A boy plays Holi Sion in Mumbai. (Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • This Holi, let us for once set our children free from the differences and prejudices we have built around ourselves.

    Is the advertising industry listening?

You can also read this article in Hindi- होली का मानवतावाद- बाल मन पर न लगाएँ प्रतिबंध

One day in Vrindavan, little Lord Krishna, the eternally playful son of Yashoda, was found sitting in unusual quietude by the placid Yamuna of Falgun. Disturbed by this sight of her otherwise sportive son sulking, Yashoda went over and asked of her Kanha, the reason. Stirred awake, Krishna looked up, his eyes gleaming with divine innocence, and said, "O mother Yashoda! Look at my skin so dark! Bluer than indigo, darker than the sapphire that rests gently on the fair Radha, my beloved! The fairest of them all! Mother, why should I not be as fair as her?"

Touched by this innocent query of her son, Yashoda, with a smile, suggested that he could change the colour of Radha's skin by simply applying paint on her. It is believed that the tradition of colouring loved ones during Holi originated here in this moment in the cosmic love story of Radha and Krishna.

What fascinates me about this episode is the simple, yet sublime, nature of its message. While capturing the purity of the mother-son bond, it also highlights an oft-overlooked dimension of the Hindu way of life: its humanism. Hindu thought, in the colonial European rationalising gaze, came to be interpreted as a mystical, otherworldly religion, subject to planetary furies (and their priestly assuagement) like the ancient Greek religion.

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The deeply human concerns that form much of its spiritual kernel were ignored and forgotten over time. Of course, Hindu thought is characterised also by its rationalism, its great depth and search for an essence. But in the course of their journey to that elevated level of consciousness, humans are endowed with the liberty to carve meaning out of everyday experiences. Little Krishna's childlike envy, mother Yashoda's comforting love, and Radha's enchanting beauty are all expressions, not of a divine will, but of the human condition. And the most tellingly human expression among these is the transience of the “solution” that Yashoda proposes to Krishna.

To allay her son's anxiety, Yashoda could have constructed a narrative of difference between man and woman, as we witness in today's consumer culture that standardise "dark and handsome" as the ideal for men and "fair and lovely" as that for women. She could even have complained that it is immoral or immodest of a young woman to expose skin and spoil gullible boys like her son. She could also have tried to distract Krishna's attention, perhaps with some makhan.

More predictably, being the quintessential Indian mother, she could have offered a more fundamental fix for her son's problem by asking him to drink more milk (or some Horlicks, perhaps?), which would magically lighten his skin colour, apart from, of course, making him taller, stronger, sharper! Yet, instead of thus rationalising or moralising or digressing or dissolving, Yashoda asks Krishna to simply take a step ahead and apply colour on Radha's skin to find, albeit for a fleeting moment, the sameness he desires. For it is only through approaching, engaging, and exchanging with another human that our own psychological barriers crumble.

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If Holi indeed celebrates diversity of form, it is only in its blinding spectrum of colours that our eyes are able to see the underlying similitude of things. It is only out of the familiar rush, the age-old pranks, and the predictable hide-and-seek that the most unforeseen of relationships emerge, often to last forever. In other words, the distinguishing feature of the Hindu way of life is its life-affirming, unabashed preoccupation and entanglement with the world of humans, not the world of god(s).

A recently aired Holi-special ad of Surf Excel detergent is disquieting because it attacks precisely this humanist basis of Hindu thought. It begins with a girl cycling through the streets of a residential colony on the day of Holi, and happily inviting to herself attacks of colour-bombs by other, more savage, Hindu kids until they run out of colours. And the reason behind her sacrificial "activism"? Just so that a Muslim friend of hers is able to go to the mosque for namaz, safely without his Tide-se-bhi-safeyd Surf Excel-washed tunic being dirtied by those unwashed, colour-stained Hindu friends (?) of his.

So dangerous and inconsiderate are these Hindu kids that even after they have run out of their colour-bombs, just to be sure, our brave activist girl has to carry her friend on the back of her bicycle, escorted and secure. To cosmetically soften the blatant communalism of this scene, a brief sequence is added towards the end to half-heartedly show a semblance of communal harmony: the boy disembarks and says from the stairs of the mosque, "Namaz padh kar aata hoon" (as if we didn't know), and the girl promises, "Baad mein rang padega". Finally arrives that much-awaited commercial tagline: "Apnepan ke rang se auron ko rangne mein daag lag jaaye, toh daag acche hain."

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Throughout this ad, contrary to the humanist (life-affirming) spirit of Holi, colours are depicted as a potential source of discord, irritation, disharmony, and are viewed as a daag (stain) that only Surf Excel can wash off. And notably, these stains are acche (good/desirable) only when kept off the limits of Islam, as on the tunic of our brave "secular" girl. As the parting promise of the girl anticipates, perhaps, these stains are conditionally permissible also on our Muslim friend, BUT only outside the time of his namaz and the vicinity of the mosque.

As if inconsiderate, unempathetic Hindu kids have historically prevented their Muslim neighbours from fulfilling their religious obligations. (Hence, justifying "historical reliefs" like the Partition?) Once an enlightened being (like our secular girl) succeeds in breaking free of the idolatrous illusions of the ignorant "non-believers" and making that quantum leap into the orbital sphere of the mosque, the only colour of apnapan (kinship), however, is whiteness, in all its implied purity.

This subliminal message of the advertisement is exactly the opposite of the message of Holi whereby colours erase differences and bring two people closer, instead of creating friction between them. What's further disconcerting is the possibility of the existence of a sinister agenda behind this advertisement, using children as an unassuming proxy to construct communal conflict. If the primary motive of the advertisers was simply to advocate use of Surf Excel to preserve the whiteness of a pilgrim's attire in an unusually polychromatic environment, why not show a Hindu pilgrim dressed in white? After all, even on Holi, most Hindus go to temple in unpainted outfits. Why deliberately create an inter-religious contrast where there should have been none?

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Beyond the moral decadence of the advertising industry that this advertisement reflects, what hurts the most is its (ab)use of children as disposable props for a politico-capitalist agenda. Childhood truly is the last remaining bastion of innocence. Be it in their laughter or in their hunger, children remain the clearest reflection of the state of our shared humanity, if there ever was one.

We, rational adults, have divided this Earth so thoroughly, so efficiently, that the only no man's land that remains is in the eyes of a child, that see no nation, no religion. It was perhaps this innocence that mother Yashoda saw in Lord Krishna's eyes that day on the bank of the Yamuna, prompting her to ask him to go and find for himself the Radha that he seeks, instead of imposing a static logic on his impressionable mind.

In yet another legend associated with Holi, it was again this pure innocence with which young Prahlad sat on the lap of his aunt Holika on a deathly pyre, only to be saved by the lord himself. The story of Prahlad is a stark reminder of how sacred the innocence of a child is, and how unacceptable its abuse is. No doubt why Lord Vishnu assumed his fiercest avatar (that of Narasimha) to protect young Prahlad from Hiranyakashipu, his abusive father.

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With time, as I myself grow older, a tragic realisation is gradually dawning upon me: social norms, be it of age or gender or religion, are progressively and irreversibly restricting my available field of action. Things I once did unmindfully, be it celebrating festivals of another religion, or holding hands of members of another gender, or simply singing my heart out, have suddenly assumed a different, more concrete meaning.

Children, fortunately, don't understand these self-imposed constraints. They can still do what we adults cannot. In the name of religion, let us not snatch away from them this freedom that is rightfully theirs. This Holi, let us for once set our children free from these "narrow domestic walls" that we have built around ourselves, and let them run, or better still, fly into that "heaven of freedom" where neither god's right hand nor the invisible hand can find them.

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