Diwali casts light on array of South Asian cultures

Students performing South Asian dance
Shayana Seneviratne (center) performs Bhangra, a North Indian folk dance originating in the state of Punjab, in 2017. This year, Seneviratne and fellow Diwali producer Rithvik Kondai created a show that celebrates the diversity of South Asian cultures. (Photo courtesy of Ashoka)

While it’s accurate to describe Diwali as the Indian festival of lights, that definition is far from complete, said Rithvik Kondai of Ashoka, the South Asian student association which produces Washington University in St. Louis annual Diwali show.

“When people think South Asia, they immediately think India, and typically that has been the focus of our Diwali production,” Kondai said. “But South Asia is more than Indians and Hindus. There are Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and all different religions. There are hundreds of languages and hundreds of dialects. Our goal this year was to lend voice to some of those other cultures that celebrate Diwali.”  

This year’s show, “The Unbreakable Kaira Shree,” will highlight a variety of South Asian art forms, from Afghani fashion to Indian dance, and will feature a skit about a young Bangladeshi college graduate working in New York. Like Kimmy of the television show, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Kaira is funny, sweet and strong.

“Kaira defies the stereotypes people have of South Asian women,” said junior Shayana Seneviratne of Ashoka. “We wanted to show an empowered woman who is balancing the traditional values of her family and the demands of her workplace in a way that is entertaining but also enlightening.”

Seneviratne, who is of Sri Lankan descent, and Kondai, whose parents are from India, are excited that the general student population is interested in South Asian culture. So are they. 

“I joined Ashoka to be with others who share my identity,” Kondai said. “But what I didn’t expect was to learn so much about other South Asian cultures through Diwali. Being part of a dance or fashion show or a performance is such a cool way to learn about someone’s culture.”

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