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Speakers light the lamp at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Indian Student Association’s Diwali Night at the Nebraska East Union on Nov.6, 2021 in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Scattered voices drift through the vast event hall as five performers — four men in white dress shirts and slacks and one woman clad head-to-toe in a gold-trimmed blue dress — take the stage at a large concert hall as the last performance of Diwali Night.

The annual event is a festive occasion held in the Great Plains Room at the East Campus Union. After a two year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event hosted by the Indian Students Association is finally back.

The volunteer quintet breaks out into synchronized dance — arms swinging and legs kicking in rhythmic unison — to the backdrop of high-energy, drum-dominant Punjabi music. The audience claps along in tempo, whooping, whistling and hollering as the dancers steal the show.

Their performance is the Bhangra, a classical folk dance from the Punjab region of India. Traditionally, the dance is usually done by men, but Arnaaz Brar, a junior computer science and mathematics major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the sole female in the group performing on Nov. 6, says it’s becoming increasingly common for women to partake in the dance as well.

Brar said that she’s been practicing the Bhangra since she was 12 years old, but the spirited performance still never fails to wear her out. 

“It needs a lot of energy,” Brar said. “We’re performing for five minutes and we know we won’t be able to get up 10 to 15 minutes afterward.”

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, India’s biggest holiday Diwali is traditionally a five day festival. It dates back more than 2,500 years, and its name originates from the Sanskrit word “dipavali” meaning “row of lights.”

The holiday entails various activities, including the exchanging of gifts, feeding the poor, preparing a feast, lighting fireworks or lamps and various performances of song and dance.

The broad diversity of cultures across India, however, means the specifics of the holiday can vary widely from family to family. Each has their own unique way of celebrating the five day festival, according Parul Aggarwal, president of the ISA.

Aggarwal, a junior computer science major, was responsible for coordinating the event. Although she attended as a freshman in 2019, it was her first time running the event as president.

She said she’d been the event coordinator for the club in 2020, so she wasn’t going in completely uninitiated. Still, she said this year’s Diwali Night faced more difficulties than years prior.

Usually, the ISA works in cooperation with the much larger India Association of Nebraska Lincoln, which is made up of various Indian families. Due to the ongoing pandemic, IANL decided not to participate this year. That meant the burden rested solely on the ISA to ensure everything ran smoothly, according to Aggarwal.

Diwali Night officially began after a brief social hour that gave attendees the chance to mingle and take photos. The celebration commenced with speeches from various guests, sponsors and ISA officers. Amrita Mahapatra, the chief guest, opened the night with remarks on the history and cultural significance of Diwali.

One concept of Diwali that remains across all traditions is the triumph of light over darkness. The lighting of a traditional Indian lamp by the night’s sponsors served to signify the dispersal of this darkness while segueing into the next phase of the night: the performances.

These included solo dance acts, an a cappella duet merging classic and modern Indian pop music and Brar’s five-person Bhangra performance to cap it all off.

“Those people, I was scared they were going to break the stage,” Aggarwal said.

Once the performances had concluded, dinner was served, which included chicken tikka masala with a side of savory Indian-style yellow rice and fried naan. Dessert included gulab jamun, a type of milk solid-based dessert with a taste similar to balls of fried pancake doused in syrup.

After dinner, the overhead lights in the hall were switched off and the patrons took to the dance floor. A variety of Indian party songs boomed from loudspeakers behind the center stage as the night descended into a two-hour dancing frenzy.

It was a fitting end to a night that, despite the limited number of personnel, Aggarwal said, went off without a hitch.

There were about 170 people in attendance on Saturday, while the event generally netted 400 to 500 attendees in previous years, according to Aggarwal. Nonetheless, she said she was impressed by the turnout and the organization’s handling of it.

“None of us have dealt with crowds bigger than 80 or 90,” Aggarwal said. “This was a huge success and a huge responsibility on us.”

culture@dailynebraskan.com