They say to write what you know, and what we know best is what it’s like to grow up as an Indian-American. Sometimes, that means participating in traditions and festivals we may not fully understand like the barrage of Hindu holidays that arrive every fall.
In college, so many of our friends would go home or do things on campus to celebrate Diwali—we knew the holiday of course, and even the stories behind it, but felt weirdly excluded for not actively celebrating.
Indian culture is so intricate and varied between regions that one person’s experience can have nothing in common with another person’s. From Navratri to Diwali to Durga Puja to Lakshmi Puja, it feels like there is no end to the list of holidays around this time of year—and brown kids struggle to keep it straight.
One of our favorite shows and inspirations is “Broad City.” In their web series, Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer have tackled holidays such as Yom Kippur, Columbus Day, and Halloween, giving it the signature “Broad City” spin simply by having a conversation about it. So, we thought, it would be fun if there were an equivalent for the Indian holidays.
And when there wasn’t, we decided to make it ourselves!
We weren’t going for top-of-the-line production or laugh-out-loud moments, just for a visible commentary on the holidays and something that would give audiences a taste of our humor. We want to produce content that is funny, relatable, entertaining and speaks to what we know.
The video, written Radhika Menon and myself, is definitely meant to be humorous, even with its roots in the real conversations we’ve had. As we brainstormed the script, we did our research: we cross-referenced Hindu calendars and talked to our parents, and ultimately learned more about the holidays just by asking a few questions.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed this time of year, but it’s just as easy to immerse yourself and gain a deeper understanding of our culture.
Watch below and celebrate Diwali by sharing our video with your friends too! We bet they’ll be just as amused.
Proma Khosla is a writer, dancer and proud resident of New York City. She graduated from the University of Michigan, where between cultural shows and dance competitions she somehow earned a B.A. in Communication Studies. Her degree and her work with the Michigan Daily gave her an unshakeable desire to work in editorial and entertainment–basically to talk about TV and movies all day in the hopes that someone will care to listen. She also writes for GeekyNews, Fantastic Fandoms, and has an impressive collection of personal journals that live in shoe boxes under her bed.
Both of my parents were born and raised in Bihar, India. They dated for a few years before getting married and moving to the United States, where they had me and my two older brothers. To our house in the States, they brought some remnants of home with them: old filmy Hindi music that always echoed in the background, my mom’s masala chai recipe that still entrances anyone who catches even a whiff of it, and a love for dance in any and every form.
They tried their best to fill our lives with as much cultural celebration and ritual as they could, but despite their genuine attempts to keep us rooted, being a product of the South Asian diaspora was complicated.
Growing up, my relationship with my culture looked very different throughout distinct stages of my life. Despite being a diaspora kid, I had a unique experience in that when I was four years old, my family packed up our lives in California and moved to my parent’s hometown in Bihar. We lived there for almost three years, and for each of those three years, I absorbed every ounce of India like a sponge. I learned how to speak Hindi fluently (along with some cuss words). I tried the classic Bihari street food — litti chokha — and watched how it was masterfully made over hot charcoal. I observed Chhathpooja, a Hindu festival dedicated to the solar deity, unique to the northeastern region of India. I developed an unhealthy addiction to chocolate Horlicks and Parle-G biscuits. I even tried, but ultimately failed, to master cricket. But sadly, all of that cultural immersion was short-lived and eventually came to an end. When I was seven, my family moved back to California.
Working with the cards we were dealt, my family still tried to stay connected to our heritage in whichever way we could. Our weekends were filled with trips to the mandir and Nina’s Indian Groceries. Festivals like Diwali and Holi were always embraced with parties and poojas. During Navratri season especially, my best friend Camy and I would dress up in matching lehengas and dance with dandiya sticks so forcefully that they would literally break in half.
Within our microcosm of a world, I never once paused to think about how I would carry these traditions forward.
It wasn’t until college, when I was trying to navigate who I was outside of my family unit for the first time, that I began to ruminate on my independent relationship with my culture. I didn’t have the structure of my family and childhood home to reiterate and reverberate Bihari traditions, Hindu customs, the Hindi language, or my family history. How would I embody them henceforth? Would I be able to make my ancestors proud?
My college roommates and I used to joke that despite us all being Indian Americans, we all spoke different mother tongues: Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, and Telugu. This obviously made it tough to engage with our languages, even though we still made our best attempts. I learned how to read and write in Hindi during my senior year of college, but my skills are still rusty and elementary at best. Without continuous exposure and practice, I’m scared that one day I’ll lose the ability entirely.
As a child of immigrants, out of the context of my motherland, I find myself grappling with guilt or fear of losing touch with my roots. It can feel that with every passing generation, pieces of my culture may slowly diminish or get lost in translation. Bits of wisdom that are so niche and particular that, once I forget them, who will be there to remind me?
As I’m scouring the web for hair rejuvenation remedies and get overwhelmed by the surplus of opinions, I get frustrated that I can’t remember which ayurvedic oil is better for hair regeneration: Amla or coconut? If I catch a cold and need to make my nani’s cure-all tulsi chai recipe, I cross my fingers and hope that I’ve gotten all of the ingredients and measurements right. When I seem to be trapped in a continuous cycle of ebbs and want to consult my Vedic astrological chart for some insight, I find myself lost trying to navigate the implications of Shani and the meaning behind my houses.
It took a lot of time and reflection to let go of feelings of guilt attached to this notion of preservation. This isn’t to say that this process isn’t continuously ongoing. But, what I’ve ultimately reconciled, is that as a diaspora kid, I’m creating something that is true and unique to my nuanced experience as an Indian American.
Usha Jey, a South Asian-born and raised in Paris, recently fused urban and Bharatnatyam dance forms to create “Hybrid Bharatnatyam.” This dance form so perfectly encapsulates the blending of culture. As a dancer who grew up performing urban choreo with a mix of Bollywood, this fusion of East and West was such a validating thing to see. Dance has always been a medium through which I’ve been able to connect with my American and Indian identities. A lot of my childhood was spent performing Bollywood routines at temple events or Neema Sari showcases. In high school, I was introduced to competitive urban dance and fell in love. Excited to give my teammates a peek into my culture, I choreographed and taught an urban-Bollywood piece to the classic “Sheila ki Jawani” that we ended up performing at our annual showcase. Similarly, artists like MEMBA and Abhi the Nomad subtly weave nostalgic Indian sounds into their electronic and hip-hop music to create something entirely unique. As someone navigating both of these worlds, their music tugs at my duality. When I lived in San Francisco, during the festival of Diwali, I would cook up a feast and host all of my friends from diverse cultures and backgrounds to eat, do rangoli on the roof, and light sparklers. While that may not have been a traditional celebration, it was my cliff notes version of Diwali that I was giddy to share with my community.
Historically speaking, in any culture, there are traditions and customs that will be safeguarded until the end of time, but on that same note, there will be so much of culture that will evolve and soon look different. And maybe embracing that is something beautiful in and of itself.
While I’m still navigating my connection to my motherland, heritage, and roots, I’m allowing myself the grace to see that elements of them may manifest themselves differently in my life and the community of culture surrounding me. And while I may be creating something unique to my own identity, I still hope to honor the traditions and customs of those who came before me.
Navratri, a festival celebrated with great pomp and splendor in India, is a testament to the celebration of feminine power and the triumph of the goddess. This nine-night festival revolves around the devotion to the divine feminine, where women and men alike come together to celebrate the goddess’s strength, wisdom, and grace. It’s a time when people revel in the joy of cultural traditions, vibrant colors, and the spirit of togetherness. The Garba festivities during Navratri see men and women dressed to the nines in colorful ethnic wear, moving in rhythmic harmony to the beats of music. It’s a sight to behold, where the essence of femininity is beautifully showcased through the elegance and grace of traditional clothing. This celebration leaves an indelible mark on the hearts of those who partake in it.
The festival of Navratri is deeply rooted in the cultural fabric of India. It’s a time when communities come alive with the fervor of celebration. The air is filled with the aroma of traditional Indian sweets and the sound of rhythmic music. For nine nights, the goddess is worshiped in her various forms, and the devotion of the people knows no bounds.
For Shreya Patel, a Chicago-based designer and the creative force behind Always Raas, Navratri became more than just a festival; it became an inspiration. The fusion of feminine strength and the infectious joy of Navratri left a profound impact on her. She was captivated by the unbridled happiness and energy that filled the air during this festive time. It was during Navratri’s Garba celebrations that she found her calling.
Age often defines the limits of one’s aspirations, but Patel was determined to defy those norms. She embarked on her entrepreneurial journey at the age of 51, breaking free from any societal constraints that dictated what she could or couldn’t achieve. She recognized that every woman, regardless of age, possesses immense strength and resilience. Patel firmly believed that age is but a number and that women can chase their dreams at any stage of life.
Always Raas is more than just a fashion brand; it’s a celebration of the enduring strength and potential of women, a tribute to the essence of Navratri. The brand’s designs beautifully encapsulate the spirit of the festival. Each garment is crafted to make women feel confident, beautiful, and deeply connected to their cultural heritage. It’s about embracing femininity, elegance, and timeless style, allowing every woman to feel like a goddess during the festive season. Raas caters to the “Global Naari,” a world citizen with Indian roots who cherishes her rich ethnic heritage even while living away from her origins. This is a woman who embraces her culture and isn’t afraid to showcase her heritage, transcending borders and creating her unique identity.
At the core of Always Raas lies a deep commitment to sustainability. Patel, the brand’s designer, established her own manufacturing unit to ensure fair wages and a positive working environment for her employees. The brand focuses on social sustainability, crafting garments through hand dyeing instead of digital printing, and handwork instead of machine work, creating more jobs and empowering artisans.
Always Raas recently debuted their EZORA collection at South Asian New York Fashion Week, a sustainable and eco-friendly line primarily consisting of modern and traditional silhouettes made from vegan silk. This collection, consisting of garments in vegan silk and a handbag collection, serves two vital purposes: to repurpose garment scraps into long-lasting items and to provide jobs for stay-at-home wives of artisans working in the factory. It’s not just about producing beautiful clothing; it’s about making a positive impact on the world. This initiative empowers these women to become more financially independent while honing their craftsmanship, reflecting the brand’s dedication to social and environmental sustainability.
Always Raas stands as a beacon of empowerment, tradition, and sustainability. Patel’s journey is a testament to Naari Shakti— the power of women, celebrated in every garment created by Always Raas.
All photos are courtesy of Always Raas from this year’s South Asian New York Fashion Week.
Bharatanatyam is a traditional Indian dance form and the oldest classical dance tradition in India. Bharatanatyam, originally a dance performed by women in temples of Tamil Nadu, is often used to convey Hindu religious tales and devotions. It is taught by a teacher known as a guru. The dance costume resembles that of a South Indian bride and the dancer wears anklets, called ghungroos, to keep the rhythm while dancing to the music. While Bharatanatyam is still taught all over the world in the traditional way, the styles of teaching have changed over the years. For the last six years, my sister and I have been taught modernized styles of Bharatnatyam in the USA.
An Arangetram lasts approximately three hours and has nine, or in our case 10, dances in total. It begins with an introduction dance called a Mallari or Pushpanjali following the guru’s nattuvangam (rhythm kept using symbols). In the middle of the program is a Varnam — a centerpiece dance that lasts about 30 to 40 minutes. This dance tests the dancer’s endurance as well as their storytelling ability. The performance is concluded with a Thillana which is seen as the last glimpse into the dancer’s full capacity. The Thillana is followed by a Mangalam, the closing dance of the Arangetram.
My sister and I began learning Bharatanatyam in 2016 when we were nine years old. Despite our instant attachment to the art form, we were always daunted by the idea of having an Arangetram of our own. It would be challenging, mainly because we are twins, and our performance would have to be suitable for two people to perform side by side. We began preparing for this event in the summer of 2021. Our guru would make us run for the first half hour of class to build our stamina — much-needed for a three-hour repertoire. We would spend the next two and a half hours learning our repertoire. The first dance we learned together during this time was our Varnam. Learning this dance took a month and we spent a lot of time memorizing it. Our Varnam was dedicated to Lord Krishna, one of the many Hindu gods, known for his charm, wit, and being a master Guru whose philosophies were immortalized through the Gita — the Hindu Holy scripture.
An Arangetram is the on-stage debut of a traditional Bharatanatyam dancer following years of training and discipline under the able guidance of a guru. This is a milestone for young artists as it opens up the opportunity for solo performances, choreographing individual pieces, and instructing other dancers.
By January, we had learned our entire repertoire and were starting to memorize it while adding expressions, poses, and building up our stamina, making them look effortless. Some dances were more difficult to memorize than others, particularly dances that were story-based. Because most Bharatanatyam dance music is in either Sanskrit or Tamil so we couldn’t understand the lyrics right away. Our guru helped us interpret the stories before teaching us the choreography making them easier to commit to memory. We also had help from our mother who listened to all our songs and gave us keywords that corresponded with our dance moves. Listening to dance music on the way to school, dance, or while getting ready for bed, became a part of our daily routine as it helped us internalize the rhythms.
Although a year seems like a long time to prepare for an event, the day of the Arangetram came before we knew it. The morning started off with family and friends coming to our house to help us transport decorations and essentials we would need backstage. We arrived at our venue — the Balaji temple in Bridgewater, New Jersey — and made our way to the green rooms. Our makeup artists assisted us with hair and makeup, which lasted four hours. During this time we were going through the dances in our heads and mentally preparing for the performance to come. Once we were dressed in costume, we headed for the stage pooja, a prayer session on the Arangetram stage with close friends and family, to invoke a successful performance. This was also the time when jitters started kicking in. It had just occurred to us that the performance we’d been preparing for our entire dance careers was about to happen and this was the only chance we had to show the audience our very best.
A person can only have one Arangetram in their lifetime, and this huge milestone comes with pressure given how special the performance is.
As the masters of ceremony were introducing our first number all I could do was stare at my sister standing in the other wing, and I knew we had the same thoughts going through our minds.
As we began dancing I felt almost a sense of relief because of how well we knew the dance. Every single dance was so ingrained in our muscle memory that it felt like second nature even in front of such a large audience. During the repertoire, we had two costume changes, with three costumes in total. Each costume change took 15 minutes while the audience was learning about SAMHAJ or listening to speeches from our friends and family. Backstage, our makeup artists and backstage moms were busy helping us change our costumes and jewelry, adjusting them to make sure nothing would move while dancing. We also had some of our fellow dance girls backstage giving us water and fruit as well as tightening our ghungroos so they wouldn’t fall off on stage.
Our Varnam was a huge success, resulting in a standing ovation from the audience. After the Varnam, we performed a slower dance called Ramabajanam, telling all the stories about Lord Ram, another Hindu god known for his chivalry and virtue. We decided to dedicate this dance to our parents since it was always their favorite to watch and listen to. My mom was heavily involved in helping us memorize this dance by telling us the stories so we wouldn’t forget the choreography. Right before the last dance, we acknowledged all of the people who helped us backstage and were presented with our graduation certificates. In order to give the audience a peek at the effort that went into the performance they were watching, we shared our experience with the audience as well as our guru’s message during this time. Our last dance surprised the audience, as our mother joined us on stage and danced with us. She always dreamt of being a dancer as a child but was never able to learn. Sharing one dance meant a lot to us, and watching it was very entertaining for the audience as well. After all the dances were over, all our guests proceeded to the banquet hall for dinner where we were able to greet all our guests and thank them for coming. When the night ended we were exhausted but still full of adrenaline.
Even though the tension that had built-up in my head over the last few months had now subsided, I was somewhat disappointed that the process had come to an end. I wouldn’t exactly call my Arangetram journey perfect or effortless, but I grew so much this past year as a dancer and as well as a person. The lessons I learned from dance about hard work and resilience will carry on with me for the rest of my life and for that I am forever grateful. The event itself brought so many people together such as my aunt and cousin, who came all the way from India to attend, as well as so many relatives that we hadn’t seen in years. Grandparents, as well as young children all gathered in the audience to watch a display of their culture, or for some audience members, learn a new one. Not only did we spread awareness for this beautiful art form, but we also raised awareness on mental health amongst South Asians — an issue we’re passionate about.
Along with our guru, we decided to leverage this event to create awareness for mental health amongst South Asians in the United States. We decided to advocate for SAMHAJ, a charity that provides education and support for South Asians affected by serious mental illnesses. In order to educate people about mental health, SAMHAJ offers workshops to social service organizations, schools, and mental health professionals as well as provides culturally competent mental health services by creating bilingual support groups. You can donate to SAMHAJ via this link.
Overall, this process has been immensely gratifying and I simply cannot wait to see what the future has in store for me with Bharatanatyam.