NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - The New Brunswick Free Public Library will be a lot more colorful on May 7 when it and the Rutgers Indian Graduate Student Association will celebrate the Indian festival of Holi.

The celebration commemorates when demon king Hiranyakashipu tried to kill his son, Prahlada, a devotee of Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu was given a boon by Lord Brahma that made him nearly invincible. The king’s daughter had been given a boon that protected her from fire.  Angered by Prahlada’s devotion to Vishnu, Hiranyakashipu ordered Prahlada to sit on the lap of his sister while on a pyre.  Holika burned to death while Prahlada was unharmed. 

Holi is most famous for its bonfires on the eve of the festival and for its colors and water spraying - frequently with water guns - on the main day, Dhuleti.  It is officially celebrated at the end of winter on the Hindu calendar, which was Mar. 20 this year.

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Kavita Pandey, the librarian heading up the free event for the library, said that May 7 was the closest weekend date that the main meeting room was available.  She said the event would also feature a show from RIGSA, hanna hand tattoos, clothing from India’s various ethnic groups, jewelry and food.  There would also be a PowerPoint presentation on Holi.

Sarang Oka, president of RIGSA, said the show would feature Bollywood film and classical dances, with audience participation.  Classical Indian music will also be performed.

Pandey said last year’s Holi celebration drew a standing room only crowd of about 100, which is the maximum that the library’s meeting room can hold.

She said the idea for the event came when some library patrons asked her about the sari she was wearing.  “They were curious about it and knowing about the culture,” she said.

Oka said the Holi event is one of several that the association holds throughout the year.

RIGSA, which has been recognized by Rutgers University for about eight years, represents about 300 graduate students from India and works to help them fit in at Rutgers, Oka said, adding that the organization goes back to the mid-1990s as an informal group.

“We just started out as a group of people who wanted to help the new graduate students who came here,” said Oka, a chemical engineering graduate student from India’s most populous city Mumbai.  He said that there are between 80 and 100 new students each academic year.

“For a lot of them, they haven’t even been on an airplane, forget about going out of the country,” he said. “For a lot of us, it’s a big overwhelming experience.”  

Oka said that RIGSA picks up the incoming students at the airport, helps them with registration and finds apartments.  Oka said that about a dozen people were staying with him at his Highland Park home last August while the new students looked for apartments.

The library event is one of a few that RIGSA holds throughout the academic year, Oka said. Those include an introduction event where the incoming students stage a performance to show their appreciation to the RIGSA members that have helped them.  Its Diwali show last year featured a grand show for an audience of about 300 at the Livingston Student Center.  There is also a networking event, he said.

Oka, who will be stepping down as president of RIGSA at the end of the semester, arrived at Rutgers in 2009 after earning a chemical engineering undergraduate degree at Mumbai University.  He said he would like to work in pharmaceutical chemical engineering in the U.S. and go back to India in a few years.  

“Rutgers’ chemical engineering (program) is where you want to be,” Oka joked. “You go along the (New Jersey) Turnpike and you’re going to see chemical plants on both sides.”

The Holi celebration will be held at the library at 60 Livingston Ave. starting at noon in the Carl T. Valenti Community Room.