On Saturday afternoon, Kausi Subramaniam carefully applied a bindi to her daughter’s forehead in preparation for the Diwali San Antonio Festival that evening. Madhvi, 14, was one of dozens of featured performers in this year’s festival. The traditional Bharatanatyam dance requires years of training and plays an important role in the festival of lights and Indian culture.

“The dance forms evolved from the temples, so they were initially used as a form of worship,” Kausi said. “The themes and the stories being told are spiritual in nature because of that.”

She is the president of the nonprofit cultural organization Anuja SA and one of the only Bharatanatyam dance teachers in San Antonio, and has helped train her own daughter for more than a decade.

By now, Madhvi is familiar with the festival’s day-long preparations, but her mother still helps her braid and weave her hair, pin the temple stone jewelry on her head, and step into a vibrant sari.

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“I used to not like (dressing up) when I was younger but now I’m used to it,” Madhvi said of the elaborate preparations required for the costume. “My favorite part is probably dancing with friends. I’ve been dancing since I was four or five, I’ve done different types of dances, but the Bharatanatyam is definitely my favorite.”

Thousands of people filled La Villita Saturday night to celebrate Indian culture and heritage during the Diwali San Antonio Festival on Saturday. The annual festival recognizes the triumph of good over evil through foods, dance and light.

The official Diwali festival started in San Antonio in 2008, following the sister-city agreement made between San Antonio and Chennai, India, though local families had been celebrating their ties to India long before. Anjua SA, founded in 2011, continues to organize the festival and promote the growing cultural and economic relationship between the two cities.

On average, 15,000 people attend the Diwali San Antonio Festival each year, making it the largest City-sponsored Diwali celebration in the country. The event has introduced the San Antonio community to sweet laddu, traditional apparel, and the many regional dances of India.

A dance team takes a selfie before performing. Photo by Scott Ball.
A dance team takes a selfie before performing. Photo by Scott Ball.

Kausi, who grew up in San Antonio, has noticed a growth in the Indian population and the public’s awareness of Indian culture since the sister-city agreement.

“City officials have made a real effort to ensure that San Antonio is no longer just a city with two cultures,” she said. “I think as a part of that initiative, this fits perfectly.”

For Kausi, the Hindu holiday is less about religion and more about celebrating connections with family and friends.

“When you’re abroad, your extended family is essentially your community, so a lot of us don’t have family locally,” she said. “I’m lucky to have my parents in town because I grew up here, but many people come here alone, without family in the U.S. This is how they get together to celebrate.”

Murali Subramaniam, a native of Chennai, talked about how Diwali is celebrated in his hometown as his wife and daughter prepared for the festival performances.

“We call this time of year Deepavali in Southern India,” Murali said. Many families use this time to buy new clothes, make and exchange sweets, and set off firecrackers. “The excitement builds up for the kids, we want to wake up at one or two in the morning, because you want to be the first to do the firecrackers. Everybody comes out to the streets for firecrackers.”

San Antonio continued that tradition this year by releasing fireworks from the Tower of the Americas.

As the family finished dressing and began organizing the performers, locals arrived at La Villita to try the City’s best samosas, admire sequined saris and silk, have intricate henna designs drawn on their hands, and watch traditional dances.

Thousands of attendees cheered as Madhvi and her dance group took the stage at the Arneson River Theatre, stepping swiftly and expertly for the complex Bharatanatyam dance.

Suhail Arastu, the Arts and Culture chair for Anuja SA, emceed the “Parade of States” event as a “conductor,” showcasing the colorful costumes and energetic folk dances of India’s states using India’s most popular mode of transportation, the train. Express stops included Mumbai, Vitayawada and Mysore.

Arastu said about 6,000 Indians are currently living in San Antonio, “But the festival is proof that the people of San Antonio have really responded to our culture, they celebrate it and appreciate it and that’s a really special thing. I see continued growth for us in the future.”

Crowds cheered as the performers representing Chennai took the stage, and again when nationally-recognized dance team Alamo City Bhangra “returned” the event to San Antonio. The loudest cheers came during the team’s finale, when a performer appeared on stage waving a large French flag in solidarity for victims of recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

City officials including Mayor Ivy Taylor, Council members Alan Warrick II (D2), Robert Treviño (D1), state Sen. Jose Menendez and state Rep. Diego Bernal acknowledged the importance of diversity in San Antonio’s economic and cultural growth during opening remarks.

“Our diversity is what makes us special,” Menendez said. “That’s what makes it so special tonight, in our beautiful city and our state, that we can come together and celebrate our diversity.”

Before heading to the Arneson Theatre for staged performances, Menendez reminded attendees that San Antonio was an example to other cities, as a community strengthened by diversity.

“I am proud to be here at this Festival of Lights, which is truly the light triumphing over evil,” he said. “We need to be the example for the whole world.”

Attendees released hundreds of floating candles into the San Antonio River as the celebration came to a close. Families and friends were asked to make a wish for the future before sending the lights into the darkness.

Visit the India Association of San Antonio or Anuja SA home pages to learn more about upcoming cultural events in the San Antonio area.

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Lea Thompson is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events. Follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter or Culture Spoon.