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Last Updated: Monday, 6 October, 2003, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK
Diwali comes to Manhattan
By Louise Tillin in New York

Traditional Gujarati dance mingled with bhangra-style workouts, amidst a feast of Indian cooking and shopping, as the festival of Diwali was celebrated in Manhattan's South Street Seaport on Sunday.

Dancers in Manhattan
Dancing to a distant beat: Indian dancers in the South Street Seaport

Manhattan's celebrations, now in their sixteenth year, are held several weeks before Diwali itself.

Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, celebrates the triumph of good over evil, as represented by the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya after slaying the demon Ravana and rescuing his wife, Sita.

Two stages in lower Manhattan were filled with dancers and music reflecting customs from all over India.

The outside festival is always held on the first Sunday in October before the weather worsens.

This year's event coincided with another Hindu festival, Dusshera.

Good get-together

Much of the emphasis of the day was on children and the younger generation of Indian Americans.

The second generation is... less concerned about India, and more about the USA, their adopted homeland
Shashi Shah, Vice-president of the Association of Indians in America

Eleven-year-old Shraya was part of an ensemble who performed a dance from northern India.

"The four girls are the Gopis - women from the village - and the boy was Krishna - so we were worshipping him," she explains.

Vishal, Preeta, Swati and Jessica - a group of friends - said that the day was a good way for people to get together.

Children onstage
Dance acts by children were the centrepiece of the celebrations

Swati went on to say: "I don't live with my parents any more so sometimes you lose touch with your culture.

"It's our parents who usually make us to do this, so it's nice to come on our own and it's a chance for me to bring my friends and show them something of my culture."

Eyeing up the White House

The organisers of the festival, the Association of Indians in America (AIA), are trying to encourage younger Indians to get involved in American public life without forgetting their Indian heritage.

Shashi Shah, vice-president of the AIA, says that "as the second generation is coming up they are getting more involved in local politics".

"They are less concerned about India, and more about the USA - their adopted homeland."

Shraya (far right) with the other 'gopis'

And this festival, he says, "is really the realisation of cross-culture".

"There is more assimilation and more interaction between mainstream America and Indians at large," he says.

The AIA are hoping that this sentiment could be reflected in the possible celebration of Diwali at the White House this year for the first time ever.

No sweat

Sarina Jain, founder of the Masala Bhangra Workout - a workout based on the Indian dance of bhangra - has a different message.

Ms Jain, who hosts a TV workout show and says she is known as the Indian answer to Jane Fonda, wants more South Asians to get into fitness.

Friends at the festival
Multi-cultural Manhattan: (l to r) Preeta, Vishal, Swati and Jessica

"95% of my clientele are American," she says.

"One out of 20 doctors in the US is an Indian, but South Asians have a low rate of physical activity" - and a high rate of cardiac arrests, she says.

"This is the first time that Indian dance is being introduced to the fitness industry."

But perhaps the smell of the food wafting near the stage where Sarina Jain is performing her workout is one clue why there weren't so many people working up a sweat at this festival.

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