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Remembering A Brave New World: Diwali, Neons and the Pandemic

Roar writer Camilla Alcini reflects on Diwali and Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s “Remembering a Brave New World” at Tate Britain.

Before moving to London, I had never heard of Diwali. Diwali is the Festival of Lights, celebrated every year for five days by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world. Just like other festivities, the exact date changes every year, but it usually falls between October and November; this year it was celebrated on 14 November. During that week, Trafalgar Square was illuminated by beautiful lights, and even though festivities this year feel inevitably different, the community in London had its chance to celebrate Diwali at home. But what is exactly celebrated?

As I mentioned, I was rather ignorant about this festival, for it is of a culture very different from mine. Nonetheless, the longer I lived in London, travelled and read, the more I develop a passion for learning about other traditions. In other words, I love finding opportunities to be grateful and honour good things in life. And guess what? Most of the time, I found out we are all celebrating the same things: love, family, friendship, health, light, hope.

This festival is no exception. The word Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word “Deepavali”, which means “rows of lighted lamps”. In fact, Diwali is the festival of lights, celebrating the triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness. Families reunite, streets and houses light up with candles and lamps, fireworks decorate the skies. Each religion traces back to different stories: Hindus honour the return of Rama and Sita to Ayodhya after fourteen years and the day Mother Goddess Durga defeated the demon Mahisha; Sikhs, the release from prison of the sixth guru Hargobind Singh in 1619; Jains, the moment their founder Lord Mahavira, reached a state called Moksha (nirvana). In spite of religious differences, Diwali is a genuine celebration of new beginnings. Could there be a better year to learn about it?

A chance to celebrate Diwali came from a beautiful installation at Tate Britain for their winter commission: Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s “Remembering a Brave New World”. The artist, celebrated internationally for her radical feminist practice, used her Punjabi and Liverpudlian heritage to create a magnificent, multi-coloured installation, which is itself a bricolage of different cultural elements. Indeed, Hindu mythology, Bollywood imaginary, colonial history and personal memories are combined in the façade of Tate, which for the occasion has been covered by neon lights, vinyl and bling. An ice cream van that belonged to Burman’s family occupies part of Tate’s stairs. The artist changed the figure of Britannia, a symbol of British imperialism, into Kali, the Hindu goddess of liberation and power. Lakshimbai, a fierce female warrior in India’s resistance to British colonial rule in the 19th century, joins the installation as well, contributing to the strong message that distinguishes Burman’s works. Words such as “love, shine, light, aim, dream, truth,” occupy the upper section of the building’s façade. The central space instead is taken by the phrase which names the installation: remembering a brave new world.

I couldn’t help but think all the braveness we saw these past months. The braveness of the NHS and all other medical staff around the world. The braveness of young people. The braveness of people who voted during a pandemic. The braveness of volunteers. The braveness of those who were forced to reinvent their life. Burman’s installation is just in time. This pandemic will leave behind a brave new world, but as we move on, change can happen only when we choose to remember it.

“I just thought: why not do something that captures what we’re all going through right now? I felt like it needed a blast of joy and light. And Diwali is about good over evil, about hope, unity and the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Burman about her installation.

You will be able to see the installation from outside Tate Britain until 31 January.



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