For those who know Indian culture mostly by its imported cuisine, the Diwali Festival of Lights might be a revelation. As the most visible function of Anuja SA, the nonprofit organization formed in 2008 to promote Indian culture in San Antonio, the Diwali festival celebrates the diverse flavors, dress, traditions, and beliefs of the Indian subcontinent.
Known as the world’s largest democracy, India is geographically the seventh largest country in the world, and the second most populous at 1.2 billion people. It contains 23 states and seven territories, with 22 official languages among many dialects.
A dozen of those states will represent just a portion of the diversity of India this Saturday, Nov. 3, at the Diwali festival, said Bala Vishwanathan, the co-founder of Anuja SA. This year, the confluence of San Antonio’s 300th birthday, the 50th anniversary of HemisFair ’68, and Diwali’s own 10th anniversary, will combine to make a festival that is “going to blow you away,” he said.
The festival is back at Hemisfair this year, Vishwanathan said, and will stretch from the fountains near the Tower of the Americas to the Arneson River Theatre and La Villita. For the first time, thousands of diyas will be given free to anyone who wants to to participate in the traditional release of floating candles on the river.
Also, a free surprise of the LED-lighted variety is in store for 3,000 kids, Vishwanathan said. Regular features of the festival include traditional Indian dancing, costume displays from various regions, an Indian bazaar featuring handmade crafts, an interactive Bollywood Zumba event for attendees to dance along to Bollywood films, and of course, the rich scents and flavors of Indian foods from various local vendors.
The event culminates in a fireworks display that will light up downtown, Vishwanathan said. “The whole place will be glowing.”
In 2008, Mayor Phil Hardberger established a sister city relationship with Chennai, India, formerly known as Madras. The mayor brought a few ideas to the founders of the new nonprofit organization Anuja SA – Vishwanathan, his wife Hema, and Kausi Subramaniam – to “celebrate something big,” Vishwanathan said. Others soon joined the effort to organize Diwali, which now regularly attracts between 15,000 and 20,000 attendees.
“We wanted to bring our culture to the community at large,” Subramaniam said, and India is known for its year-round festivals. The Anuja SA founders chose Diwali as “the perfect holiday to celebrate, because it’s universal,” she said.
Not only is Diwali celebrated by all states and all religions in India, Vishwanathan said, but the group wanted to “make sure this is not an Indian event, per se, but a San Antonio event that everyone can participate in,” Subramaniam said.
“We invite everyone to come celebrate with us, share our food, try our clothing,” she said, but the festival is intended to have deeper import. “We’re part of the fabric of San Antonio,” Subramaniam said of the Indian community.
“When people come out [to Diwali], they realize we’re more similar than different, which is important especially in this day and time where there’s a lot of misunderstanding,” she said. “It’s a good way to show people who we are.”
Shahrzad Dowlatshahi, chief of protocol for the City’s International Relations Office, said the Diwali festival is an opportunity to engage with one city, “but is more about us as a community opening ourselves to learning and understanding.”
The actual multi-day Diwali Festival of Light takes place throughout India and culminates this year on Nov. 7. It is generally considered a Hindu celebration, though it touches on themes of unity and peace among religions, including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains. Each has its own particulars that Diwali is meant to commemorate, but all celebrate the triumph of good over evil, Subramanaim said.
Though the San Antonio version of Diwali is a one-day event, Anuja SA works throughout the year to foster and deepen connections between San Antonio and Chennai.
In 2015, Chennai was beset by a 100-year flood, he said, causing millions of residents to be displaced. Anuja SA was able to rally business leaders and others in the Indian community and beyond to raise more than $140,000 in support.
Another major effort of the nonprofit group is to bring disadvantaged youth in Chennai to San Antonio for educational exchanges and new opportunities.
Subramaniam’s family moved to San Antonio from Atlanta in 1976, when she was 4 years old. Back then, the ethnic Indian population of San Antonio was very small, she said.
“The Indian community has grown tremendously over the last 10-15 years or so,” she said, reaching nearly 9,000 as recently as 2014. Subramaniam estimates the current number of ethnic Indians in San Antonio at between 15,000 and 20,000 today.
Now, with one of the city’s major annual festivals a regular feature of San Antonio’s cultural landscape, “this is home to me,” she said.