Let There Be Light
You must have seen the MasterCard ads: "a bottle of champagne, 100 dollars; a bouquet of red roses, 25 dollars; a soft toy, 15 dollars; the smile on her face when you give her all of these, priceless." There are some things money can't buy, but then, I guess, they're the things worth cherishing. The college where I study, IIT Kharagpur, has an event called "Illumination," in which we create bamboo and straw grids that are 25 feet high, with patterns of earthen lamps set aflame to depict scenes from mythology or history. Sounds complicated? Read on!
Illumination is an event that's held on the day of diwali , the festival of lights in India. Diwali is a day when every house in India, from the humblest hovel to the mightiest palace, lights up to usher in the festival. People celebrate it by bursting crackers, decorating their homes with earthen lamps (called diyas ), distributing sweets, and praying together. At IIT Kharagpur, when everything's all set and done in Illumination, what beholds the viewer's eye is a refulgent spectacle where a story is strung out using a series of events depicted by diyas ' flames on bamboo grids!
As the king said to the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland , "begin at the beginning and go on till you reach the end." Here's the deal. Illumination has been designed as a competition between the various halls of residence on our campus. Every hall decides a theme for their Illumination show. While it usually is from mythology, often there are refreshing breaks in the form of more contemporary events; e.g., last year a hall depicted the Taj Mahal and lined up its boarders in soldiers' attire along its corridors!
The bamboo grids are lined up against walls, insured against any motion, and the best artists from the under-training engineers draw the scenes on them with black paint. What follows is a community service of a different kind! Night after long night, a hundred people in each hall work tirelessly to arrange the diyas along the painted lines on the grids. Metal wires are used to wrap the diyas , and the ends of these wires are used to affix the diyas to the grid. These wires are stiff enough to hold the diyas , if need be, in positions not entirely conforming to Newton's law of gravity! Often, when one has to depict a smirk on a character's face, the rounded edge on a warrior's bow, the pointed tip of a minaret's top, or the subtle turn of a lady's dress, this twisting and tweaking of the diyas ' positions is all that makes the difference between a not-so-good job and an awesome one.
But then, while the work goes on, so does the party! There're late-night burgers, full-time music, perennial chatter, continuous laughter, boisterous banter, and what-have-you. Nothing builds the camaraderie between different batches of students out here as much as these nocturnal sessions.
Finally, d-day arrives, and on that day, you don't bother if there's sand in your hair or oil on your hands. You just work like crazy! Pyramids of tables are arranged in front of the bamboo grids, and students take up all possible positions on these tables with oil bottles in their hands, filling diyas with oil, arranging wicks, testing them to see if they burn or not, helping a friend out with a diya he's unable to reach, helping another out if he's run out of oil -- doing every possible thing to make sure the hall wins. In the process, they have oil dropping on their head, shirts getting smeared in the jumble of tables, hands getting dirtied with the wicks, and all these taken in stride, as if they never happened.
The moment arrives when the judges declare it's time. In a fraction of a minute, the entire ensemble of tables is taken down and all the students disperse and hide while the presentation team takes the judges around the bamboo grids. But aside from the judges, the results, the trophy, and the glamour, think about the multitude of students, with oil all over them, who've worked for 15 nights on the trot and who're hiding somewhere looking in amazement at the spectacle they've created and praying that the judges realize that they're the obvious winners. The moment the judges leave the hall and move on to the next one, wave after wave of students emerges from hiding to see what the thing looks like when it's all lit up. Euphoria is the word to describe what happens next. People hug any hall mate they find, some with tears in their eyes, others with irrepressible smiles. Results don't matter at that moment. The joy of creation does. Life is not about the number of breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away. This is one of them.
Illumination is a costly affair. The halls spend a fortune getting all the materials and refreshments. The event is short-lived. An earthen lamp doesn't stay lit for more than 10 to 15 minutes. But it's those 10 to 15 minutes that are imprinted on memories forever. Those streams of people emerging from hiding and hugging anyone they find. That sight of the brilliant grids lit up against the dark sky. Those are things you don't forget.
In MasterCard's words: a dozen bamboo grids, thousands of rupees ; hundreds of diyas , thousands of rupees ; refreshments, a few thousand more; an unforgettable Illumination experience, priceless.