Shining a Light and Celebrating Multicultural Australia

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To encourage diversity and inclusion, Mordialloc Neighbourhood House and members of the Aumsai Sansthan Temple hosted  Diwali celebrations in Mordialloc at the Allan McLean Hall.

This Indian Festival of Light aims to bring joy, happiness and luck into your life and when I attended the event on Saturday, joy, happiness and luck (for those with winning raffle tickets) abounded.

The MC for the afternoon, Gabrielle Fakhri, Cross-Cultural Trainer and Community Development and Welfare Consultant, acknowledged the traditional owners of the land before introducing official guests. She also acknowledged the generous support of Victoria’s Multicultural Commission when welcoming the VMC Commissioner Mr Chidambaram Srinivasan. First appointed in 2011, his current term is from 2013 to 2017.

Mr Chidambaram Srinivasan (known as ‘Srini’), has worked in the IT industry in Australia, India, Japan and USA for more than 32 years. He brings a variety of skills, empathy, knowledge and experience in the areas of technology, community and business (including small business) as well as volunteering for a charity. He has successfully worked in cross-cultural business and social contexts, thanks to his proficiency in multiple languages including English, Tamil, Japanese, Hindi, Bengali and Sanskrit. He has been a long standing supporter of cultural activities in the community.

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Srini, the VMC Commissioner with Mayor Tamsin Bearsley being careful not to ruin the lovely henna decoration on her hand!

Srini explained how Diwali was the biggest and brightest of all festivals – spiritually signifying the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair.

The celebration in Mordialloc of many faiths, one community, allowing new cultural experiences and everyone present to learn about others. He encouraged those present to enjoy conversations and broaden understanding of each other’s customs because this was the way to social harmony and peaceful co-existence.

Victoria celebrates cultural diversity and in a recent poll, 86% agreed that multiculturism has been good for Australia. Government at all levels in Victoria encourage people to practise their faith and culture without discrimination. As a commissioner, he is a link between government and community and is also privileged to advise the government on policy.

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Diversity is Australia’s strength, and we are fortunate people in the community appreciate this, and become dedicated to fostering harmony and peaceful co-existence. He commended Mordialloc Neighbourhood House as being a community hub promoting social inclusion and peaceful cohesion.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else. Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.

Margaret Mead,author and American cultural anthropologist.

This is the second year, Lisa Sun, the manager at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House has organised the celebration of Diwali aiming to break down cultural barriers and to increase understanding of other faiths and cultures. An aim close to my heart and encouraged by the City of Kingston Council with the Mayor and some councillors present.

Mayor Tamsin Bearsley and Manager MNH Lisa Sun
Kingston’s Mayor, Tamsin Bearsley and Manager of Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, Lisa Sun

A month ago I attended the Eid Celebration at the same venue and although Diwali is a traditional Hindu celebration, there were people of Christian, Buddhist and Muslim faiths enjoying the afternoon. A reclaiming of the multicultural society that makes Australia such an exciting and peaceful place to live.

Gabrielle pointed out the beautiful Rangoli of coloured powder painstakingly drawn on the floor by several women and explained this sacred welcoming area for the Hindu deity Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, is common during Diwali and hoped everyone shared in the good luck.

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Srini had mentioned that on 20 December 2013, the UN General Assembly 68th Session proclaimed 2015 as the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies a fitting juxtaposition for the spiritual celebration that is Diwali, a festival dating back to ancient times showing humankind has always recognised the importance of light. (A not surprising connection considering his CV!)

Light plays a vital role in our daily lives and is an imperative cross-cutting discipline of science in the 21st century. It has revolutionized medicine, opened up international communication via the Internet, and continues to be central to linking cultural, economic and political aspects of the global society…

… a global initiative adopted by the United Nations to raise awareness of how optical technologies promote sustainable development and provide solutions to worldwide challenges in energy, education, agriculture, communications and health.

Gabrielle focused on the inner spiritual light and introduced a representative who presented the priest Aditya Sharma from the Aumsai Sansthan Hindu Temple to bless the proceedings and encourage those present to light the candles on the rangoli. The representative from the temple, Srini and Tamsin were invited to share in the prayers and gift flowers and fruit to the deity. They removed their shoes out of respect before joining the priest at the shrine.

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After the official guests had lit candles, members of the audience were invited to light a candle too. For many present this was the first time they’d been privileged to participate in a Hindu ceremony. Several faiths light candles at different times of the year. The meaningful rituals we share have more in common than we realise.

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After the all-important blessing, there was the first of several draws on the door prize raffles – just to make sure some people had a kick-start on the promises of wealth and prosperity!

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Lucky door prizes winner

 

The entertainment by an array of fantastic singers and dancers demonstrated traditional Indian culture and the increasingly popular global phenomenon that is Bollywood. The audience loved it all. The first two young women sang traditional songs in Hindi; one praising Lord Krishna and the other sang a song from a popular movie.

The performers on stage added to the colour and light of the day, traditional costumes jangling and glittering. The flexibility, gracefulness and energy of the dancers, the epitome of joyous celebration whether from the expert adults to the enthusiastic children demonstrating their talent.

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Choreographer acknowledged

Sridevi Challapalli, the choreographer of the dance group who performed Muddu Gare Yasoda, a keerthana (hymn sung in the praise of God) written by the famous Indian mystic saint composer, Tallapaka Annamacharya, deserves a special mention for her talentThe songs praised Lord Venkateswara, the deity of Seven Hills in Tirumala, India where unbroken worship has been offered for over 12 centuries. Lord Vishnu manifested Himself as Lord Venkateswara. The song and dance adaptation a description of the mischievousness of Lord Krishna.

Sridevi runs the Sri Sai Nataraja Academy of Kuchipudi Dance, and two of the dancers are her twin daughters – their beautiful but elaborate costume and make-up takes an hour to prepare!

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Sridevi Challapalli with her daughters
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The girls displaying the red adornment – Alta

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another attractive dance display that left me gasping for breath was the energetic Saranya whose beauty and flexibility had the audience iPhone cameras struggling to keep up with her movements.

The costumes and expertly arranged hair of the dancers looked exquisite from the front or the back.DSC_1511-1.jpg

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The classical and semi-classical dances all told stories, whether traditional tales or modern versions of love stories or everyday dramas. The dancers bodies and faces expressive and lively – you didn’t need to understand Hindi –  some stories cross all language and cultural barriers! The young boys strutting their stuff could have auditioned for Grease.

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The audience remained enthralled and respectful although plenty of mobile phone cameras worked overtime. Traditional Indian sweets were served with a complimentary bottle of water. Suresh had a stall with Indian clothes, jewellery and other small gifts. Another stall sold gorgeous sari length materials.

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Hinduism is one of the great religions of the world and is also one of the most tolerant.  Diwali, Festival of Light celebrated throughout the world at a time of year close to Christmas.  Like Eid, there are similarities of gift giving, sharing, aiming to love one another and joyous celebration of life as well as light, bodes well for communities, like Mordialloc, who live in harmony and appreciate the richness of many faiths.

There were several memorable highlights of the afternoon, Sridevi’s young dancers a treat with their enthusiastic interpretation of a classic story.

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However, the grand finale of two shy little girls singing Peter Combe’s Mr Clicketty Cane in English and then a final exhilarating Bollywood style dance of most of the youngsters in the room had me itching to join them on stage.

 

Memories of school concerts, kindergarten party pieces and fun family parties revived. What a successful afternoon. Special mention must be made of the sound technician who never missed a cue, the men who helped in the kitchen, and those stacking away the chairs when I left.

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Community, Faith and Joy in action. What a great combination!

 

How A Community Celebration Can Teach Tolerance

We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We share a dream and sing with one voice:
I am, you are, we are Australian.

Bruce Woodley 1987

Yesterday, I moved out of my comfort zone and celebrated Eid with a variety of fellow Australians who happen to be Muslim and have chosen to settle here like my parents did 53 years ago.

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Dina, born in Palestine, educated in Dubai as a pharmacist has reinvented herself as a painter, interior designer, book illustrator. Her husband is a doctor and works as an emergency consultant, in much demand all over the world – at the moment he is in Italy.

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A new friend from Eritrea
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A new friend from Egypt

How do we meet and get to know people?

Yesterday, I met people who live in suburbs I rarely visit (Springvale, Keysborough, Dandenong), so they are not near neighbours. I won’t meet them at school – my children have left those years far behind, plus in Australia schools are divided into private and public and many people send their children to private schools on religious or cultural grounds. My girls went to the local public schools.

I may meet some at work because I teach in community houses, but by and large students and teachers enrol within a locality, their “neighbourhood” so that likelihood is diminished.

The majority of people I met yesterday were Islamic; I wouldn’t bump into them at church either!

So how do I reach out and make them feel welcome to their adopted country? How do they meet me and have the opportunity to understand who I am?

We have to make a special effort – that’s how we can build tolerance and understanding –  to learn from each other, and accept each other.

Yesterday, at the EID Celebration – Many Faiths, One Community – in the Allan McLean Hall, Mordialloc,  for a gold coin donation we could have:

  • A hijab demonstration and buy scarves and dresses
  • Taste Eritrean coffee and cake (the coffee heavily laced with ginger!)
  • Our hands or wrists painted with Henna
  • Watch a delightful cultural performance
  • Be part of a Guided Blessing
  • Dress up as Pharaoh and have a photographic memento
  • Have tea and coffee and a selection of sweet treats

Islamic Australians more often demonised and feared than welcomed, opened their hearts, shared their customs and celebrated who they are and what they offer to Australia.

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A Sheik and Scholar explained the meaning of Eid and where the celebration fitted in the Muslim calendar and blessed the gathering with a prayer.  Poet Anton read 2 or 3 poems in his native language of Malaysian, ably repeated in English by a member of the audience who volunteered to do so.

As a writing teacher, I’m privileged to hear so many original poems from students, but also poems that have inspired them to write. A lovely woman from Iraq introduced me to the wisdom and talent of Rumi:

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A band from Lebanon played and sang songs – some religious, others popular – the musicians famous in the music circuit of their birth country before they came to Australia.

There are two Eids celebrated in Islam, and both follow major acts of worship.  The first is Eid al-Fitr, which follows Ramadan and the second is Eid al-Adha, which follows the Hajj.

Most major religions have times that demand particular behaviour – Christianity has Lent, Advent and Christmas.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims focus on purifying themselves, getting closer to God, and growing in their faith. They fast from sunrise to sunset, which includes refraining from food, drink, sexual intercourse, bad language, and bad behaviour.

They may read an entire chapter of the Qur’an each day (it has 30 chapters), so they finish the book in a month.The knowledge gained by reading the Qur’an encourages good deeds and greater acts of worship.

By fasting, they become more sympathetic to those less fortunate. By understanding what it is like to go without food or drink, they should become more generous and seek to alleviate hunger amongst the poor.

Ramadan helps to bring people together with family, friends, and neighbours because they break their fasts together.  The community is brought closer to God by offering more worship in the form of extra prayer services provided nightly in Ramadan.

Eid al-Fitr (the Festival/Holiday of Breaking Fast) follows. This festival lasts three days and celebrates the successful completion of Ramadan and the newly renewed spiritual cleansing and connection.

Associated with sweets of various kinds, other names for it are the Sugar Festival or Sweet Festival.  There are many different ways to celebrate the Eid, but, in general, the morning begins with the special Eid prayer. On the way there and while waiting for the prayer session to start it is common to recite the Eid Takbir.

There was a selection of sweet biscuits and homemade cake available yesterday – delicious!

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After praying people have a feast of sorts with their families and or friends usually travelling to family homes.  Typical foods vary by country/region.  In the Middle East, it is common to buy new clothes for the Eid and children often receive Eidia (pronounced like ‘idea’) which is money.  The Eidia received from family and friends comes from an adult to child.  Gifts between adults are rare and gifts from child to an adult even rarer.  Children use the money to buy toys and sweets.

In the US, Canada, Australia and the UK it is often more common to give children presents, not money. This compares with active Christian gifting practices such as Christmas.  Some people make Eid goody bags with trinkets, party favours, stickers, temporary tattoos, and candy to hand out to children after the Eid prayer. Gifts between adults or from child to adult occur too.

Visits to amusement parks/carnivals/circuses also happen more in the West than in other countries probably because immigrants and subsequent generations do not have large extended families to visit.  They spend time going out in smaller family groups and because of the often minority status of their holidays and the abundance of Christian holiday commercialisation they may feel the need to make Eid “extra special” ensuring the interest of future generations.

The children and proud parents yesterday illustrated how to keep the young involved and feeling part of their religion and culture and yet quite comfortable living in Australia.

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Tarek Yousery, a Driving Instructor in real life, entertained us all as he paraded his Egyptian background dressed as a Pharaoh, encouraging us all to be Pharaoh for a photo shoot.  Tarek promoted Egypt by ‘working the room’ while his wife helped you decide what costumes and jewellery to wear. Their generosity and good humour a definite highlight of the day.

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The queues for Henna painting kept two young, talented women busy. Their artistic brilliance and calm, good nature impressive – I can imagine their hands will be sore because the demand to be “tattooed” relentless. Some children (and adults) went back for more than one decoration. Mine sketched in double-quick time – amazing. Unfortunately, scrutiny made me realise how aged my hands were – how could I have my mother’s hands already??  I still feel young!

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A table with an array of scarves to be transformed into the hijab had a backdrop of gorgeous dresses. Alongside was a table doing a brisk trade with intricate and clunky jewellery pieces. Eid like our Christmas – new clothes and gifts the order of the day as people celebrate peace,  love and family.

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The hall echoed with lots of chatter, laughter and children enjoying the relaxed, festive atmosphere. I’d hoped for more locals to witness such an array of talent but bumped into Jenny, a woman I’ve met at various meetings and workshops concerning the environment and community. She had seen the notice down at the Chelsea Hub and was glad she had come along ‘to have a look’.

We both wished there were more people to appreciate the diversity that has made us a successful multicultural country and agreed we must have more opportunities to mix.  Perhaps if we get to know each other, the disgraceful display of intolerance at Bendigo in recent weeks won’t happen again, and we’ll not allow some politicians and sections of the media to keep us in a constant state of fear.

If we could raise one generation with unconditional love, there would be no Hitlers…Mankind’s greatest gift, also its greatest curse, is that we have free choice. We can make our choices built from love or from fear.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Lisa Sun, the Manager of Mordialloc Neighbourhood House and her committee, deserve congratulations for organising this event in collaboration with Springvale Neighbourhood House, the Victorian Multicultural Commission and Al-Emaan Muslim Women’s Support group. The more people come together and share what we have in common, the less likely we will be pushed apart.

We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.

John Lennon

A big thank you to everyone who made the day a success. I felt privileged to meet so many talented and friendly people. A day like yesterday more representative of the community and Australia I love than many of the stories the media seem to enjoy flaunting. Check out Mordialloc Neighbourhood House’s Facebook page for more photos.

The next event to break down cultural barriers will be a Diwali Festival – same venue, but next month!