diwali has grown. Auckland City's version of the ancient Festival of Lights, symbolising the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil and the renewal of life started as a quiet affair of about 2000 people at New North Rd's Mahatma Gandhi Centre in 2002 and 2003. After moving around the inner city (Aotea, Britomart, the America's Cup sheds), last year it found its biggest home - taking over both the square and centre at Aotea Square comes alive with the colours and costumes of Diwali this weekend with cultural dances, food and displays.

Aotea in the heart of Auckland's CBD.

The event, now under Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development and the Asia New Zealand Foundation, has full-time producers, international guests, menus from some of Auckland's top Indian restaurants and an impressive slate of sponsorship and media partners. Last year about 15,000 people a day flooded the centre of town to join the celebrations.

Event producer Eric Ngan wanted to transform Aotea Square and Queen St into an Indian mela (bazaar), with all the colour and "organised chaos" visitors to India love. This meant cramming more than 50 food and craft stalls offering vegetarian food and traditional Indian sweets, as well as the gorgeous colours and scents of clothing, jewellery, henna, handicrafts and art. In the streets and square he's added street banners (playing on the idea of Indian words that are now part of our English lexicon), street art, flash mobs and street performances to the more sedate "edu-tainment" activities inside the centre.

Performers at the Diwiali festival. Photo / Gareth Cooke
Performers at the Diwiali festival. Photo / Gareth Cooke

A hot ticket is always the stage performances with a mix of traditional and contemporary dance from local and international artists. Kumar remembers the days when there were two traditional dance companies, laughing that since the Slumdog Millionaire film, the whole Bollywood dance craze really took off. Now she hears that the hotly contested Radio Tarana Bollywood dance competition will have more than 200 competitors.

Her challenge is to introduce more of the growing number of classical and contemporary dance forms that the youngsters may not have seen. This year she is particularly excited about the seraikella chhau dance from Jharkhand, east India. A form of ancient martial art, chhau features dancers wearing masks to convey ancient warrior stories and legends. Trinetra Chhau Dance Centre is led by a master Gopal Dubey, who studied from the age of 14 and whose grandfather performed for royalty.

Kumar is heartened by the rising number of dance and classical music schools: her generation had to learn from their parents, but now the population can support local skilled teachers and deepen the tradition and skills.

She admits that traditionalists may not be thrilled at one of the highest-profile artist guests: Canadian YouTube sensation Superwoman, who is sharing her hilarious and inspiring insights on life as a young Indian woman in the 21st century. Kumar observes that this is a tricky time as young Western-raised Indians start to push back at their traditional parents - but concedes her own career path in health and fitness, and her daughter's in the police force, were groundbreaking to each of their parents' generation.

"But this festival reinforces our connectedness to India, it brings all sorts of people to our Indian style and culture, and makes us all connected," she says.

The event will end on a high note on the Sunday evening with the Diwali finale fireworks display, presented by Barfoot & Thompson (starts at 9pm).


Led by the vegetarian kitchens of sponsors Mithai, expect to find specialist dishes that celebrate the Diwali festival. Look for lavish sweets made from saffron, rose petals, cashews and pistachios, decorated with pure silver leaf. From milk cakes to deep-fried, sugar-syrup-soaked gulab jamun, your taste buds will get one sweet wake-up. Snack first on street food (best eaten with your hands, insists Methai's Arvind Lohia): try fried kachori; delicious puri with puffed rice, tomatoes and peanuts; fried crackers swirled with potatoes, peas and yoghurt of a papri chard; lentil, chickpea and paneer curries as well as innovative takes on Kiwi favourites such as samosa. Diwali is about freshness and new beginnings - and the food is too, says Lohia.

Inside Aotea Centre

Level 5 foyer

Classical Indian music performances. The sitar and tabla, played by emerging talent and musical masters. Today and tomorrow, 1.30-3pm.

Rangoli art at the Diwiali festival in the Aotea square in Auckland. Photo / Gareth Cooke
Rangoli art at the Diwiali festival in the Aotea square in Auckland. Photo / Gareth Cooke

My India Experience: hear how travelling or living in India has informed people's daily lives. Today and tomorrow, 5-7pm.

Rangoli Art workshops: local designer Smita Upadhye creates the symbolic patterns with coloured sand, dyed rice, spices and flower petals. Watch local and international artists create their meticulous "floor art" or kids can join workshops. Today and tomorrow, noon-5pm.

Level 4 gallery

Inhaling the Spirit: a compelling art exhibition from creative duo Lipika Sen and Prabhjyot Majithia telling of their New Zealand. The exhibition was first shown at the New Zealand High Commission in New Delhi a few years ago.

Level 3 foyer

• English words of Indian origin. Did you know that common words such as "shampoo", "veranda" and "pyjamas" all originate from India? Check out more words at the festival.

• Asia New Zealand foundation marquee.

• Read about the history of the Diwali Festival and learn about the many traditions.

Hanif Kureshi, street artist from Delhi will complete a painting on site over the weekend. Kureshi has exhibited at the Venice Biennale and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and has spoken at many global design events.

Herald Theatre

Prayas Theatre company presents Rudali (today 8pm, tomorrow 3pm). Until October 27.

Superwoman, all the way from Toronto, Canada, will be taking the stage for her take on being a modern Indian (today and tomorrow, 12.30pm. Free tickets from Radio Tarana).

Outside Aotea Centre

Aotea Stage (today and tomorrow, noon to 9pm).

Trinetra Chhau Dance Centre from Jharkhand state (today 1pm, 3.30pm, 8pm; tomorrow 2.55pm, 4.40pm, 8pm).

Radio Tarana Bollywood dance competition and energetic performances of Bhangra-style dance (todaynoon, 4pm; tomorrow 3.30pm).

Opening ceremony is hosted on this stage with VIPs and leaders from the community and political arenas. Today, 3pm.

The Queen St stage has cultural performances today and tomorrow, from noon to 6pm.

Street Theatre performers will show off their imagination, agility and humour - check out the calculated spontaneity bursting into life around Queen St.

Getting there

Queen St (between Mayoral Drive and Wellesley St), Wakefield St (between Mayoral Drive and Queen St) and Airedale St will be closed until 5am Monday. You can park in council or private carparks and walk, or use public transport. To plan go to maxx.co.nz and use the transport planner.

- NZ Herald

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