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A behind-the-scenes look at New Zealand’s largest Diwali festival

5:09 pm on 10 November 2023
A dance performance from the 2022 Auckland Diwali Festival.

A dance performance from the 2022 Auckland Diwali Festival. Photo: David Watson

The BNZ Auckland Diwali Festival is expected to attract more than 100,000 attendees to Auckland's city centre this weekend.

Given the jaw-dropping number of visitors involved, how is an event of this size arranged?

Since its inception in 2002, the festival has been a vibrant showcase, featuring traditional and contemporary music and dance as well as stalls offering food and crafts.

Jep Savali is group events manager at Tātaki Auckland Unlimited.

Jep Savali is group events manager at Tātaki Auckland Unlimited. Photo: Supplied

"It all comes down to planning," says Jep Savali, events manager at Tataki Auckland Unlimited, adding that it takes about nine months of rigorous planning to host an event such as the Auckland Diwali.

Savali started with the team in 2022, working on last year's festival.

In August, BNZ gained the naming right for Auckland's Diwali and lantern festival, a decision Savali thinks has made a real difference.

"We are really looking forward to that partnership and seeing that partnership activate through this festival," Savali says.

Kim Ravenhall, BNZ senior brand partnerships manager, told RNZ that "supporting the BNZ Auckland Diwali Festival (and BNZ Auckland Lantern Festival) is a reflection of our commitment to showing up in the communities we serve."

BNZ is also working with stallholders to provide PayClip services that will enable cashless transactions during the festival.

"We've also partnered with Indian muralist Neethi to feature art throughout the festival," Ravenhall says.

Savali says the team behind the Diwali Festival is surprisingly small, and it all comes down to meticulous planning, a lot of communication and, of course, many meetings.

And the event comes with its own challenges. Shutting down a busy street such as Queen Street and setting up venues are the first challenges.

Savali says much of the setup will happen in the wee hours of Thursday morning to minimise public disruption. Three venues featuring 150 performances have been prepared for this year's festival.

Stages have been set up in Aotea Square and on Queen Street, along with a street zone. Special rickshaws will be run from Britomart to the event site for those who want to come to the festival in style.

Ella Kumar has been an Auckland Diwali Festival volunteer since 2002.

Ella Kumar has been an Auckland Diwali Festival volunteer since 2002. Photo: Supplied

Festival challenges

Ella Kumar has been an Auckland Diwali Festival volunteer since 2002, starting her association more than 20 years ago with a dance team.

Over the years, Kumar has worn many hats for the festival and says that it's a very important event for the Indian community.

"Seeing first-time performers coming through the Diwali festival and later becoming successful entertainers and performers is the best thing about this event," Kumar says.

Kumar is also happy about how large the festival has become over the years and the increasing engagement of local businesses with the event.

Kumar has also seen a fair share of challenges during her volunteering in the past two decades.

"The Bollywood dance competition can be quite competitive, and the community has sometimes challenged us when things didn't go the way they wanted it. It's been hard to make sure they all feel satisfied," Kumar says.

"Another challenge is addressing the people who don't secure a stall due to high demand, as everyone wants one at the festival," she says. "Additionally, there have been repeated instances of dance groups struggling to arrive on time in the past."

But Kumar says that "every year you learn something."

She encourages everyone to sign up as a volunteer. Kumar is a volunteer for the Diwali and Lantern festivals in Auckland and says she learns a lot from these cultural festivals.

"My whole family volunteers now," she says.

"I've got my husband, son and daughter all volunteering. The family gets behind it because they feel proud of helping on a big-scale event that can't pay everybody but brings happiness to a lot of lives."

A stage for Auckland’s Diwali festival under construction at Aotea Square.

A stage for Auckland’s Diwali festival under construction at Aotea Square. Photo: RNZ / Blessen Tom

Safety and sustainability a priority

Health and safety and the well-being of the public are paramount, according to organisers of the BNZ Auckland Diwali festival.

"There are hourly hot briefs, an hourly update of challenges that we're facing, including health and safety, and any issues brought up in these briefings are dealt with immediately," Savali says.

He says that the event is well-prepared for any emergencies with Fire and Emergency services, Police and St John's services ready throughout the event.

Savali says the Diwali festival is a safe event and is confident that it will be celebrated in a safe manner. He also says there is a robust waste management system in place for this year's festival.

"We really engage with our stallholders with regards to the product with which they package their food," he says. "We insist that each stallholder has a supply of recyclable and compostable products for packaging their food."

The BNZ Auckland Diwali Festival will be held at Aotea Square and on Queen Street from midday to 9pm on Saturday, 4 November, and Sunday, 5 November.

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