Before the era of COVID-19 restrictions, I took my mixed-race family to a springtime Holi celebration hosted by a local Hindu temple in Southern California. It was the first time my sons – who only know bits and pieces of their Indian heritage – enjoyed the loud, multicolored festival common to the predominantly Hindu regions of South Asia.
We were surrounded by first and second generation American Indians, as well as a handful of people from other racial and ethnic backgrounds, all dancing to popular Bollywood rhythm beats, smearing each other’s faces and clothes. colored powder, stopping only to gorge on Indians. snacks and sweets sold at nearby kiosks. Strangers mingled happily with each other, laughing at the thrill of breaking boundaries, enjoying the camaraderie of a shared culture.
It’s hard not to love playing Holi. Joy is contagious. Yet many fear that the universal pull it wields has turned Holi into yet another object of American capitalist cultural appropriation. The reality is a bit more complicated.
How we celebrate Holi
There is heavy, yet obvious, symbolism behind the multicolored hues of Holi, which takes place every year in March or April according to the Hindu lunar calendar. The arrival of spring, after the dormancy of winter, is marked by the bursting of flowers to disperse their seeds and bring new life to the world. It is the season of fertility, full of color, bursting with power. The Christian counterpart of Holi is Easter, rooted in pagan origins and marking a similar renewal of life and fertility.
Some Hindus begin their celebrations with a rather dark night fire ritual called Holika Dahanin which the demon goddess Holika is burned as a prequel to the daytime color scheme. Rangwali Holi, the most well-known and playful celebration of the Spring Festival, is marked the next day, with participants wearing white cotton garments as a blank canvas for the color scheme. Word rang (pronounced “rung”) literally means “color” in Hindi and its related languages.
But, as is the case with most Hindu rituals – and this is where the complications start to arise – there is no one way to celebrate Holi. Geographically disparate communities celebrate it very differently: over two or five days; with colored powder or colored water (often sprayed with water guns called pichkaris); between Indians of all faiths or only Hindus; alongside martial arts demonstrations or theatrical performances. Some celebrations include drinking a signature marijuana drink called bhangwith attendees indulging in colorful revelry while high.
Perhaps most interestingly, the village of Barsana in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh celebrates a version called Lathmar Holi, which translates to “Beating Stick Holi”. This is marked by a kind of fantasy of revenge rooted in the inversion of gender roles: women literally arm themselves with sticks and beat up men in their villages.
Regardless of the differences in how it’s celebrated, Holi is generally pure fun. And because it creates powerful and alluring visuals, it’s no wonder the festival is so popular, even among non-Indians and non-Hindus.
The power and seduction of Holi
Perhaps no other piece of Holi-related Indian pop culture is as iconic as the popular song “Rang Barse,” featured in the 1981 Bollywood romance drama. Silsila. India’s leading actor Amitabh Bachchan leads a rhythmic, flirtatious song and dance between men and women dressed in white, throwing colors at each other. The song is synonymous with Holi celebrations in India (it’s my dad’s absolute favorite).
Decades after “Rang Barse” was filmed, Western pop musicians have also sought to capitalize on the visual power of Holi with music videos set in India during the festival. The most publicized of these is Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend”, featuring Beyoncé.
As I watch singer Chris Martin prance through the streets of the Indian city, I can’t help but cringe as chocolate-skinned children covered in the colors of Holi serve as accessories for the wedding ring. a white pop star with a culture he clearly sees as foreign and exotic. .
Contrast is the point. And it’s shocking: its colorless against their color, its wealth against their poverty, its fame against their anonymity, its modernity against their old ways, its hipster style against their quaint folk.
Compliment or cultural appropriation?
I can’t speak to Martin’s inner motivation for this juxtaposition, but a charitable interpretation might infer that the video was simply meant to showcase the rich beauty and awe-inspiring cultural norms of these Indians celebrating Holi. And this is where things get complicated (even more), because many Indians take it as such.
First-generation Indian immigrants to the United States and those living in India often dismiss notions of “cultural appropriation” as Western, and specifically American. For Indians who have less direct experience of American racism, the use of Holi as a prop in a music video seen by millions is not an insult – it is publicity and a source of pride to see. an outsider so enamored with their culture that he centers it in his work.
For second-generation American Indians, Holi has become another front in the battle for culture.
About ten years ago, three German men named Jasper Hellmann, Max Riedel and Maxim Derenko trademarked “Holi Festival of Colours” after Hellmann was inspired by a visit to India in 2011. They continue to manage a website, presumably overseeing a successful lucrative venture in marketing India’s centuries-old tradition to Germans as a form of enjoyment, cut off from its cultural context. VIP tickets cost almost 100 euros per person.
In the United States, The Color Run, a for-profit company, has also capitalized on Holi. The company started in 2011 and runs 5K races where participants wear white and are sprayed with color. The company, perhaps keen not to admit cultural theft, says it draws inspiration from “several awe-inspiring events including Disney’s World of Color, Paint Parties, Mud Runs, and festivals around the world such as Holi.” .
It’s reminiscent of how Disney sought to mark Día de los Muertos, the iconic fall festival celebrated by Mexican Americans, Chicanos and Latinos, sparking accusations of cultural appropriation. While Disney eventually relented, Holi vendors faced no organized boycotts and persisted with their businesses.
Long-term immigrants like me spend their lives being told in multiple ways that we are foreigners. Our culture therefore becomes a bulwark against the constant message that we do not belong. It offers us a source of pride and a sense of belonging to a powerful and often ancient set of customs, icons and symbols to which we cling fiercely.
But culture is mutable. And every culture is the product of borrowed traditions, an ever-changing fabric woven from disparate threads. India’s own variations on Holi testify to this dynamic.
When defensive responses fade, it becomes clear that rather than building a fortress around our culture, we can and should share it. Especially when it’s something as wonderful as Holi.
Is Holi for everyone?
So what should a non-Indian living in the West do who has been invited to a “color run” or Holi celebration? My answers to this question are as subjective as the ever-changing cultures we seek to preserve. But as an Indian immigrant to the United States, I can suggest that some do‘s and don’ts.
Do not dress up as an Indian when attending Holi-related events (except as noted below). Don’t be like Iggy Azalea in her music video for “Bounce.” Don’t stick random bindis all over your face, don a “belly dancing” skirt, or adorn yourself with henna “tattoos” you ordered from Amazon. My culture is not a costume.
However, do wear Indian clothes if your Indian friend invited you to a traditional party and offered you an outfit or gave you suggestions on what to wear. Make an effort to dress appropriately on demand is a mark of respect and will be greatly appreciated, especially by Indian aunts and uncles.
Do Learn about Holi celebrations in India and acknowledge that you are participating in someone else’s culture. For example, if you post photos on social media for your friends, label the event as what it is: Holi, not “color run”. Use respectful language to describe how much you enjoyed the experience of being drenched in color and the playful communion it engenders.
If you are not Indian, do not do Organize a color run or Holi-related festival on your own, unless you partner with an Indian organizer or the local Indian-South Asian community in your town. And particularly, do not do try to make money out of it. Instead, consider fundraising for immigrant communities or supporting Indian-led projects in India.
Ultimately, think about what culture means to immigrant communities and adjust your responses using the same respect you might expect for the traditions you hold dear.
I remember the joy on the faces of my brown-skinned, half-Indian sons as they performed Holi for the first time. As they grow into adults, sporting the traditional names I proudly gave them, I can only hope they stay connected to festivals like Holi, and revel in pride and ownership. a rich, dynamic, contagious and generously shared culture.
is currently Racial Justice Editor at YES! Media and researcher at the Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also an animator and creator of Rise with Sonali, a television and radio show broadcast nationally on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won first place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She has also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and was also nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the non-profit group Afghan Women’s Mission. She holds a master’s degree in astronomy from the University of Hawai’i and two undergraduate degrees in physics and astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She looks back on her professional journey in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My journey from astrophysicist to radio host”. She can be contacted at sonalikolhatkar.com