Festival of Lights seeks to foster cultural awareness

By Jennifer Amato
Staff Writer

Enjoy Explore India will have its own version of Connect Four throughout October.

Through the Festival of Lights program, the North Brunswick-based organization has planned huge celebrations designed to connect all members of the community at four New Jersey malls.

“This is bringing people around the universal symbol of light because it’s shared by all cultures,” said founder and CEO Seema Moondra. “Light is central to all our celebrations and is essential to life.”

The pilot program is meant to build cultural connections and exchange ideas in the mainstream, Moondra said.

“What we are not doing [in society] is connecting people and telling them how they are connected, which to me is the missing link,” she said.

Therefore, a group of 10 interns has spent months event planning, securing business deals, writing proposals and coordinating the events that will take place from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Quaker Bridge Mall in Lawrenceville, Oct. 8 at the Mills at Jersey Gardens in Elizabeth, Oct. 15 at the Menlo Park Mall in Edison and Oct. 22 at Newport Centre in Jersey City.

Rangoli floor decorations will adorn both entrances, while attendees can purchase supplies to make their own rangolis with stencils that represent all religions, such as a tree for Christmas or a star for Hanukkah. A giant tree will be adorned with cultural ornaments.

Upon walk in, there will be a backdrop of a carnival scene with props so that visitors may take photos with items such as an Indian turban, a Mexican sombrero, a Mardi Gras mask and  Hawaaian lei – again bridging the cultural gap.

“We are always thinking only about the way we dress or the things we use … but when we put a mix of props over there, people will mix and match … and make something new. We can all learn from each other,” Moondra said.

A living room setting with a fireplace will be adorned with cultural items as well, providing a place of refuge and conversation. A mehndi artist will do henna.

“It’s a cozy feeling of family and coming together and sharing ideas,” Moondra said.

The holiday shop will offer ornaments made by artisans in the Kashmir area of India, helping to support artists around the world, according to Moondra. The company she is working with is helping rural folk artists in India have a more urban appeal, she said.

“Everything we have in the holiday shop has a story, and it keeps giving,” she said.

There will also be several demonstrations offered, including how to use the items in the holiday shop, table top cooking and sari draping. Music and dance presentations, as well as story time for children, are expected as well.

A lighting ceremony should bring together the central theme of the festival.

“At the end of everything you do, if you cannot come together and cannot understand each other, all that work, to me, is not very helpful,” Moondra said.

To help fundraise for the festivals, an IndieGoGo campaign has been established through Sept. 15. Donors who offer anywhere from $25 to $10,000 will have access to online workshops on cooking, crafts, dance and Indian folk art as a way to show appreciation.

“What is it that you and I can relate to?” Moondra said of the workshops that Enjoy Explore India already offers. “When you identify that point, you can take a person across the seas to talk about it.”

Enjoy Explore India is also collaborating on the Cherished Holiday Food Traditions Cookbook, a culmination of recipes and the stories behind those recipes, due Sept. 20.

An art and writing contest was held ahead of the Festival of Lights.

As was Create, Collect & Come Together, a program at the Metuchen Senior Center that had seniors working on pieces of a 5-foot by 5-foot rangoli using colored rice on Aug. 24. The North Brunswick Senior Center will hold its own rangoli making workshop on Sept. 9.

On Aug. 15 at the East Brunswick Library, the India’s Independence Day celebration included SAADA’s  (South Asian American Digital Archives) First Day Project, chronicling the stories of immigrants on their first days in America.

A peer mentoring group for high school and middle school students is being piloted at the Monroe Library.

For more information on the Festival of Lights, visit www.festivaloflights.info.

Enjoy Explore India is encouraging choir, dance, music and theater students to join the festival to perform. Students will be recognized as event ambassadors and will receive volunteer hours. School groups can call 732-977-2264 or email connect@enjoyexploreindia.com.

To make a donation to the Festival of Lights campaign, visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/festival-of-lights-a-community-building-event-light-community.

For more information on Enjoy Explore India, visit www.enjoyexploreindia.com.

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@gmnews.com.