Top DC Officials Celebrate Diwali at Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art

Mayor Muriel Bowser proclaims October 25 as ‘Diwali Day’ in Washington, DC

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC, October 28, 2017 – The DC Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs (MOAPIA) held its third annual Diwali celebration at one of the finest venues in the nation’s capital: the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.

On a Wednesday evening, the 240-seat Meyer Auditorium, inside the Freer, was packed to capacity as Pandit Venkatacharyulu, a senior priest at the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Maryland, led the lighting of the ‘diya’ (traditional Indian lamp) while chanting a Sanskrit Mantra for world peace and prosperity.

At a Diwali celebration hosted by DC Mayor’s Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs (MOAPIA), held at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, are seen from left to right: emcee Sonya Gavankar; Pandit Venkatacharyulu of Sri Siva Vishnu Temple (SSVT); Atul Rawat, General Manager of SSVT; Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Hyesook Chung; Brahmachari Vrajvihari Sharan, director of Hindu Life at Georgetown University; Indian-American community activist Sashi Agarwal; and Charon Hines, director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs

Greeting the gathering, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Hyesook Chung noted that the Diwali celebration signifies a victory of light over darkness and good over evil. “We now have some gloom in our country”, she said, in an apparent reference to the Trump presidency. “I’m so proud to work with the Mayor (Muriel Bowser) and an administration focused on bringing light, to create a city that is more inclusive for people of all backgrounds”.

Chung is the highest-ranking AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) official in the DC Government appointed by Mayor Bowser to ensure that residents of the city can live a healthy and productive life.

About her agency, the Deputy Mayor said, “We are creating programs where all spaces are safe regardless of ethnicity and immigration status. We will turn no one down”, she vowed.

The senior DC official emphasized, “We face a lot of uncertainty right now on the national level, but this celebration reminded me of how critically important it is for us to focus on all the goodness in all of us, and in humanity. It was also a reminder that no matter what religion (we belong to), the center of goodness is light”.

Looking around the auditorium, she said, “I am so pleased to see such a packed crowd”.

David Do, executive director of MOAPIA which serves over 32,000 AAPIs living in the District through advocacy and engagement, presented a proclamation by Mayor Bowser declaring October 25, 2017 as ‘Diwali Day’ in Washington, DC.

Do was joined on stage by Charon Hines, director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs, who read the proclamation recognizing, “Diwali is the festival of lights marking the victory of good over evil on earth and is celebrated by over one billion adherents of the Hindu, Jain and Sikh religions worldwide. It is a matter of pride and joy to celebrate the Dharmic faith communities and recognize their contributions to the District of Columbia”, Bowser wrote in her proclamation. “We appreciate the many social, economic and cultural contributions of the Hindu American community. Washington, DC takes great pleasure in celebrating the diversity that enriches our great city and nation”, she stated.

Davina Etwaroo performed Indian classical dances in the bharatanatyam style at the third annual Diwali celebration by DC Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs held at the Meyer Auditorium in the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art

Emphasizing that “So much good can be found in the District of Columbia”, Do told the audience, “We are a city that respects the freedom of religion and love. We are a city full of people who come from different cultures, speak different languages and hold different beliefs. We are a city that serves all DC residents regardless of their immigration status because we know that DC is strengthened by the diversity and contributions of all its people”, he said, to much applause.

The energetic director of MOAPIA noted that for the second consecutive year, Mayor Bowser has awarded 500,000 dollars to community organizations which offer legal services to the District’s immigrant communities through the Immigrant Justice Legal Services Grant Program. “It was launched in 2016 and has served hundreds of Washingtonians”, he said.

“We must do our part to protect and defend DC values”, Do implored the gathering. Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, he said, “We should be the change that we want to see”.

About the Diwali celebration, Do said, “I’m happy to be celebrating the festival of lights for the third year alongside our Hindu, Sikh and Jain community members. Although Diwali is celebrated over the course of five days, the teachings of Diwali are important reminders to us year around. It reminds us that even in the midst of darkness, light will ultimately prevail and good overcomes evil. Diwali is a time to turn inward, to examine ourselves and our actions, to reflect on how we can do better and allow our goodness to come forth”.

Dr. Debra Diamond, curator of the South and Southeast Asian art collection at the Freer-Sackler galleries, and a specialist in Indian court painting, thanked the audience “for bringing all the Diwali light. This is an important holiday in very dark times”, she said, apparently referring to the election of President Donald Trump.

It is noteworthy that the Freer and Arthur M. Sackler galleries constitute the national museums of Asian art. Diamond told the audience, “Here, in the Freer and Sackler galleries, the arts of the Indian subcontinent have always had a very important place and the founder of the Freer (Charles Lang Freer) around 1900 went to India and said, ‘I am heels over head in love with India’. He got the saying a bit wrong, but thank goodness since then India has been an important part of what we do here at the museum”, she said.

Brahmachari Vrajvihari Sharan, director of Hindu Life at Georgetown University, spoke about the meaning and significance of Diwali. He noted that for Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists, Diwali is the most recognized festival of the year: for Jains, it is the anniversary of Lord Mahavir’s enlightenment; for Sikhs, it is the night of Bandi Chhor Divas, in honor of the liberation of Guru Hargobind Singh Ji; and Buddhists who celebrate the festival worship Goddess Lakshmi.

Interestingly, Sharan is the first-ever Hindu monk to be hired by a Catholic University. “The true essence of Diwali lies in realizing we are a complex mix of good, bad and indifference and no matter which state or stage of life we are in, we are sacred and divine equally”, he told the audience at the Freer Gallery. The festival, he said, “illuminates our path so we can move away from dark thoughts, dark situations towards the colorful, variegated essence of life”.

Vyjayanthi Vadrevu dancing to Bollywood beats at the third annual Diwali celebration by DC Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs held at the Meyer Auditorium in the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art

The speeches were interspersed with dances by Davina Etwaroo who performed two pieces in the bharatanatyam style, and Vyjayanthi Vadrevu swaying in sync to Bollywood beats.  Davina and Vyjayanthi are artistes of DC-based Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company which specializes in both Indian classical and modern dance.

Sonya Gavankar, former Miss DC (1997), was witty, humorous, and easily essayed her role as emcee of the celebration. Gavankar, who represented Washington, DC in the Miss America Pageant, was the first Indian-American to compete in the contest. She is now a television spokesperson and works full-time at the Newseum where she manages public relations. About the Diwali celebration, she said, it is “a wonderful tradition of bringing light as we enter this new year”.

Coming up on November 11-12, 2017, the Freer and Sackler galleries are hosting a Diwali celebration for kids and teenagers. A family workshop will be held on Saturday, from 11 am to 1 pm, featuring an educator-led tour of artworks from the Indian subcontinent followed by an opportunity for kids, ages 6 to 12, to create a colorful book with a ‘rangoli’ design. A similar program will be held on Sunday, from 1 to 3 pm, for teens. Location is the Sackler Gallery, level B2.

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