Northeast Ohio artists share memories of Diwali holiday

Author Thrity Umrigar and musician Lalit Subramanian shine a light on the Diwali holiday with their art.
Author Thrity Umrigar and musician Lalit Subramanian shine a light on the Diwali holiday with their art. [Nidhi Chanani / EK]
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This week is the holiday season of Diwali, an ancient festival of lights celebrated by millions around the world including two Northeast Ohio artists.

Lalit Subramanian (center) performs at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival. [Lalit Subramanian]

Musician Lalit Subramanian remembers celebrating Diwali as a boy growing up in the western Indian city of Pune.  

First thing in the morning on Diwali day, as is the tradition, his parents would wake young Lalit hours before sunrise.

Lalit Subramanian as a child celebrating the Diwali holiday with his parents in Pune, India. [Lalit Subramanian]

"I'd have to first pray and then my grandmother would massage my head with oil. That's another tradition, and this would be followed by a hot water shower. And by the time I would be out of the shower, the fireworks would have started outside. We lived in an apartment building full of kids, so the morning fireworks was kind of a big deal," Subramanian said.

Author Thrity Umrigar grew up a couple hours away in Bombay, now Mumbai, India, where her father was the local ringleader of the Diwali fireworks.

Thrity Umrigar reads at Brews + Prose event. [Hilary Bovay]

"Dad always went out and spent thousands of rupees on fireworks for the whole neighborhood. All the kids in the neighborhood and every Diwali, we would gather on the sidewalk of our apartment building," Umrigar said. "There were a lot of street urchins who were homeless because Bombay is a city of contrasts, and they would have never had the opportunity of setting off fireworks and things like that if it hadn't been for middle class people like my father."

Diwali is a celebration of good over evil or light over darkness.

It traces back to the ancient Hindu tale of Prince Rama returning home in victory over an evil demon. Villagers lit lanterns to help Rama find his way home.

Diyas lit in Lalit Subramanian's home for the Diwali holiday. [Lalit Subramanian]

"So it's a very visually beautiful holiday," Umrigar said. "People light these beautiful little oil lamps all around their apartment, on the floor or outside their apartments to usher in good luck."

Umrigar has written the children's book "Binny's Diwali" about a young Indian-American girl preparing to share her family's holiday with her elementary school class.

"Binny's Diwali" by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani [Scholastic Inc.]

"And she freezes. She just is so nervous that she loses her thought and she doesn't know how to proceed. And then she remembers the story of these little oil lamps and how Diwali itself is a holiday that celebrates the triumph of good over evil," Umrigar said. "This gives her the courage to control her own fears and her own stage fright and stand before the class and tell this story."

"Binny's Diwali" by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani [Scholastic Inc.]

Umrigar hopes her book shines a light on the Diwali holiday itself.

"I had read somewhere that it's actually a holiday that's celebrated by more people than any other holiday on Earth," she said. "I was struck by that, that this was the world's largest festival and yet so few people in America knew about it."

Diwali decorations at the Subramanian family home [Lalit Subramanian]

For Subramanian it is the music of Diwali that resonates, especially that of 18th century Indian composer Muthuswami Dikshitar who's become an icon of the Diwali holiday.

Lalit Subramanian sings "Meenakshi Memudam Dehi" by Muthuswami Dikshitar


"It is said that he passed on Diwali day while listening to his disciples sing his musical masterpiece, Meenakshi Memudam Dehi," Subramanian said. "I learned this composition from my guru in Pune when I was growing up, on a day during the Diwali week. That holds a special place in my heart."

Lalit Subramanian and his family [Lalit Subramanian]

And what is a holiday festival without food?

"This was a chance for neighbors to exchange their homemade snacks and sweets. And I, as a kid, was always excited to try on the variety that came home from all the different neighbors," he said. "I think the significance of this was people to put aside their differences and come together, socialize, celebrate together. So this also kind of plays into the idea of victory of good over evil."

The Festival of Lights, Diwali, continues through Saturday night.

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