Indian families recreate Deepavali festival locally
It’s been more than a decade since Pradheep Chhalliyil has lived in south India, but he can still feel the rumbling of firecrackers and see lights spilling across the sky as all the children in Coimbatore, a city of 2 million, set off fireworks in front of their homes to celebrate the “festival of lights.”
As part of Deepavali, a main national holiday in India, Chhalliyil would wake up at 3 a.m. on the day of the new moon in November and stand in front of his house, lighting as many as 40 varieties of fireworks such as sparklers, “atom bombs” and “flower pots.”
“The whole city would be sounding with firecrackers,” said Chhalliyil, “No one could experience such fun anywhere else in the world.”
Chhalliyil and his wife Priya along with a number of other Indian-American families in Fairfield have committed themselves to keeping the tradition alive. They follow their family’s traditions during the five-day celebration, ending with a performance open to the community the following Saturday evening.
This year’s performance, 6 p.m. Saturday at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center, will include a traditional Indian dinner, plates of desserts, a children’s skit directed by Chhalliyil, along with musical and Bollywood dance performances. Admission is $20.
For the Chhalliyils, it is a chance to recreate the holiday for their 11-year-old son, Pranav.
“Priya and I grew up in different cities in south India,” he said, “but when we were young, we both would wait for Deepavali; it is the best memories we have in our childhood.”
Chhalliyil first visited Fairfield in 2000 after receiving a job offer at local laboratory Genetic ID where he currently works as a senior research scientist.
“I very much fell in love with the town,” he said. “I told my wife it would be the best place to have a family.”
The couple had married the year before, an arranged match made by their parents. They moved from Buffalo, N.Y., later that year, but Chhalliyil said they didn’t mingle with many other Indian-American families until they had their son.
“We wanted our child to have the social and cultural experience,” he said.
For the past eight years, Chhalliyil has taken it upon himself to organize short plays with the children, in which they re-enact the symbolic and spiritual meaning of the holiday. What began as a closed living room performance grew to a communitywide event in 2004, when they decided to open the performance to the public.
Chhalliyil said they’re able to recreate the festive mood of the Indian holiday — almost.
“In India, the whole town is rejoicing,” he said, “Here you see only a few places. It’s like Christmas, everybody here has lights, or on Halloween, the whole town does it.”
However he said the community has become more involved in recent years, with a growing turnout causing them to move the performance from Morning Star Studio to the larger convention center last year.
While largely considered a Hindu celebration, Chhalliyil said Deepavali is not religious.
“It is not a religious tradition, it is a spiritual tradition,” he said. “It is about bringing awareness to light and celebrating life.”
He said the Indian-American families in town represent a variety of religions, including Muslim and Christian, and all follow slightly different Deepavali traditions.
Chhalliyil and his wife are Hindu, and perform pujas, a traditional Hindu ritual, praying for health, wealth, knowledge and prosperity. The third day, Chhalliyil said all of the families bake plates of Indian desserts, which they take to each other’s homes in the evening.
“Priya is making 40 plates of sweets,” he said Tuesday. “By tomorrow we will have received 50 plates of sweets, each home making different ones, showing a cultural mixing.”
The Indian community has even organized Chhalliyil’s favorite childhood tradition: lighting fireworks. This year they lit them in the parking lot of the Fairfield Senior Citizen Center Saturday, and while Chhalliyil said there are more rules and regulations now, his son Pranav was able to experience the Deepavali of his youth.
“All the children have a chance to light them,” he said. “We try to bring that flavor to our children, like in India.”