Diwali seems to be everywhere this year.
More and more major brands are recognizing the Festival of Lights, launching advertising campaigns and stocking holiday-related products in the United States. South Asian Americans celebrating Diwali can now pick up fireworks from Costcogreeting cards from Punch and party decorations Target.
Diwali, also known as Deepavali, is one of the most important festivals in Hinduism. The holiday also has significance for Sikhs and Jains and is celebrated not only in India, but also in Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore and other countries in the South Asian diaspora.
The holiday’s growing recognition in the United States is a marked change for many first- and second-generation South Asian Americans who grew up celebrating the festival at home but rarely saw it recognized outside of their homes. communities, says Soni Satpathy-Singh, who runs the meal delivery review site Meal matchmaker.
Eight years ago, Satpathy-Singh wrote a play for Brown Girl’s Magazine lamenting that Diwali has not caught the attention of mass market retailers, despite the growing numbers and high incomes of the Native American population. Today, the landscape is very different.
“It’s interesting how much has developed over the past eight years in terms of things you can buy to celebrate Diwali,” she told CNN. “Growing up, we bought diyas from India or [use] things my parents already had at home. There was no way to venture out and buy stuff for a party, partly because it wasn’t even available.
According to marketing strategists and business owners, the proliferation of Diwali advertising campaigns and products reflects how much the South Asian population in the United States has grown in recent years.
It’s not hard to see why more businesses are taking notice of Diwali, says Dhatri Navanayagam, senior director of strategy at marketing agency Essence Global.
Diwali therefore presents a significant business opportunity for businesses, as it is traditional to give gifts, light firecrackers and celebrate with friends and family. But it’s not enough to brand “Happy Diwali” on a product – consumers are looking for authentic and meaningful products and marketing campaigns, according to Navanayagam.
“Brands are increasingly looking to understand what consumers want from them during this festival and how they can actually step in and help,” she says.
Lego stands out as a notable example, says Navanayagam. In addition to showcasing Diwali gift ideas, the company website contains instructions for creating a rangoli using Lego pieces that people already have at home — a move that seems particularly relevant given the financial pressures many consumers are currently facing, she adds.
Satpathy-Singh also noticed that some companies were trying harder. Cookware brand Our Place, which makes the cult product Always Pan, is selling a Diwali fries set for consumers making samosas, jalebis or murukku as part of their celebrations. And the party provider big point of happiness makes Diwali decorations that she has bought over the years.
But she’s also seen efforts that don’t feel particularly thoughtful, like Edible Arrangements’ Diwali-themed set. Although the brand recognized Diwali, its assortment consisted of chocolate covered strawberries and mini cheesecakes with sprinkles, which it said had little to do with the festival.
“There was no Indian flavor profile or anything reminiscent of Diwali mithai (sweets),” she adds. “It was just something commercially slapped.”
Although major brands have only recently begun to recognize Diwali, South Asian entrepreneurs and small business owners have been developing unique offerings around the holiday for some time, says Pooja Bavishi, founder of Malai.
Malai, a Brooklyn-based ice cream company inspired by South Asian flavors and ingredients, has started selling its Diwali celebration box in 2019. Items from the collection – which in recent years have included gulab jamun ice cream cake and Speak-G masala chai ice cream sandwiches – cater to a new generation of American Indians who are looking for an updated take on familiar flavors, says Bavishi. And it has proven extremely popular with customers.
“One of Malai’s main goals is to show that these flavors and products are part of American culture and shouldn’t be exoticized at all,” she adds.
Etsy has been another mainstay of Diwali merchandise, with candles, craft kits and other freebies, Satpathy-Singh says. Navanayagam mentions small South Asian companies Madhu Chocolate and TAGMO Treats, both of which cater to a younger generation of conscious consumers. Austin-based Madhu Chocolate, which prides itself on being sustainably sourced, has introduced a Diwali chocolate bar it’s masala chai flavored with Parle-G crumbs. New York-based TAGMO Treats meanwhile offers Diwali mithai which pays homage to amateur cooks.
“These local chocolate companies use familiarity in the style of Indian flavors with enduring and modern relevance for the younger South Asian generation,” says Navanayagam. “It shows a better understanding of how a different generation celebrates Diwali and what it means to them.”
As Diwali becomes more widely recognized and celebrated in the United States, there are also concerns whether the holiday could become over-commercialized, like some critics in India have long lamentedor if mainstream brands are just capitalizing on the holidays for their own ends.
Some of that is unavoidable, Satpathy-Singh says.
“When something in any culture becomes mainstream, you run the risk of appropriation,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder if it goes hand in hand with visibility.”
Bavishi is encouraged by the recent abundance of Diwali products, from both small businesses and traditional retailers. Her family didn’t have many traditions around Diwali when she was growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, in part because it wasn’t very accessible at the time. This is no longer the case.
“It’s really great that there’s recognition for this holiday. For a very long time, there wasn’t even that recognition,” she adds. “But it has to be done with care.”
There are, of course, deeper questions worth exploring. Does it matter whether the person or company behind a Diwali product is South Asian or not? What is the line between celebration and appropriation? For Satpathy-Singh, the fact that these conversations are even happening is progress in itself.
“Is that good? Is that bad? just think it’s powerful that we’ve gotten to this point where we can reflect on these things.”