How MIT celebrates Diwali (and all of Indian culture)

Tata Fellows Ranjitha Shivaram and Krithika Ramchander lead Sangam, the association of Indian students at MIT.

mit diwali night 2015

MIT has a long history of distinguished students of Indian origin. So it was no surprise that when Sangam, MIT’s association of Indian students, celebrated Diwali, a bunch of them showed up.

One attendee arrived at the Festival of Lights without a ticket, but an exception was made when he mentioned having founded Sangam as a student 45 years ago. And he wasn’t the only old timer returning to campus to celebrate. One of the group’s first presidents was in attendance, along with more than 600 current and former MIT students, Indians and non-Indians, and curious visitors from around the Boston area.

Supporting a thriving cultural community is what Sangam is all about, according to Tata Fellows Ranjitha Shivaram and Krithika Ramchander, who serve as the group’s current president and vice president. Every month the group’s 9-person board puts on an event showcasing some aspect of Indian culture – from Bollywood karaoke, to games like cricket and lagori, to holidays like Republic Day.

Their emphasis is on inclusion. “Sangam is a secular student organization,” says Ranjitha. “Even when we celebrate festivals that do have a religious aspect, we don’t center it around that. We want to make sure we are welcoming and open to everyone, and we try really hard to reach out to anyone who’s interested in India.”

Diwali Night on Sunday, Nov. 8, the group’s major fall event, was a prime example. Though it’s a Hindu festival, Sangam’s event featured performances by more than 100 musicians, dancers, and artists representing many cultures, traditions, and faiths from around the sub-continent.

“There were 14 performances of music and dance,” Krithika says. “We had Carnatic music from South India, Bollywood music and dancing, folk dances from different regions, classical dancing, and even a stand-up comedian (MIT alumna Shloka Kini).”

“We try to be ambassadors of the best of what we think our country has to offer,” Ranjitha adds. “We view Diwali as a platform to allow people to showcase whatever talent they have. There were people who were complete beginners, who had never danced before and actually went on stage. It’s about people performing for each other and having fun. We had a really good response from students who wanted to be a part of it. It’s a great way to make friends.”

Both Ranjitha and Krithika are busy MIT graduate students working on thesis projects. (Ranjitha studies female participation in India’s workforce, and Krithika is developing low-cost water filters using plant xylem.) So why do they make the extra effort to lead the community of Indian students at MIT?

For Krithika, the main motivation is fun. “It’s super awesome. You meet a ton of people, and I have enjoyed it a lot.”

Ranjitha agrees, but also points out some ancillary benefits. “It’s a lot of work, but I don’t view it just as an extra-curricular activity. Being a president or vice president is a way to learn how to manage and work in a team, and for me it’s a step toward being a more well-rounded person.”

Upcoming Sangam events:

December: Bollywood karaoke night
January: Republic Day
February: Taste of India (part of MIT’s “Taste of” series)
March: Holi, the Festival of Colors
April: Dhoom, the annual Bollywood dance party (along with Diwali, this is Sangam’s flagship event)

Find more details on their website!

sangam board diwali night 2015

The Sangam executive board. President Ranjitha Shivaram, far left with microphone. Vice President Krithika Ramchander second from left. Photos by Jonathan Richmond, courtesy of Sangam.