Evanston residents celebrate Diwali with rangoli art and lighting diyas


Photo courtesy of Bindu Reddy

Evanston residents like Bindu Reddy celebrating Diwali this year set out diyas, or small lamps, to symbolize the festival of lights.

Avani Kalra, Reporter

For Evanston resident Bindu Reddy, celebrating Diwali is important because she wants her 7-year-old to know the culture of India. Typically, Reddy meets up with a group of Indian families to tell traditional stories, perform Lakshmi Puja and light sparklers.

Diwali, sometimes referred to as the “Festival of Lights,” is one of India’s biggest celebrations of the year. On Nov. 4, the Hindu, Jain and Sikh communities of Evanston celebrated the third and most important day of Diwali, a festival symbolizing the victory of light over darkness.

Though Diwali celebrations in Evanston aren’t quite what Reddy was used to growing up in India, she tries to re-create a feeling of festivity for her son.

“It’s different in India,” Reddy said. “It’s friends, family, the whole city lights up… But I can talk to my little guy about Diwali. He knows the characters, and he knows that good will win over evil… there is always brightness after dark. It makes me happy.”

Other than events on Northwestern’s campus, there aren’t any publicly organized Diwali celebrations in Evanston this year, though Evanston resident Anu Dewan says she is still grateful she will be able to celebrate with her close friends and family.

This year, Dewan plans to light diyas, small lamps, around her house, and decorate with rangolis — intricate patterns made of rice, sand or flower petals.

“My parents passed down the cultural aspects of Diwali, as well as the religious,” Dewan said. “I remember it being a time of celebration and togetherness, and I want to pass that down to my children.”

On the first day of Diwali, observers clean homes and purchase new items, typically gold. On the third and primary day, families honor the goddess Lakshmi, pray for prosperity and visit the mandir, or temple, in a typical year. This day involves the largest feasts, exchange of gifts and celebration –– often with fireworks. Diwali’s fourth day is the start of the new year in the Hindu calendar. The fifth and final day celebrates the bond between sisters and brothers in a ceremony called Bhaiy Dooj.

Dewan said there is typically little public celebration of Diwali in Evanston.

As an administrator of South Asian Women of Evanston, a Facebook forum with 84 members, Dewan helped organize the group’s Diwali celebration in 2019. She said it boasted 300 attendees, live music and catering.

“It’s hard to create community celebration on your own, especially during COVID,” Dewan said. “If there were more events in the community that I could just be a part of, rather than organizing, it would be much easier to be celebratory. It’s challenging.”

Dewan said the lack of options for celebration is not a consequence of COVID-19 — it’s always been limited. Generally, she said, the larger Evanston community hasn’t been aware of the holiday.

NU alumna Ruchi Patel (McCormick ’17, Feinberg ’21) travelled to Bartlett to celebrate Diwali at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir while she lived in Evanston.

Patel said leaving Evanston allowed her to place herself in a larger context. She now lives in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood and continues to make the trek to Bartlett each year.

“It’s worth it to feel that sense of community, to have that connection to my roots,” Patel said. “Day to day, we tend to focus on ourselves. Going to the mandir reminds me of the values and thought processes I should have while I navigate through life.”

An Evanston Arts Council event, where Mayor Daniel Biss presented awards for recipients’ local artistic contributions, took place on the third day of Diwali this year.

“The community is open and accommodating, I just don’t think it takes the initiative to be aware of the fact that it’s Diwali,” Dewan said. “We had to send an email just to say, ‘Hey, for future reference, just know that this is a big holiday, and it would be great if you didn’t schedule things on Diwali.’”

Reddy has worked to raise awareness about Diwali in the Evanston community. She was involved in Evanston Public Library events in years past, and this year she is reading the story of Diwali to her son’s class over Zoom.

She hopes what students learn in class will extend to their parents. She is sending her son’s classmates home with goodie bags stuffed with color-in rangoli art, a diya painting kit and a story she hopes parents can learn from, as well.

Despite the lack of awareness of Diwali in Evanston, Dewan is still looking forward to celebrating the new year with her immediate community –– especially after a year of COVID-19.

“I’m looking forward to that sense of renewed spirit and togetherness,” she said. “For my family, personally, there’s been a big shift this fall, with having my daughter go off to college … I’m just looking forward to coming together as a family and really looking forward to a new beginning for all of us.”


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