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After nearly two years marked by the darkness of isolation, grief and loss, this year’s Diwali festival is set to herald new light, as Winnipeg’s Hindu, Sikh and Jain communities get together to feast, exchange gifts, and make memories once again.
Diwali, India Association of Manitoba’s board secretary Priyanka Singh explains, is one of India’s largest holidays. Celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and other religious groups from India and the surrounding area, there are several religious mythologies associated with the festival, she says. Across each tradition the foundational tenet remains: Diwali celebrates the victory of light over darkness, of good over evil, and — with worship of the Goddess Lakshmi — of prosperity.
"We light lanterns and do a prayer at home, we go out shopping and get new clothes, in India traditionally there are a lot of fireworks and families get together," says Singh.
Though the festival traditionally lasts five days, the main holiday is celebrated in the middle of the week, this year it takes place on Nov. 4. In years past, Winnipeg held a Diwali Mela (meaning festival or fair) organized by the Hindu Society of Manitoba at the RBC Convention Centre.
"It was a place that you could go and run into almost everybody that you know," says Singh, adding thousands of people would come together to eat, dance and celebrate.
But with COVID-19 hitting hard last fall, locking gatherings down to households only, 2020 celebrations were tame.
"We couldn’t really do much, so everybody just did stuff at home," says Singh.
This year, though the convention centre doesn’t plan to host its annual gathering, Singh says families are excited for the opportunity to get together with loved ones, host small, double-vaccinated-attendee parties, and celebrate the holiday again.
"This year I think all of the people in the community are feeling a bit relieved that we can at least get together with our friends and family," says Singh. "We don’t get too many occasions to dress up in our traditional Indian outfits…It feels really good."
For younger generations, the opportunity to celebrate Diwali also marks an opportunity to celebrate — and learn more about — their culture.
In Seven Oaks School Division, Maples math teacher Jagdeep Toor has been co-ordinating a bustling Diwali Mela since 2011.
"Diwali is just like Christmas for us. In India we buy new clothes, exchange gifts, light the lamps," says Toor.
A decade ago, Seven Oaks decided to "celebrate Diwali a little differently," he explains.
"We cannot exchange gifts and all that, but we can celebrate our culture," Toor says. "At Seven Oaks, we are trying to provide a platform for all students to celebrate their culture."
After pausing last year, the festivities will return virtually this year as more than 150 students from 10 schools perform dances, play instruments and celebrate at the Seven Oaks Performing Arts Centre at 711 Jefferson Ave. on Nov. 3.
While they won’t be able to host the thousands-strong audience they’re used to, students are excited to see each other perform, and the event will be streamed online at Channel 7 Oaks for anyone else looking to take part.
Harneet Aujla, 17, immigrated to Canada just a handful of years ago, and remembers the strange feeling of not being given time off school to mark the five-day festival.
In the years before COVID-19 struck, Aujla says the Seven Oaks Diwali Mela brought some of the fun of home to Winnipeg.
"This year it’s going to be a little empty, but it’s still going to be very fun," she says. "We’re very excited this year, after a year of not celebrating anything, it’s going to be very fun performing and getting in touch with our culture again."
This year, Aujla will be performing bhangra, a high-energy Punjabi folk dance, with a team from Maples. The team has been training under Toor’s guidance for over a month to prepare for this week’s celebration.
Jasmine Dhalla, 16, joined the Diwali Mela in elementary school as a tabla player — a set of twin hand drums — but in Grade 9 became the go-to MC for the festival. Dhalla, who grew up in Winnipeg, sees the Diwali Mela as an opportunity to immerse in her culture.
"The Diwali Mela was a really great opportunity for me to connect with my culture and connect with people in my culture and learn about everything that my identity would be back home," says Dhalla. "Not having that last year was a little sad so I’m excited to have that back and connect with everyone again."
Toor says the festival has long taught students more about their culture, and about leadership skills. Past performers and attendees have learned new confidence in speaking their languages and sharing their culture.
"The students are learning about the culture, they’re learning about the language, and that’s what I’m really excited about as an educator," says Toor.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.