When I lived in Mumbai, India, I’d wake up elated one early morning each March. The key was to wake up before my cousins smeared pink or red or green powder all over my face—so I could get to them first. And then I had to get ready for the intense color battle with my neighborhood: my mom would help me braid my hair and protect it with coconut oil. I’d wear my oldest, most battered clothing. I’d gather the water balloons I’d meticulously prepared with my friends, my powerful water gun, and all the powdered colors I could manage to carry on my person.
It’s Holi, a Hindu festival celebrating spring’s arrival, that I miss the most from my childhood. I miss the school day off, the festival’s exuberance, its joy, and the raucous color and water fights we waged as factions of elementary schoolers against the (only slightly) better-mannered adults.
Although Holi originated as an agricultural festival to celebrate
springtime, rejuvenation, and life, it’s enshrined in Hindu mythology. The word “Holi” itself comes from a legend about the triumph of good over evil: Vishnu, one of the principal deities of Hinduism, saved a devout follower Prahlad from his father, an abusive demon king named Hiranyakashipu, and the king’s sister, Holika. Prahlad resisted his father’s despotic rule, for which his father sought to punish him.
Prahlad enlisted the help of his sister, Holika, who had been granted a blessing, a cloak that would protect her from fire. Prahlad was made to sit with her on a pyre. The cloak wouldn’t work, however, if Holika didn’t enter the bonfire alone – it flew to Prahlad, so Holika burned and Prahlad lived. Hindus often light a pyre the night before color-throwing to celebrate Holika’s demise.
So why the color-throwing? A love story of divine proportions helps to explain it. Lord Krishna, another important deity and avatar of Vishnu, had blue skin and complained to his mother about his complexion; he was worried that his love, Radha, would reject him for it. His mother suggested quite playfully that he smear color on her face—for equality! He did, and thus inspired the color-masking integral to celebrating Holi.
That’s also why Holi’s often said to be an equalizer. Like this legend in which Krishna levels himself with Radha, class distinctions have been historically blurred in Holi celebrations. No one is immune to being covered with vibrant red colors. As the saying goes: Bura na mano, Holi hai! (Don’t be offended; it’s Holi!)
Thanks to the efforts of the Asian Cultural Center at IU Bloomington, and IU’s Indian Student Association, we’ve had the opportunity to experience a slice of Holi over 8,000 miles away from South Asia. This year, we’ll have the biggest Holi Festival in Bloomington yet: a three day extravaganza featuring performances from Brooklyn-based Red Baraat as well as eight dance teams from around the country at the annual Raas Royalty dance competition.
On March 1, the Arts and Humanities Council’s usual First Thursdays will be transformed into a Holi Festival, featuring performances from Hoosier Raas and HooSher Bhangra, and hands-on creative activities focused on “India Remixed.” At 6pm, Red Baraat will lead us out to Dunn Meadow, where we’ll end the evening with a full-blown color toss, in which you can smear pink powder on your friends’ cheeks and get a chance to properly celebrate the “festival of colors,” and the advent of spring.
In the spirit of Holi, everyone is welcome, and the more the merrier.