Dreaming of India

Spices and foods typical of India’s Diwali festival are on display along with Rangoli, “paintings” of colored sand and flowers, created by the students at Seven Arrows who celebrated Diwali in December. Photo by Nate Grant.

When Palisadian Anjini Desai married and moved to Los Angeles from Bombay in 1996, she vowed to keep the language, customs and traditions of her native land alive, a pledge made all the more meaningful when she became a mother. Desai is exuberantly fulfilling her mission as an ambassador of Indian culture, both with her own children and many other kids in the Palisades. In December, Desai introduced students at Seven Arrows Elementary to Diwali, India’s spectacular festival of lights. Celebrated in India in the fall in accordance with the lunar calendar, Diwali commemorates the arrival of the Hindu Lord Rama, who is said to have returned from exile to reclaim his kingdom. “It’s the biggest festival in India,” says Neil Desai, Anjini’s husband, who is vice president of a biotechnology firm in Santa Monica.”Even though it’s based in religion and represents the Hindu New Year, it’s more of a cultural thing that everyone celebrates.” During the five-day festival, Indians light thousands of earthen “diya,” small oil lamps to illuminate the path of Lord Rama and to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, into their homes. Fireworks explode in the sky many nights in a row, and amid this joyous atmosphere families gather, dressed in new clothes, to exchange gifts and enjoy sweets. As Diwali signifies the renewal of life and heralds the beginning of a new season, the festival also calls for a freshly cleaned and vibrantly decorated home. “It’s really an excuse to have fun,” Anjini told the Palisadian-Post from her parents’ home in Bombay, where she and daughters Ayeshna, 5, and Ayaana, 3, are now on holiday. “India is alive with so many different festivals. It’s a coming together and closeness of people that’s an integral part of who we are.” Children at Seven Arrows got a real taste of this communal spirit when Desai recruited the entire student body to help her fashion the school’s own version of Diwali. They assisted her in making “diya,” created traditional “rangoli” designs composed of colored sand and fresh flowers to adorn the floors and constructed garlands of marigolds and carnations to grace the walls. This set the stage for an event that featured storytelling, traditional Indian music and an elaborate folk dance performance. Both children and adults donned authentic Indian clothing supplied by Desai, some coming from her own wardrobe, other pieces purchased and brought back from India. “Its a different body awareness if you wear costumes,” Desai explains. “I teach little children. They can feel the movement and better understand the culture with the right clothing and costumes.” An unabashed use of bold color was among the most striking elements of the festival. “Color is part and parcel of everyday life in India,” explains Anjini. “It’s part of the vibrancy of the whole culture.” The students not only became active celebrants of Dewali, but also gave thought to the holiday’s underlying purpose as a time of purification, forgiveness and strengthening of friends and family ties. Anjini, who has a degree in business management from Oxford and is a black belt in Goju Karate, regularly teaches traditional and classical Indian dance to children ages 4 to 10. Her “Ghungroo” dance classes are offered through Seven Arrows’ Roots and Wings program in Temescal Gateway Park. The children chant “Dha-ge-na-ki, na-ka-dhin-na,” while “ghungroos,” bands of bells tied to their ankles, rattle and chime to their movements. The dance classes are also infused with stories and poems about the children of India, along with small art projects based on the meaning of a song or instrument. “My daughter is having such a good time, and the dancing is so contagious that I end up dancing with her in class every time,” says Lorena Kiralla, whose daughter Grace, 6, attends Desai’s Ghungroo class. “It is so much fun, the moms have been begging for an adult class of their own.” This is precisely what Desai is planning next, with an adult Ghungroo class scheduled to begin in February. In the meantime, Desai and her husband, who has played the sitar since a child in India, continue to share their cultural heritage around town, including at Little Dolphins, the preschool where both their daughters are enrolled.

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