Vancouver’s Rohit Chokhani can still recall his childhood in Mumbai when Indian streets would light up with fireworks and life would almost come “to a standstill” as the subcontinent celebrated Diwali, the extravagant Hindu festival of lights.
“It’s like the Christmas and the New Year’s of India,” said Chokhani, now co-producer for Vancouver’s Diwali Fest, which kicks off Friday and runs until Oct. 26. “Schools are closed, everybody is going to each other’s house with gifts and sweets, there’s rangoli paintings at doorsteps, people are cooking for each other.
“The streets (of Mumbai) are completely noisy with fireworks for an entire two weeks … the skies are filled with lots of lighting, people have decorated their houses with oil light lamps. It’s a massive, massive celebration.”
But when Chokhani immigrated from India — first to the U.S. and then to Vancouver — when he was 22-years-old, Diwali, which celebrates the triumph of good over evil, was drastically different from the Indian celebrations he’d grown to love.
While he was keen to experience Western cultures when he moved, when it came to Diwali time Chokhani still wanted to honour and celebrate his roots, but instead found himself seeking out local events, which were generally low-key and held as small gatherings at temples.
“Leaving your own culture and going to another one, it’s like you become an ambassador for your culture,” Chokhani said. “When I immigrated I was looking for many cross-cultural dialogues, which is how it evolved into me taking this position (at Diwali Fest).”
While Diwali Fest is in its 11th year in Vancouver, Chokhani has only been an organizing member for two years and as co-producer he plans to add more of the extravagance and spirituality of Diwali that he had grown accustomed to in India.
“Traditionally our workshops have been pretty much focused on dancing and cooking classes,” Chokhani said of Vancouver’s annual Diwali Fest. “(In India) there was a lot of spiritual components attached to the event and the festival.”
So he has tried to reflect that in this year’s event lineup, by including some Ayurveda, yoga and meditation workshops, in addition to the festival’s traditional dancing and cooking.
According to Chokhani, Diwali Fest planning comes down to “the five Fs: fun, food, fashion, family and fusion.”
“We are making this festival extravagant, but definitely not as extravagant as you would see in India,” said Chokhani,
Meanwhile, the festival is continuing to reach beyond Vancouver and expand into the City of Surrey. Not only is Diwali Fest’s kickoff fashion show, IndiGlam, taking place at Surrey’s Crown Palace Banquet Hall on Friday night, but the festival’s main event, Diwali Downtown, will also be celebrated in Surrey.
Diwali Downtown — which boasts a free daylong event of bhangra dancing, henna, sari workshops and more — has historically taken place at Vancouver’s Roundhouse Community Centre, and while it’s still returning to the Roundhouse Oct. 25, a second Diwali Downtown is happening at Surrey’s new city hall on Saturday from 3 to 7 p.m.
“This year is our biggest year in terms of what we are doing in Surrey,” said Chokhani. “Surrey is one of the fastest-growing cities in Canada and has a massive South Asian population as well — it was the most obvious next step.”
Diwali Fest kicks off Friday and runs until Oct. 26 with events in both Vancouver and Surrey.