In ten years, the ‘Festival of lights’ celebration spear-headed by Arun and Jaya Sharma, has grown from a single day event to a 10-day affair, making it one of the biggest Diwali events in the Southern Hemisphere
The crowds have increased alongside the festivities. Up to 60,000 people now head to the city for the main day’s celebrations and fireworks. The festival is also celebrated at Melbourne Airport and Flinders Street Station, where wishes are announced in multiple languages every hour
Arun and Jaya Sharma had a dream to see “Diwali lights reflecting in the Yarra waters”, and sharing this Indian tradition with non-Indian friends across the city.
Back then, there were fewer Indians living in Victoria and the general population knew little to nothing about their festivals. Fast-forward to today and Diwali is not only well known but, in the words of one former Premier, ‘Diwali belongs to all Victorians’.
How did this happen?
Sharma told the Indian Sun the journey to bring Diwali to Melbourne began as a dream and strong conviction he and his wife Jaya shared for many years. They wanted to foster an understanding and appreciation of Indian culture. They saw no better way to do it than by opening the door to a festival that had long been celebrated privately by Indians in function centres and homes across the suburbs.
Over lunch with friends Jana Rao and Virendra Berera, Arun and Jaya sketched out a vision of a community Diwali ‘in the heart of Melbourne’.
The thought excited Rao and Berera. They backed it wholeheartedly and straightaway the ball started rolling.
The group formed Celebrate India as a non-profit organisation and set about gaining support from the community, reaching out to then Lord Mayor of Melbourne John So and the Consul General of India in Melbourne Butshikan Singh, among others. The Late Dr Martand Joshi also joined as a founding member.
“Celebrate India was formed with a mission to bring the wider communities together and build a better understanding and appreciation of our Indian culture,” Sharma explained. “While Jana Rao helped in getting sponsors, my wife, Jaya was working with SBS as an executive producer and had many useful contacts which helped us to get the festival off the ground.”
The inaugural Diwali in 2006 drew a crowd of over 30,000 people. The celebrations concluded much as Arun and Jaya had dreamt, with a colourful 25-minute fireworks display over the Yarra.
But the event lit up more than just Melbourne’s iconic brown river, with lights illuminating famous landmarks and buildings across the city, includingthe Parliament House, Melbourne Museum, Town Hall, Federation Square, Royal Exhibition Building, Flinders Street Station, St Paul’s Cathedral and SBS Radio.
“We still get goose bumps when we think about our first event,” Sharma recalled. “It was very satisfying to see so many Australians coming for the event and asking questions about the festival… when we saw these aerial pictures of the crowd in the [Federation] Square we had to pinch ourselves.”
Among Sharma’s most fond memories was the moment when the crowd began singing India’s National Anthem. “It was an amazing experience which brought tears to our eyes,” he said.
Since then, Celebrate India has grown rapidly with the Diwali committee going from five members in its initial years to 70 active members pitching in with significant roles to ensure the celebrations run smoothly.
Sharma said the event would never have grown into what it is today without the dedication of these volunteers. “Year after year the same group of members continue to volunteer their time and energy to make sure this festival continues to grow,” he said. “Having such a dedicated and enthusiastic team is a blessing.”
To get a taste of their efforts, consider Ashwani Mehta. He cut short his honeymoon to take charge of the security for Diwali one year, Sharma said. “And Sidharth Singh who was transferred to Brisbane for work last year took one week off to join the team and to carry out his allocated work, while Helen Bedi found time to help between preparing for her son’s wedding. There are so many such examples in our team,” he added. It’s little wonder Sharma said the team is like one big family.
The Diwali event has also grown over the years, from a single day celebration to a 10-day affair, which has seen it gain distinction as “the biggest Diwali festival in the Southern Hemisphere”, according to Sharma.
The crowds have increased alongside the festivities. Up to 60,000 people now head to the city for the main day’s celebrations and fireworks. The festival is also celebrated at Melbourne Airport and Flinders Street Station, where along with Diwali decorations, wishes are announced in multiple languages every hour.
“We always wanted to present the best of Indian culture to the wider community so our youngsters may feel proud of their heritage,” Sharma explained. “Hence, it is an ongoing process to make it the best possible event every year.”
What became of that initial goal to raise awareness and appreciation of Indian festivals? Arun is pleased to report it’s well and truly kicked through the goalposts.
“When we started, we had to explain Diwali to almost all non-Indians and use wordings like ‘Festival of Lights’,” Sharma explained. “But not anymore. This makes our team very happy.”
Sharma further pointed out, “Participation of non-Indian artists and volunteers in the festival had also grown to 27 per cent. However, what was really the most satisfying moment was when a recent Premier declared this festival the ‘Victorian Festival of Diwali.”
Now, 10 years after Celebrate India first came together, Sharma said it felt surreal to be celebrating the milestone year but it also suggests, “that the group is doing something right for India and our adopted homeland”. And there are no plans to slow down any time soon. Instead, Arun said, they’re “always looking forward to new ideas and ways to involve other communities, as well as see our younger members take charge.”