Who doesn’t love the first signs of spring? Budding flowers; going outside with a light jacket; feeling fresh air on your skin without physically (and emotionally) hurting. To me, it’s no wonder that the coming of spring is the most widely celebrated event across the world: from the White House’s Easter egg hunt to Cimburijada (the “Festival of Scrambled Eggs” in Bosnia) to the Songkran water festival in Thailand to the Holi festival.
Holi, also known as the Festival of Colors, originated as an ancient Hindu festival that celebrated the coming of spring. It’s named after the evil sister of a rather hubristic ancient king, who punished his son for remaining loyal to Vishnu, one of the three big deities of Hinduism. When the aunt (named Holika) attempted to burn the son by sitting with him in a fire (covering herself with a cloak, but not the son), Vishnu protected him by transferring the cloak from her to him. Holika burned, and good triumphed over evil. The next day, people applied ash to their foreheads, a practice that eventually inspired the use of colored powders. Traditionally, Holi is celebrated the night before with a bonfire in recognition of Holika’s burning, and the next day with spraying colors, dancing, eating, and more.
Holi is mainly celebrated in India and Nepal as well as regions in the world with sizable Hindu populations. Over time, the festival has spread throughout non-Hindu communities, too—in Southern Asia in particular, but also in Europe and North America.
As one would expect, non-Hindu cultures often disregard the religious aspects of Holi: it has been adapted as a social celebration of spring, with little connection to religious tradition. The spread of the holiday across cultures has led to a certain amount of loss of its original culture and tradition, and in many cases, cultural appropriation of the Holi festival and its practices.
There is indubitably cultural appropriation at work in a large part of the American celebration of Holi and Holi-influenced events, such as the Color Run or the music concert the Festival of Colours. Cultural appropriation is, by definition, the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture. Those from that dominant culture can then reduce certain cultural elements to exoticism. Appropriators temporarily get to act out the culture of the “other” against whom they discriminate, without suffering from the discrimination faced by that culture. Many of the people in America who celebrate Holi have no connection to the culture from which the festival originates, and may also be ignorant of the original culture’s influence completely (especially in the case of those events not actually named “Holi”).
There are some nuances to be observed in how these different events exemplify appropriation. There is a difference between a festival set up at a university by a group comprised of students who culturally identify with the roots of that festival and a largely corporate-sponsored, for-profit event like the Color Run.
Shakti works very hard each year to make the Holi celebration at Wesleyan an event for all students to enjoy. The group members with whom I’ve spoken have contemplated various ways of educating students on the traditional origins of the holiday and its significance to the Hindu culture, such as making a speech before the countdown or passing out little slips with the color packets that briefly describe the importance of Holi and touch upon the cultural appropriation possible in participating in the festival. Members of the group have different viewpoints on the degree of cultural appropriation at play in the Holi festival at Wes. In many ways, though, holding the festival manifests itself as a way to properly share an important tradition with fellow students and friends, and hopefully educate them about it with cultural appropriation in mind.
Nevertheless, while Holi is definitely a wonderful chance to learn about another culture in celebration of a tradition that certain students hold significant and are proud of, there are inevitably going to be people participating who are ignorant of the fact that in celebrating a happy and fun Hindu tradition, they are temporarily benefitting from a culture without permanently bearing the brunt of oppression (which they, through the systematic supremacy of white culture, often cause) against that culture. I think it’s great that Shakti should want to share and educate students on Hindu culture and cultural identity, but it certainly shouldn’t be their responsibility to convey to ignorant people the actual significance of such a festival.
Celebrations like Holi at Wesleyan display a necessity for consideration of who is running the festival. That said, social events like the Color Run—which downplay or completely ignore the cultural and spiritual influences of Holi and are corporate sponsored—appropriate aspects for commercial gain. The website of the Color Run states that, “The Color Run is the first paint race of its kind and was inspired by several awesome events, including Disney’s World of Color, Paint Parties, Mud Runs, and festivals throughout the world such as Holi.” This minimal recognition of a thousand-year-old Indian tradition is the only place where the Color Run gives credit where it’s due on its official site. This event dilutes the culture and tradition out of desire for profit (the Color Run also states its commitment to charity, but it is unclear from the website just how much of its costs go to administration and how much out of each dollar it lends to charity).
Apart from the Color Run, there have been various corporate co-options that trivialize or set aside the cultural origins of Holi. Though celebrations of Holi on college campuses like Wesleyan do have their issues, they at least exhibit pride of a cultural identity that is obscured in events like the Color Run and others. These purely social events disallow those who want to share their identity to do so properly because people who do participate in just the social aspects get an adulterated version of Holi’s original culture.
Aibinder is a member of the class of 2018.