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Diwali lights up centre’s cultural hurdles

A Vancouver community centre is aiming to broaden its multicultural appeal, starting out with an event marking the South Asian festival…

By Andrew Friesen , in Culture , on October 20, 2011 Tags: ,

A Vancouver community centre is aiming to broaden its multicultural appeal, starting out with an event marking the South Asian festival of Diwali.

Vancouver dancer Suragini Ravindran leads a Bollywood dance lesson

Staff at the False Creek community centre were pleased with the modest turnout of their first ever Diwali celebration, but acknowledged that there have been challenges in measuring the demand for culturally diverse programming in the neighbourhood.

False Creek’s event, held on Sunday Oct. 16, drew a crowd of around 50. It was one of a series of workshops at community centres across Vancouver this October.  By comparison, the first, held at the Renfrew community centre in East Vancouver, drew an estimated 300 people.

Organizers say the small turnout was in line with their expectations for the event.

“For a first time, there are certain things that we can definitely do better,”  said False Creek recreation coordinator Cindy Gulbransen.

“But for the most part people were engaged, informed, and they left with something.” She said there are no plans for similar programs in the near future.

Ahead of the Diwali workshop, Gulbrasen had acknowledged that the centre needed to find out more about the community it serves.

“We have to get ourselves knowledgeable about who we serve,” she said. “We don’t know who our audience is, quite honestly,” adding that programming decisions are based primarily on census data.

Cultural mandate of community centres

At Sunday’s event, the sound of Bollywood music and the scent of freshly painted henna tattoos filled the Granville Island centre.

Parents sipped chai tea while their children painted brightly coloured diyas, earthenware lamps that are traditionally lit during the South Asian festival.  For this reason, Diwali is often referred to as the “Festival of Lights”.

[pullquote]Diwali is not just a Hindu festival or a South Asian festival, it’s for everyone[/pullquote]In the community centre’s gymnasium, an instructor from dance company Shiamak Vancouver led a high-energy Bollywood dance lesson. Mehndi artist Zara Haque was kept busy applying henna tattoos, a temporary dying of the skin that is customary for Hindu festivals and special occasions.

Daisy Chin, the centre’s recreation supervisor, said that residents of False Creek are hungry for more cultural events like Diwali.

“There is definitely an abundance of interest in the community to have culturally diverse programs,” said Chin. “Each community centre tries to reflect and respond to the needs of the surrounding neighbourhood.”

In the past, though, cultural programs at the centre have been narrow in their focus.

“There’s the Euro-traditional: breakfast with Santa, Halloween and Easter, but those are centered around Christian holidays,” said Gulbransen. “This was a chance for us to do something different.”

According to the 2006 census, 35 per cent of False Creek residents identify themselves as being a visible minority. While this is similar to surrounding neighborhoods, it is lower than the average for the city of Vancouver (47.1 per cent) and higher than the province of British Columbia (25 per cent).

Gulbransen says that Vancouver’s community centres should strive to reflect the cultural diversity of the city.

“There’s an awareness, there’s a respect, there’s something to be learned,” she said, adding that one of the goals of the False Creek centre is “to be more diverse and to reach out through events and programs and workshops so we’re inclusive.”

The Festival of Lights

The Diwali workshops are organized by Vancouver Celebrates Diwali, a volunteer group dedicated to sharing the festival with citizens through events like the one at False Creek.

Mehndi artist Zara Haque applies a henna tattoo

“Diwali is not just a Hindu festival or a South Asian festival, it’s for everyone,” said Junita Thakorlal, the group’s workshop coordinator.

Thakorlal believes that in a city as diverse as Vancouver, it is important to promote awareness of traditions and to create links between people of different backgrounds.

“Look around, everyone you see is of different cultures,” she said. “We’ve got all these multicultural initiatives in Vancouver, we want to engage with different communities to get them involved in our community to learn and have fun.”

While the month-long festival is an important time on the Hindu, Sikh and Jain religious calendars, Thakorlal says that these events are designed for people of all faiths and backgrounds.

“You’re not bogged down with all the religious details, you’re just here to learn and experience a different culture,” she said. “It’s just a way to share and create awareness.”