The festival of lights
Arts on Sunday
By Al Creighton
November 2, 2003
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Last week Guyana celebrated Diwali, one of the big important national traditional festivals of the Caribbean. Like some of the others, it is a religious rite, rooted in myth, and like almost all of them, it is a calendar festival, an indigenous tradition, highly theatrical and symbolic, and is dramatized in a grand parade using the street as stage. Like the others it is also popular, thrives on spectacle, and is one of the colourful exhibitions of the region’s powerful cultural heritage.
Diwali belongs to Hin-duism, which is strongest in Guyana and Trinidad, homes of the largest population of Indian descendants who brought the tradition to the Caribbean. It is “the festival of lights” known as Deepa-vali, but more often called Diwali, a shortened version of the same word, which means “row of lights.” It is sacred ritual based on Hindu scriptures, and at the same time a dramatization of myth and a story from the Ramayana.
The very popular deity/ king Lord Rama was returning to reclaim his kingdom after fourteen years away in exile. The people of the Heartland welcomed him overwhelmingly, but he was returning on the darkest night of the year, so they lit rows of diyas to provide light for him along the way. The lights also have other significance, because they serve as symbols of Mother Lakshmi, goddess of light/enlightenment, prosperity, knowledge. The rows of lights also lead a way for her to enter the homes and hearts of the celebrants so they could receive her blessing.
The public events and activities of the festival are therefore dramatizations of these. The religious proceedings and their meaning go deeper and cannot be treated in this coverage, which looks at the celebration in its public and more secular context. Outside of what takes place in the Mandirs (temples), there are three large annual public performances in the motorcade, the concerts and the lighting of diyas.
There was overwhelming popular response to the motorcade of Friday October 24, in Georgetown, as large crowds lined the streets along the entire route as well as the LBI Community Centre Ground where it ended and where the concert was staged. The Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha organized both events, as usual.
The crowds were obviously attracted by the theatre, colour and spectacle of the cars, vans, trucks and tractors decorated by lights. This procession is within the carnival- type tradition of the region, as the lights are designed to depict various Hindu signs, shapes and symbols along with dramatic tableaux with human actors representing Hindu deities. For the spectators, it was a harvest of theatre and appropriately so, since Diwali is traditionally celebrated at a time of harvesting.
There was other neat symbolism. The organizers decided to suspend this annual street parade in 2002, and, obviously, the people welcomed its return in 2003. The multitudes lining the streets for this purpose were significantly symbolic of the enthusiastic welcome of Rama on the original Diwali night. The size and interest of the crowds made it a triumphant return for the lighted vehicles quite in keeping with the themes of the festival, which include the triumph of good over evil, the removal of darkness and the conquest of knowledge over ignorance. The celebration of Lakshmi and her association with light, knowledge and prosperity were also fitting themes for the return of the tradition. It brought back to normal a festival that showcases Guyana’s cultural prosperity, one of the riches of indigenous culture, while the ethnic mix seen in the racial composition of the crowds on the streets and at the LBI Ground exhibited the valuable potential of what has become a national festival.
The performance on the stage at LBI had religious and social significance in the wide range of items offered for entertainment. Many were message-oriented and linked by a theme of purity and improvement in the spiritual quality of life. These were aimed at the community, and one dramatic item was a good example of how they used popular culture. It was a skit which warned against the destructive potential of the abuse of alcohol. Interest-ingly, it was derived from a popular song from the chutney tradition, ‘Rum Till I die.’ This musical culture journeyed from the Indian Bhoj Puri into Guyanese and Trinidadian community life and their popular culture is reflected in the compositions. Its use as a metaphorical vehicle for the message was effective as entertainment and instruction on stage.
University of Guyana
On a much smaller scale, was the continuation of an annual tradition on the Uni-versity of Guyana Campus. It is a significant link between the university and the cultural life of the community. There was an annual concert and a Rangoli competition both organized by the UG Hindu Society.
The performance items were little different from those at LBI in an event that has become a theatrical tradition on the campus. Certainly some of the items provided a fair insight into cultural traditions within the Hindu community and some with no religious connection at all.
There was strong religious connection, however, in the Rangoli competition, another annual cultural event. It has been described as “rice drawing” and involves an exquisite artistic technique of using coloured rice grains to create composite pictures on Hindu religious themes. There was the usual Inter-Faculty contest in which students from the different Departments and Faculties work in groups in attempts to win the prizes for the best designs, but this year there were definitely fewer competitors. Words, symbols and pictures are used in colourful illustrations and intricate designs. Like the lights and the motorcade, this is another way in which myth and religious teachings are dramatized.
The holy lights
The Diwali day itself is much quieter as it is the holy day, which ends in the creative and, again, spectacular display of lights. But this time the lights are formed by various arrangements of lighted diyas in attractive patterns on the sidewalk outside of gates, on walls, fences, in driveways and on staircases. These are done by individual households. Two things were noticeable last week: there is change in the tradition and there were far fewer homes, gateways and sidewalks that bothered to display lights. There seemed to have been a marked reduction from previous years. This was seen not only in the number of ‘exhibits’, but in the use of diyas. The traditional oil- fuelled lights were largely replaced by strings of electric lights including those called ‘fairy lights’ in Guyana. This signifies change. Are they slowly replacing diyas ?
It is fairly certain that many of these will most likely remain in place to be switched on again at Christmas. The same electric lights will serve both festivals, each of which has that significant mix of religious significance and popular culture.
This indicates the very important existence of both multi-culturality and inter- culturality that is Guyanese national culture.