Color Me Happy
by Shweta Gupta
My memories of early childhood in India are pretty faint, but I have been told I was not a fan of the annual Holi celebration. I only vaguely recall what I’ve been told—I would hide in a room just to avoid getting covered head to toe in gulal (colored powder). Only as I grew older would I realize my apparent dislike or fear of Holi was foolish. Holi is among the most joyous of Indian holidays, full of vibrant colors, community, and fun.
Holi, colloquially referred to as the Festival of Colors, is observed every year in March (or in the Indian month of Phalgun). This year, Holi—a two-day festival—is on March 28–29. Holi marks the start of the spring season and the sense of renewal that comes with it. With roots in Hindu mythology, the holiday also marks the triumph of good over evil. The first day of Holi (Choti Holi or Holika Dahan), which falls during a full moon (Purnima), is more spiritual than the second and involves burning a bonfire to symbolize good over evil. Among the items placed in the bonfire are stems of wheat and sugar cane in the hopes of a bountiful spring crop. On the second and perhaps better-known day—Rangwali Holi—people joyously shower each other with gulal. It’s a day when people—of all ages and from all walks of life—come together to collectively celebrate the coming of spring, strengthen the ties that bind them, and repair the ties that have become frayed.
Holi, more than other holidays, is best celebrated as a community with families, friends, neighbors, and even with those you may not know. Everyone—even a perfect stranger—is welcome to join in. Fortunately, growing up in a close-knit Indian community in the US, I was able to experience a piece of Holi—even if it was far more subdued than the celebrations in India. Those American memories are a little stronger than the distant ones from India. I remember, as with so many holidays, my mother making traditional foods and drinks, most notably gujiyas—best described as a sweet Indian empanada or sweet dumpling—and thandai—a cold milk-based drink made with a variety of nuts and spices, such as almonds, cardamom, poppy seeds, and saffron. Though my mother would never dare to do so, some enjoy adding a little bhang (cannabis) to the thandai. I remember going to the Temple, dressed in something other than my Sunday best. Why? Because you definitely would not want to wear a favorite outfit, unless you really didn’t care whether that outfit ended up doused in colored powder. And I remember freezing outside in the temperamental “spring” weather of Pittsburgh as we “played Holi.”
“Playing Holi” is simple: grab a fistful of brilliantly colored powder (gulal) and smear it on the faces of your friends, families, and strangers alike. Enthusiasts really get into it and, rather than just a gentle smear on the face, throw colored powder in the air so that it rains down on everyone like confetti at a ticker-tape parade. Some particularly mischievous people might even come armed with water balloons or water guns filled with colored water, leading to a full-on water gun battle. No matter your own level of enthusiasm, if you find yourself in the middle of a Holi celebration, be prepared for happy chaos, revelry, merriment, and color everywhere.
Sadly, I don’t have any pictures of our own Holi celebrations. But as corny as it sounds, Bollywood has memorably captured Holi, and it is but one way to vicariously take in the fun. Perhaps one of the most iconic depictions comes from the 1975 classic film Sholay in the song “Holi Ke Din” (“The Day of Holi” or “On Holi Day”). The refrain in this song captures the essence of Holi—people’s hearts (dil) blossom (khil) on Holi with happiness as colors (Rangon) mix, friends (doston) let bygones be bygones, and even enemies (Dushman) hug each other:
Holi Ke Din Dil Khil Jate Hain
Rangon mein rang mil jaate hain
Gile shikwe bhool ke doston
Dushman bhi gale mil jaate hain
(“Holi Ke Din,” Sholay)
On a side—but interesting—note, the colorful day of Holi apparently has found its way outside of Indian communities and transcended its original form—at least in Germany and a handful of other European countries. When I first moved to Berlin, I came across a “Holi Festival of Colors” event, which took place in August! To my surprise, I discovered that a couple of enterprising individuals had created a day-long color festival in cities all over Germany, including in Berlin. Though I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this festival, which does not even take place around the actual Holi, the fact that the joyousness of playing with color that is unique to Holi is being spread around the world is something special.
Of course, if you want to experience the real deal, India is the place to be in March. I’m still regretting my decision to leave on the eve of Holi during my last visit to India. I guess my childhood subconsciousness was telling me to go hide in a room.