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Diwali revelry will light up sky in Duluth

In a memorable episode of NBC's "The Office" last fall, inept regional manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell) described Diwali to a conference room of his subordinates as "essentially a Hindu Halloween."

As he is with just about everything on that show, he could not have been more wrong.

Much of the running time of that episode was devoted to parodying, through Scott's unabashed yet comical ignorance, the unfamiliarity most Westerners have with the five-day celebration, commonly known as the "Festival of Lights."

Amitabh Sharma, co-director of the nonprofit group Cultures Across Borders, would like to change that.

Through his organization, Sharma and fellow directors Apurva Srivastava and Sandeep Savla, with the cooperation of Duluth Mayor Shirley Lasseter, are holding a Grand Diwali Mela called The Indian Festival of Lights from 3 to 11 p.m. today in downtown Duluth.

The event is free, Sharma said, and open to absolutely everyone, regardless of religious persuasion or ethnicity.

This year, Diwali began Friday and will continue through Tuesday.

"It's a Hindu festival celebrated by almost 1 billion people," Sharma said of the holiday's importance.

True to its name, the Festival of Lights is centered on an abundance of lights, lamps and fireworks that carry heavy symbolism.

"Very universally speaking, it celebrates the victory of good over evil," Sharma said.

Light conquering darkness is the main metaphor, of course, though the festival is also tied to several mythological events in Hindu history, including the return of Lord Rama, King of Ayodhya, after a 14-year exile.

One of the most eagerly awaited religious celebrations in India, it's also observed by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs all over the world.

When you consider how widely Diwali is celebrated, it's surprising how few non-Hindu Americans have heard of it.

Seeking to help alleviate what he calls a disparity of cultural understanding, Sharma sees the Duluth event as an entertaining, accessible way to educate non-Hindus about the customs of another ethnic group.

There will be traditional dancing and music, fireworks and lights galore, a ceremonial parade procession and a civic reception of community leaders - including Lasseter, who helped organize the event.

To help bridge the cultural divide more seamlessly, Sharma's organization has also included some contemporary activities that are not part of a traditional Diwali celebration, such as games and rides, Henna tattoos and even a moonwalk.

"The rest was included in the spirit of inclusiveness," Sharma said.

He said he expects a large turnout to this inaugural event, which, if successful, the planners hope to expand upon in the future.

"It's a humble effort on our part," Sharma said, "but we have gotten a tremendous response."