Diwali brings a community to light

A new arts council taps the traditional festival to boost unity and visibility for Greater Boston’s South Asians.

Amit Dixit is founder and executive director of the South Asian Arts Council. He blows out the candles after the Diwali diya was lit during a ceremony at the State House, on Monday, November 4, 2013.
Amit Dixit is founder and executive director of the South Asian Arts Council. He blows out the candles after the Diwali diya was lit during a ceremony at the State House, on Monday, November 4, 2013. –Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Minutes before it was set to begin, the State House’s Diwali celebration was still coming together. Volunteers were filling gift bags with traditional sweets along a practical assembly line. Attendees were filtering into the Hall of the Flags to find seats. And Amit Dixit, founder of the South Asian Arts Council, was trying to find a moment to duck out of the room and change his clothes.

Dixit, whose group hosted the Nov. 4 event, managed to put on his blue blazer and tie just before introducing the morning kirtan, an Indian musical call-and-response chant that, for the first time ever, was performed in the State House. “Let’s fill this room . . . so everyone in the State House can hear,’’ Dixit said, speaking gently but with a warm enthusiasm.


Since launching the council last year, Dixit has been busy trying to make the South Asian community’s voice a little louder, focusing much of his energy on the Diwali celebration. The festival is traditionally observed by Sikhs, Jains, Hindus, and others, with each faith attaching its own meaning to the holiday. But in essence, Diwali honors the victory of good over evil. The council’s three-day celebration culminated at the State House.

After the morning kirtan, more than 100 people gathered at the Grand Staircase, where oil lamps called diya, representing light overcoming darkness, were lit by Governor Deval Patrick, Self-Realization Fellowship minister Brother Prafullananda, Nepal’s Anuradha Koirala, an activist who combats the sexual exploitation of women and children,
state Treasurer Steve Grossman, and Michael Fanning of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., which sponsored the event. Dixit was especially pleased by the presence of Patrick and Brother Prafullananda: It harkens, he says, to a 1928 meeting in the State House between
Governor Alvan T. Fuller and Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda. Yogananda founded the Self-Realization Fellowship, an international nonprofit that teaches techniques members say foster a personal connection with a greater being.

Dixit, 45, says Diwali became the council’s signature event because its positive message resonates so easily with people of disparate backgrounds. He wants not only to create more unity among South Asians, but also to highlight the links they have made with other cultures. Toward that end, he’s working to bring an exhibition called “Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers’’ to the Museum of African-American History, and is partnering with Jewish groups to host events that underline the similarities between Diwali and Hanukkah.


When Dixit’s family moved from India to Jamaica Plain in 1973, he was 4 years old and South Asians were scarce in Boston. As he grew up attending a primarily white Catholic school, he was quick to connect with anyone he met from India and surrounding countries.

“It didn’t matter if you were from Pakistan or India or somewhere else,’’ he says, he and other South Asians would introduce themselves and invite each other to dinner. But as the local South Asian population has grown, Dixit believes it has become somewhat fractured, along lines of heritage and location. Despite individual achievements, he says, the South Asian community has trouble working together to gain recognition. He points to the interfaith service in Boston following the Marathon bombings, which lacked a South Asian representation.

“It’s not their fault, it’s our fault,’’ he says. “Where do they call?’’

In its second year, the council’s prominence has grown: The group has teamed with ArtsEmerson to screen South Asian films downtown at the Paramount Center, and this year Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III offered a YouTube shout-out to the council and its Diwali celebration.

Dixit credits his work in nonprofits like Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and the Boston LGBT Film Festival with preparing him to lead the council. But if the demands of his unending initiatives start to overwhelm, he says he can calm himself with something Brother Devananda of SRF reminded him of over Diwali weekend.

“Meditation is about service,’’ Dixit says. “This is meditation.’’

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