By Matt Hampton | Nov. 9, 2023

For decades, Diwali celebrations have brought together the South Asian students and alumni of Washington University in St. Louis.

Diwali 1998, Passage Through India, featured a cast and crew totaling over 150 students.
Diwali 1998, Passage Through India, featured a cast and crew totaling over 150 students.

Diwali, known as the festival of lights, is one of India’s most significant holidays. In India, it is a five-day festival in which celebrants illuminate their homes, streets, and temples with clay oil lamps known as diyas. Families and communities gather for feasts and parades, exchange gifts, and light fireworks. The tradition symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness, and specific festivities vary from region to region. Primarily a Hindu celebration, Diwali is also observed by Jains and Sikhs in India and around the world.

Similarly, Diwali is a major event on WashU’s campus. Ashoka, WashU’s South Asian student association, has organized an annual Diwali celebration that brings together students from all cultures since around 1988.

Originally, it was a party hosted in the Gargoyle (an event space in the basement of the Mallinckrodt Center) at which traditional Indian food was served and guests enjoyed music and dance.

But after a few years, it transformed into one of the most highly anticipated events on campus: a performance at Edison Theatre in Mallinckrodt for which tickets sell out year after year.

Ashoka performance

Ashoka’s annual Diwali show is one of WashU’s largest student-run productions. Students spend months preparing the revue, which encompasses skits, a fashion show, dance performances, and a ceremonial diya lighting.

The event features colorful and ornate costumes, and dance teams Bhangra, Garba, Raas, Chahaat, and Classical showcase traditional Indian styles. In recent years, Bollywood fusion a capella group WU Sur Taal Laya has also entertained audiences at Diwali.

Although Diwali is primarily an Indian and Hindu tradition, Ashoka’s performance takes a broader perspective and celebrates the diversity of South Asian culture—a rich tapestry of religions, languages, and backgrounds, from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka.

The show is not just about entertainment. The event also raises money for a philanthropic cause, and, in addition to their comedic elements, the skits have tackled serious issues such as race relations and global politics.

This year’s event is titled A Cultural Kaleidoscope and will take place on Nov. 10 and 11.

  • Garba performers in their outfits (known as chaniya choli) for the 2021 Diwali performance
  • Bhangra team
  • WU Raas dances in Diwali 2001: As the Diya Burns.
  • Alumni at the 2023 WUAAN Bay Area Diwali celebration
  • Alumni dance at the 2023 WUAAN Bay Area Diwali celebration
  • WashU Bhangra in traditional costumes, 2022
  • Alok Srivastava, AB '91, left, and friends enjoy food and drink at Diwali 1989.

Alumni events

Alumni have been known to play an active role in WashU Diwali festivities. This year, the Washington University Asian Alumni Network (WUAAN) and the Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi American Staff and Faculty Affinity Group are hosting a networking reception at the Mallinckrodt Center before the show. The event will connect alumni, staff, and faculty over appetizers and beverages.

Group photo, WUAAN Bay Area's Diwali celebration, 2023
Group photo, WUAAN Bay Area’s Diwali celebration, 2023

On Nov. 3, the San Francisco Bay Area WUAAN hosted a Diwali celebration, where about 80 attendees gathered to enjoy Indian snacks and food, trivia, and a Bollywood dance workshop taught by Prag Batra, BS ’15, and his wife, Priyadarshini Mitra. The event took place in the private dining hall of the Sakoon Restaurant in Santa Clara, California.

“I think the event went very well,” Batra said. “It was really fun to be able to teach people about Diwali and celebrate the event together.”

I think WashU has one of the strongest and most active alumni communities I have seen, and these events play a key role in facilitating this.

Prag Batra, BS ’15

He added that the Bay Area WUAAN chapter organizes many activities, including Lunar New Year celebrations, hikes, and hot pot and dim sum outings. Members also participate in and volunteer at other alumni events.

“Overall, I have really enjoyed getting to meet and engage with WashU alumni from various years in the Bay Area through these gatherings,” Batra said. “I think WashU has one of the strongest and most active alumni communities I have seen, and these events play a key role in facilitating this.”

The tradition of Diwali among the WashU community is still going strong. In the years ahead, for both students and alumni, there will be ample opportunities to partake in festivities that bridge cultures and generations.