In the US, Holi is often understood as a festival of colors. There are Holi-themed 5K runs around this holiday. These unique road races celebrate health, happiness, and solidarity among participants. Social media news feeds are populated with selfies and post-run photo ops. Loud music and dancing to rejuvenate the soul. In a large part of the country, it is too cold on Holi to even play with dry colors or gulal.
Traditionally, Holi is a harvest festival and marks the arrival of spring and the end of winter. It is also one of the most colorful and vibrant festivals celebrated in India. Like Diwali, the festival of Holi marks the triumph of good over evil. It is celebrated for two days. The evening before Holi is known as Holika Dahan or Chhoti Holi, during which people light a bonfire to signify the burning of the demon Holika. My mother would make ubtan, an exfoliant using gram flour, turmeric, and other ingredients as base. We would apply it to our face and the rest of the body. After a few minutes, you would dry scrub yourself. The gunk collected from cleansing the body was thrown into the bonfire with the belief that last year’s diseases, ill luck, and sorrows were all being burnt to ashes. Holi, in many parts of India, marks the new year, and happier beginnings.
The story (as per Hindu mythology) goes that demon king Hiranyakashyap was given a reward, which gave him the power to not be killed by either a man or animal. Narcissistically, he wanted to be worshiped by people. Turns out, his son Prahlad, was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. King Hiranyakashyap was furious that Prahlad wouldn’t worship him. Apparently, he asked his sister, demon Holika, to sit on a pyre while holding his son. While Holika died sitting in the flames, Lord Vishnu saved Prahlad and later took the avatar of Narasimha — a half-human half-lion — and killed the demon king.
In the modern world, Holi brings communities together. It was one festival where I saw India, and now the world, less divided. My mother would make one of my favorite desserts soaked in sugar syrup: malpua. She’d serve it with mutton curry, some sauteed veggies, dahi vadas among other goodies. In many Indian homes, gujiya is another sweet treat representative of Holi. We’d have family and friends play with colors and visit each other’s homes. Lots of music, live singing, and dancing. By the end of the night, you would feel nauseated from indulging in all the treats. People would visit their friends and relatives, apply gulal on cheeks, and share meals together. In a world that feels so divided, Holi would bring people of various faiths together.
Childhood nostalgia might bring its own bias, but nothing in the world is all good or all bad. Holi also has a dark side. I saw signs and traces of it when I was a little girl. I have always been curious about human behavior. I altogether stopped playing with colors when I was in college. I saw how many boys used the permission to touch as an excuse to be inappropriate with other girls on this day. I was fortunate, both because I speak up, and I had a good group of fiercely protective guy friends. In the colony where I lived I observed that Holi was like a frat party for unsavory, older men. Smearing a woman’s face with colors or holding her by her waist while chanting “Bura na mano, Holi hai,” which loosely translates to, “Don’t take offence, it’s Holi,” was A-OK.
In a sexually repressed culture, this kind of inappropriate behavior is expected to happen on Holi. And women, including me, get pushback, if we try to bring up this aspect of the festival. When I tried to convey the darkness around the festival of bright colors, I would be told, “Why do you always notice these things?” Or, “Just let Holi be for what it is.” There are innumerable reports on girls and women being harassed, violated, and sexually assaulted. It doesn’t help that Bollywood stereotypes and portrays objectification of women on Holi — actresses prancing around in chiffon saris and acting all coy while lewd heroes high on bhaang chase them.
Then there are the health risks of playing with synthetic Holi colors. They contain cheap, toxic substances, including mica, acid, alkali, pieces of glass, etc. The blatant use of inexpensive, artificial colors made with the help of chemical solvents and toxic agents has adverse effects on human health. Think hair and skin problems like abrasions, irritation, itching, rashes, allergies, eye infections, hair roughness, etc. Can everyone afford organic colors? I don’t think so.
My mother would say that festivals are about saying gratitude for making it to another year and celebrating good health. She also said that being able to cook and share meals with others means God has been kind enough where you can afford these gestures — both financially and health-wise. In our home in NYC, we have family and friends over Holi dinner (I go all out with the traditional cooking and recreating mom’s recipes). There are also several healthy, vegetarian options on the table because no festival should be a reason to sabotage your health and hard work. Most importantly, there are no colors or touching without permission in the name of Holi in our feminist home.
Find a balanced version of the holiday that works for you and your family. Honor what feels safe and healthy and peaceful. Holi is about renewed friendships, forgiveness, and victory of good over evil. This Holi, focus on what matters most. Take care of you, your relationships, and your health. Maybe eat more colors instead of playing with them. Speak up, speak out when you see demons exhibiting unacceptable behavior.
“Let this festival burn all negativity and bring positivity in life.”