The Holi Spirit

by Matt Thekkethala

On the afternoon of Friday April 29th, 2016, I celebrated my first Holi.

I ventured to the Swing Space courtyard with a group of friends decked out in white t-shirts and sunglasses, joyfully threw colored powder at said group in addition to many other strangers, took several photos with said group in order to post them on Facebook to prove to my high school friends that I was having fun in college and actually had friends, ate a few samosas, and returned to my residential college.

I’ll admit something. I was not motivated by a desire to appreciate Indian culture, or to get more involved in the South Asian community on campus. I was motivated mostly – if not entirely – by the opportunity to take vibrant photographs of me and my friends covered from head to toe in colored powder just so I could update my cover photo.

The sad part of this story is that the photographs did not come out too well; I was forced to put them through Instagram filters in order to make them Facebook-ready.

The sadder part of this story is that I’m Indian.

My first instinct when reflecting on this experience was to believe that Holi had become a victim of cultural appropriation. And yes, though I did contribute to that appropriation by exploiting this event for my own sociopathic social media intentions, I’ll give myself credit for being able to step back and look at the bigger picture.

Holi, a Hindu festival signifying both the arrival of spring and the victory of good over evil, was appropriated, co-opted, and reduced to “Color Runs,” electronic music festivals, and a study break for privileged college students – myself included – to appear happy, fun-loving, and cultured.

As I said before, this was my first Holi. This is not because I’m some kind of whitewashed, Americanized Indian who has rejected Indian culture. Quite the contrary. My family is Catholic. Holi is a Hindu festival. Thus, it was never important to my idea of being Indian.

Then again, neither was Christmas. I now see many similarities between Christmas and Holi. We’ve forgotten “the true meaning” of both of them.

I am the Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch, and the Charlie Brown of Holi. I am frustrated with the commercialization and subsequent fetishization of what was once a sacred celebration. I find no mention of ‘Holi’ or ‘India’ on The Color Run’s website. No one I spoke to at Yale’s celebration of Holi – myself included – had any idea about what the significance of the festival was, yet everyone exploited it for social media. We forgot the true meaning of Holi, and I am part of the problem.

When the Hindu deity Krishna was a baby, he was poisoned by a demon’s breast milk and as a result, his skin turned blue forever. Growing up, he worried that girls would not like him because of his skin color. His mother encouraged him to approach the lovely goddess Radha, and to color her face any way he’d like to. Krishna does exactly this, and Radha falls in love with him.

Holi is a commemoration of this myth; people rejoice in the love of Krishna and Radha around the world on this day, in addition to celebrating the arrival of spring, having fun with friends and loved ones, and forgiving past wrongdoings and moving on.

This is the true meaning of Holi, generally speaking.

As I complain about Holi’s misappropriation to my suitemate, he laughs. “Why does every guy that throws colored powder at someone have to give credit to the Indians?”

He has a point. What constitutes cultural appropriation? How do we prevent it? Should cultures copyright their customs and holidays so that they’re never appropriated? Will these customs and holidays remain copyrighted for 70-80 years until they’re released into the public domain so that they may be appropriated then? I’ve gone too far now, haven’t I?

I don’t mean to invalidate other instances of cultural appropriation. I’ve been told time and time again that ‘White America’ has appropriated and co-opted Black American culture time and time again, and I believe it.

But is Holi appropriated?

When I think of cultural appropriation, I think of the swastika. Hitler took a symbol which originally signified “good fortune” and “wellbeing” in the Hindu faith, and twisted it. Literally. He rotated it 45 degrees. But he also twisted its meaning so that it symbolized the bigoted notion of a ‘master Aryan race.’ To me, cultural appropriation is using an idea or image from a minority culture for a purpose it was not originally intended.

Color Runs and electronic music festivals, when you really get down to it, are all about channeling upbeat, optimistic energy. Just like Holi.

The social media aspect of college-organized Holi events isn’t necessarily appropriation either. We throw colored powder and post photos of ourselves throwing colored powder for the same reason: to share our happiness and positive spirit.

So, no. As far as I know, Holi isn’t appropriated. That’s not to say that I don’t think something should change.

I think celebrations of Holi, especially those that include non-Hindus, should be prefaced by some kind of explanation of the background and significance of this festival. I’m not exactly sure what “appreciation of a culture” looks like, but I think my suggestion is a step in the right direction.

And when we post pictures of ourselves throwing colored powder at each other, we won’t just be privileged college students who appear happy, fun-loving, and cultured. We’ll be privileged college students who appear happy and fun-loving, and are actually a bit more cultured than we used to be.