Holi: Why We Need To Reclaim An Entire Festival And Where To Look For Inspiration

Holi: Why We Need To Reclaim An Entire Festival And Where To Look For Inspiration  Holi celebrations at Nandgaon temple (Flickr)
  • Holi is still celebrated in its purer forms in what would be called the hinterlands.

    It should be the celebrations of these parts that make for the defining pictures of Holi, and not the perverted distortions created in Hindi cinema.

Why have women stopped playing Holi?

It's a question that sections of the old media seem to be asking in articles and social media this year.

Some well-meaning users of social media have pointed that there is groping and indecent behaviour during Holi celebrations. This, they seem to indicate, has been a factor or reason for keeping them away from the festival, at least the Dulhandi part of it when colours and play come into play. Fair.

It would be insensitive to deny such notions, especially for those fellow Hindus who might have been missing a great deal of colour in their celebration of dharma by staying away from colour.

It will be insensitive to deny going into the root of such notions. Memories good and bad are shaped by experiences. Denial is the spoiler in reclaiming culture.

Holi on Dulhandi is for opening self to colours, to the touch of colours, for letting colour get into our soul, and sometimes into our nails, teeth and hair. For letting colours fade from purple to pink until a week after the festival is over.

The absence of colours is felt when they are absent from people's lives. There is longing for gulaal.

There were turning points in my own longing for Holi.

One. When I visited a colony of Hindu refugees from Pakistan right before Holi. The experience managed to burn much into ash within as a Hindu, leading to the true realisation of colour, festival, dharma, the struggle to uphold dharma.

Two. My endless walks to and fro in the Rangeeli Gali of Krishna's own Braj bhoomi.

Both were for work.

Where I could separate work from personal in these life-churning experiences, I felt closest to colour, as felt on Holi.

I was by myself in Rangeeli Gali, in the peak of festivities. Radhe Radhe. Every woman is Radhe. There is no question of anything outside that emotion, it seems. Yes, my hair had heaps of colour that I could not say 'no' to; nor escape, or refuse, or deny. That's "horee" just as I have known in Dhamars -- a form in Hindustani classical music.

Long before holi for me became about the "horees" and raags, dry colour, Holi was just how it should have been. Holi. Pakwaan, rang, khel.

It's sort of difficult to delve into serious issues of the gender when one could easily spend the evening watching videos of entertainment celebs and stars coolly go about their versions of Holi, in reel and real.

Those pictures of the khandaanis obsessively pushing their colleagues into swimming pools, in real, and in reel, having a body part squished in the garb of colour play, is sort of, well, "Holi" in popular perception. So pursued is the consumption of this version.

Holi had to be reclaimed from a certain portrayal of the festival in Hindi films. That reclaimed chunk could have reshaped the celebration of Holi, especially the large gatherings in the pre-Covid world and expanded our participation just the way Yogi Adityanath tried in Rangotsav in Brajbhoomi.

But those who can bring change are mostly busy countering the festival quashers on social media and Hindu Renaissance-bringers are busy shaping events that are for selected elites. Bura na maano. Holi hai.

When fellow Hindu women speak of "grope and touch" or uncomfortable experiences, I think of the starkly different cradle of colours in Radha's Barsana and Krishna's Nandgaon. Walk towards horee, women. Walk towards Brindavan. Walk towards Manipur. Walk towards Uttarakhand's Kumaon. Walk towards Himachal. Walk towards Bikaner. Benaras will come, on its own, in horee.

Women or even men would have stories to tell when they were made to feel uncomfortable on Holi by a known/unknown. Those stories should be heard and amends made. And there is not much time for making amends. Covid kaal has gulped two Holis.

Life is short. Tolerance for Hindu festivals shorter.

You never know which Holi-hating hag manages to pull Holi from the festivity calendar and do a holy smoke on the water on it just as Deepavali-hating hags managed to pull on crackers.

Holi on Dulhandi, is, after all, the celebration of colour, music, affection and milan. So, won't be a bad idea to make some amends in the culture of Holi as fed to three generations, for the sake of those fellow Hindus who have mixed feelings, and must join us each year to soak colour and the play of colour.

It's perhaps time to search, seek and find the Horee in Holi. It's time to reclaim the wit, humour, the jokes and the folksy texture in the mischievous interaction. Uh, complicated stuff, right?

Hindi films simplified Holi. Hold, smear, catch, push, squeeze, shake the waist, shake a leg, act and be drunk, go home, or wherever.

"Holi Kab Hai. Kab Hai Holi?". A celebrated villain asks his lackeys in a Bollywood blockbuster. He has nasty plans. There's going to be violence. But these nasty plans will fall in place after the song and dance in the village is over.

There are a few things to happen before violence follows colour and cheer.

The spirited female would have her cheeks squished by her boyfriend and would do nothing to help colour reach that lone young widow who is shown fixed at the temple gates atop the hill.

The young widow longingly will gaze at the tall guy before pink colour blocks their long-distance view of each other, but the garrulous woman lead would do nothing for her. The young widow is not even shown applying colour to the deities. She could have been made to. But such is Holi written in Hindi films.

Holi happens to be the day when plots and subplots meet at odds between waist jerking, flesh-squishing, stalking, touch and brush of man and woman actors.

Also in Hindi films, a stalker gets a free pass on Holi. He walks into a sarvajanik Holi milan, in the garb of the dholwala.

The stalker grudgingly watches his prey, rolls the drums short of tearing the drum skin in rage, as she unsuspectingly dances around in whites with her lover boy. Only the stalker's teeth are visible and the white in his eyes. You want to ask him if he wanted to stutter K..K..K and could not do it because there was lust filling in his jaw and mouth.

A lot happens in the garb of Holi in Hindi films. Padosi flirts with the neighbour's wife, as her balam tarase, and padosan ki bhabhi "goes lattu".

Exactly at 0.14, in another Holi song, the "hero" walks briskly towards the playful girl and squishes her right breast with his forearm and fist. It's all on the reel.

These things are ok between couples in films on Holi, especially where hopes of "success" hinge on the news of the same couple in real life. The woman lead doesn't mind. In the song she asks the question, which, roughly translates to: why am I enjoying it so much.

In Uttar Pradesh, Holi still exists as Horee in many parts.

Uttarakhand and UP together can keep a Holi-seeker travelling for 20 days. So vibrant is the celebration through music, dance and colour in the lives of ordinary people.

In West UP, a deeply affectionate and warm set of relatives from my mother's side lived in a locality in Meerut's "old city". It's here my first memory of Holi is placed.

The year was 1984 or 1985. Most likely 1984.

Holi also meant that several aromas would blend with each other in this locality. I remember curiously peeping into huge containers filled with tesu water -- taller than I was. There were two temples in the vicinity. One of the two, a Hanuman Temple. The staple marigold from the temples, the tesu in the container were heady together.

The staff from the halwai shop, which made this particular lane distinct, would welcome us fondly with "beti kya khaogi? kya bhijwaayein? What would we like to have for snack, even as we would be entering the lane, walking towards the house from the main road. Holi meant that the usual hospitality would peak.

In no time, freshly deep fried samosas, hot gulabjamun, and my favourite -- the freshly pickled carrot in mustard seeds would reach home.

That Holi made me witness fries which would fill the hand-woven baskets at the "halwai's" shop for the first time -- in heaps -- outside of those baskets. Dulhandi arrived.

Pinks and purples, tesu from plastic mugs flowing across the "aangan", and the uncles and aunts, in their 20s back then, smear each other with colour like their mom would smear the brass utensils with ash for cleaning. That's my memory of the the loudest play of colours in the family, from inside the grilled baithak with my great grandmother.

I do remember bawling at the end to see that my mother was pink even after a bath. But within, I wanted to be outside the grilled window, on my great grandmother's lap, watching it and being smeared a little. This was the Holi I missed until adulthood.

In the beginning of 1988, I was in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh.

As a child, I had seen "real mountains" for the first time, waterfalls and bridges on them for the first time. Terrace farms, snow covered peaks, flowers never seen, temples never seen, and so on. Holi fell during our stay there.

This time, too, I preferred to be indoors even as I could grasp from my surroundings that Himachal and Holi did mean a decisive change in the backdrop and music. The "holi ka huddangg" phrase was somehow not fitting into this version of Holi. Men who came to greet us, sprinkled dry colour on our feet.

In 2001, I revisited the Himachali revelries of Holi at Panjab University (Chandigarh) with fellow hostellers in the masters programme.

How the women transformed into Himachali sisterhood amongst themselves as the men sang from outside the gate of the women twin hostels' premises! Its music and feet movement -- etched in my memory and ears.

It's distance and decency that turned me more towards Holi.

In 2003, my second outstation assignment, I covered the Holi in Bikaner. Strangers opened homes to me so I could witness the deepest essence of the local essence. Not one unpleasant experience.

Horee is in Bharat and it must find its way into Holi. It has to be reclaimed from the depiction of Holi in Hindi films.

Ang se ang lagana, sajan humein aise rangg lagana, could be personal indulgence for man- woman in their private space. A generation was fed this notion as publicly acceptable and accessible.

A generation is a little too late by three decades in shunning indecency that finds nasty and imagined concoctions and rumours filled in metaphorical water balloons. Horee khelo. Holi Khelo. Filmein nahin.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 


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