Arun and Jaya Sharma are not new faces among Melbourne’s growing Indian community. Having called Australia home for 40 odd years now, they have seen the demography change and along with it the many challenges. While they have at many stages of their lives been associated with community groups, which sometimes faltered and sometimes failed, they have been the galvanizing standard bearer for the Diwali festival at Federation Square for the past 11 years. Today Diwali forms an iconic festival of Melbourne, which in the words of former Premier Ted Baillieu is no longer an Indian festival but a Victorian festival.
The idea, says Arun, was conceived during Jaya’s stint at the SBS office in Federation Square. Some evenings when he would pick her up, the beauty of the lights reflecting on the river just magnified. ‘Imagine a diwali here’ they mulled as they delved into long conversations on the way home about bringing Indian festivals to a wider audience. They shared the idea to a few like-minded friends including former honorary Consul General of India Janardhana Rao and before they realised, the idea would actualise one year later. They were also fortunate to have the support of the then Mayor John So who welcomed the idea of the festival right at the start.
So in 2006, as the first Diwali celebration rolled out in Federation Square, Arun and his team at Celebrate India, a not for profit organisation, were in for the most pleasant surprise when over 20,000 people turned up to participate and make the event phenomenal. Over the years, the numbers have not dwindled despite the sometimes unpredictable turn of weather when people had to run for shelter, it being an outdoor event.
In an interview with
Indira Laisram, Arun and Jaya talk about their passion for community work right from the time they landed in Australia. Having been married for over 35 years, they reveal they are a sounding board for each other and take great delight in putting together this mammoth festival –more as a purposeful career rather than a sacrificial calling. With the festival for this year just wrapped up, the couple reflects on a few things. Excerpts:

Congratulations on yet another successful festival. How did it all go?
The festival started with a bang with Diwali Program Launch at the AFL House in Docklands on October 17. With AFL having millions of fans through Twitter and other mediums we were able to reach out to those millions and promote our culture. The week-long festival was successful in many ways but Saturday (Oct 22) which was the penultimate day of the celebration was a tough day as the rains came. However, we can call ourselves very lucky and blessed because it didn’t rain consistently and people didn’t move. Our entire team was prepared to handle anything and that’s how we dealt with the situation. By evening when the rains stopped for a few hours there was again a very good build-up of crowd. It was tiring in a way because we were adjusting and moving items but everything was delivered on time and the fireworks brought a great festival to a delightful end. So we are quite pleased with how it all ended.

Which artist or event do you think most captured the Diwali spirit this year?
We cannot pinpoint to one thing alone. There were so many new things that we introduced this year. The entire theme of the festival is Indian and we focussed on it. For instance, we had a one- hour community presentation depicting how Diwali is celebrated in different parts of India. It was quite educational and presented with a good narration to ensure that the information was making sense to not just the Indians but non-Indians present there.
Also for the first time every marquee was decorated in traditional Indian style. Special banners were installed in different parts of the Square explaining the significance of the word ‘Namaste’, our traditional greeting.
Then we had the biggest rangoli (an art form from India in which patterns are created on the floor during festivals), which was not just different but very special. It was made of vegetable and fruits. We can tell you one thing, even after 10 pm when the festival got over, the entire circle was crowded with people still taking photographs.
We also had other amazing acts on the stage. One such act was partnering with Singing Foundation and we sang for the World Singing Day. There was a non-Indian choir of 17 singers from the Foundation who joined others on stage. About 500 copies of the lyrics were circulated among the crowd and also splashed on the great screen. The song ‘Chale Chalo’ from the film Lagaan resonated throughout the iconic Federation Square. It was magical. It was as exciting as hearing the national anthem.

What are some of the main challenges you face each year?
Every year is a new challenge. Our biggest challenge always is figuring out what new elements to introduce. When we start our planning, the first question posed to the creative team is this – what new and what else can we do. The festival is growing each year, thousands come for this show and our target is to attract the whole of Victoria. And without going out of the way, it has to be related to our culture, it has to be explaining something new to people. Then of course, there are the other challenges from raising funds to the weather. Being an outdoor event, weather is always a challenge. No year has been simple in the 11 years that we have been coordinators of the festival.

At what point during the year do you start working on assembling the line-up?
Technically in one whole year, we get only one month off somewhere around December-January. And that is by the time we have wrapped up the year’s events. By the middle of February, we have to literally start planning straightaway.

What would you say is the one defining characteristic of the festival that sets it apart from all other festivals?
We can only talk from our experience. We have been living here for 40 years and over the years we been associated with many Indian organisations but we do not believe any organisation has ever had the feel which we have in our team. We share this amazing support, good will, respect, just like a family. This team is just driven for the cause and that’s the biggest privilege we have leading such a team. Both of us also are very fortunate to have similar thinking.

What do you enjoy most about running this festival?
We enjoy seeing the faces coming back to us saying how much they have enjoyed. Often youngsters come back saying how proud and connected they feel to their culture. Then non-Indians ask when Diwali festival is coming up next. All these give us the impression that everyone is watching and eagerly waiting for the festival. Everything we do is being noticed.

You have been organising this festival for many years now, what is your most treasured memory?
There have been so many over the years. We keep talking about the team and having built one solid team we treasure and value the relationship we share amongst us. When we look at the devotion of the team we feel so blessed and that adds a new meaning to the purpose of organising something like this. It’s not about the two of us; the chemistry is the same with every team member. They have given us so much. For instance someone got married the night before and instead of going to his honeymoon he just came back to work. If I look outside, former Premier Ted Baillieu said this is not an Indian festival anymore but a Victorian festival – it was a precious moment. When the festival gets mentioned in public forums as the benchmark of festivity, these are all moments we cherish. We feel we are part of a great movement happening in Melbourne. We feel we have done something worthwhile. It makes us feel so proud that the Diwali celebration in Melbourne is talked about as one of the best in Australia.