Over 200 members of the Hindu, Sikh and Jain faiths pack the elegant East Room of the White House
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, November 5, 2013 – It was a heart-warming sight, Tuesday afternoon, as First Lady Michelle Obama lit the traditional Indian Diya (lamp) at the Diwali celebration in the ornate East Room of the White House which looked even more magnificent that day!
On stage with her were Pandit Janaki Ram Marthi of Sri Siva Vishnu Temple who chanted Vedic mantras for peace and prosperity and Mythili Bachu, chairperson of the temple, who garlanded the First Lady.
Some 240 eminent professionals of the Hindu, Sikh and Jain communities packed the room. It is noteworthy that President Obama has the distinction of appointing the largest number of Indian-Americans in any US administration so far.
Among those present at the special Diwali celebration were: Lieutenant Colonel Ravi Chaudhary, an Air Force officer, who introduced the First Lady; Sri Srinivasan, Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; Mr. Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Indian Embassy; Gautam Raghavan, Public Engagement Advisor at the White House; Kiran Ahuja, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; about forty students who participated earlier in the day, with the First Lady, in a Bollywood dance workshop led by choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan in the State Room of the White House; and members of Goldspot, a New York based band founded by singer Siddhartha Khosla, who performed at the event. The First Lady wore a glamorous skirt especially made for the occasion by India-born designer Naeem Khan who was seated in the audience.
Looking around at the gathering, Michelle Obama said, “you all are the bright shining lights for this country and such extraordinary role models for all of the young people who are here with us today. And I want our young people, as you sit in this room, to think about all these wonderful role models are doing and how it is our expectation that you too live up to that”.
Noting that Diwali has been celebrated every year at the White House since President Obama came to office, she said, “there’s a reason why we’ve done that. When we say that we want to make the White House the ‘people’s house’, we mean all people. We mean that we want to honor and embrace all of the many cultures and faith traditions that make us who we are as Americans. And Diwali is very much one of those traditions”.
While Michelle Obama applauded all that is good and positive on the festive occasion, she cautioned, “we remember that there is still evil in the world” and she dwelt on the tragedy at the Oak Creek Gurdwara.
On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist, Wade Michael Page, went on a shooting spree at the Gurdwara in Wisconsin killing six worshippers – Satwant Singh Kaleka, Paramjit Kaur, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh and Suveg Singh – and wounding others, including Lieutenant Brian Murphy, the police officer who responded to the attack, and Punjab Singh, a member of the Sangat (Sikh congregation) who is paralyzed. The names of the victims are forever etched in our collective consciousness.
Recent studies have shown over 70 percent of Americans cannot identify a Sikh and more often than not, confuse turban-wearing Sikhs with Muslims. Ignorance is not bliss!
The epitome of kindness and compassion, our First Lady told the gathering at the White House, “I’m thinking today about what happened in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, just last year when an act of unthinkable violence shook a community to its core. But, I am also thinking of how in the face of such evil, we also witnessed the power of goodness and forgiveness. The families and community leaders I met when I visited Oak Creek just weeks after the tragedy, they showed us such courage and grace. Instead of giving in to bitterness or despair, they honored those they lost through service. They honored those they lost through educating others about their faith and standing up to prejudice in whatever form it takes.
I’m also thinking of all the people across America and around the world who held prayer vigils during that time and sent messages of love and support, and held the people of Oak Creek in their hearts”, she said.
Michelle Obama continued, “Today, as we further reflect upon the power of courage and grace, I am also thinking of all of the women and men of every faith and background who are serving and enriching this country so greatly every single day – folks like Lieutenant Colonel Chaudhary”.
She noted that Diwali is a time of celebration. “As Barack and I learnt during our visit to India, it’s a time to come together with friends and family, often with dancing and good food”, she said. “But, Diwali is also a time for contemplation and reflection. It’s a time for us to think about our obligations to our fellow human beings, particularly those who are less fortunate than we are. And as we light the diya, we (must) recommit ourselves to the triumph of light over darkness, of good over evil”.
The First Lady’s predilection for the performing arts is well known and she warmly commended the artistes on hand, Nakul Dev Mahajan and members of Goldspot, who, she pointed out, “are leaders in the arts and bring us joy through music and dance”.
She told the gathering, “Nakul is here from one of my favorite shows on the planet, ‘So You Think You Can Dance’. It is. And, of course, as you all know, I think I can dance”, she said, evoking memories of her dance in Mumbai three years ago when she observed Diwali there, mesmerizing the nation.
Much to the delight of the audience at the White House, she disclosed, “We got to practice a little Bollywood this afternoon. And we have many of the young people who were there with us today. We got moves, right?”, she said, looking at the kids who danced with her in the workshop.
“It was the first time that we did Bollywood in the State Room here at the White House”, Michelle Obama told the gathering, adding, “We had a wonderful time”.
Looking around the packed room, she said, “I am so proud and so honored to be celebrating this beautiful holiday at the White House with all of you. I want to thank you for everything that you do for our communities and for this country. And I wish you all and all your loved ones a Happy Diwali and Saal Mubarak”.
As a token of appreciation and in keeping with the tradition of Diwali, the guests were given beautiful boxes of Mithai (Indian sweets), kind courtesy of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple. Sweet ending to one of the sweetest celebrations in the White House!