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Before the era of COVID-19 restrictions, I took my mixed-race family to a springtime Holi celebration organized by a local Hindu temple in Southern California. It was the first time my sons—who know only bits and pieces of their Indian heritage—enjoyed the raucous multicolored festival common to Hindu-dominant regions of South Asia.
We were surrounded by first- and second-generation Indian Americans, along with a handful of people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, all dancing to popular rhythmic Bollywood beats, smearing one another’s faces and clothes with colored powder, stopping only to gorge on Indian snacks and sweets sold at nearby booths. Strangers mingled with one another gleefully, laughing at the thrill of breaking boundaries, enjoying the camaraderie of a shared culture.
It’s hard not to enjoy playing Holi. The joy is infectious. Yet, many worry that the universal attraction it holds has turned Holi into yet another object of American capitalist cultural appropriation. The reality is a bit more complicated.
How We Celebrate Holi
There is heavy, if obvious, symbolism behind the multicolored hues of Holi, which takes place annually in March or April based on the Hindu lunar calendar. The coming of spring, after winter’s dormancy, is marked by flowers bursting open to scatter their seeds and bring new life into the world. It is the season of fertility, rife with color, bright with power. Christianity’s counterpart to Holi is Easter, rooted in pagan origins and marking a similar renewal of life and fertility.
Some Hindus start their celebrations with a rather somber nighttime fire ritual called Holika Dahan, in which the demon goddess Holika is burned as a prequel to the daytime color play. Rangwali Holi, the better-known and more playful observance of the spring festival, is marked the next day, with participants wearing white cotton clothing as a blank canvas for the color play. The word rang (pronounced “rung”) literally means “color” in Hindi and its related languages.
But, as is the case with most Hindu rituals—and here is where the complications begin to arise—there is no singular way to celebrate Holi. Geographically disparate communities celebrate it quite differently: over two days or five; with colored powder or colored water (often sprayed with water guns called pichkaris); between Indians of all faiths or only Hindus; alongside displays of martial arts or theatrical performances. Some celebrations include the imbibing of a signature marijuana-infused drink called bhang, with participants engaging in the colorful revelry while high.
Perhaps most interestingly, the village of Barsana in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh celebrates a version called Lathmar Holi, which translates into “Beating Stick Holi.” This is marked by a sort of revenge fantasy rooted in the reversal of gender roles: Women literally arm themselves with sticks and beat up the men in their villages.
Regardless of the differences in how it is celebrated, Holi is generally pure fun. And because it makes for powerful and seductive visuals, it’s no wonder the festival is so popular, even among non-Indians and non-Hindus.
The Power and Seduction of Holi
Perhaps no other piece of Indian Holi-related pop culture is as iconic as the popular song “Rang Barse,” featured in the 1981 Bollywood romantic drama Silsila. Leading Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan leads a rhythmic and flirtatious song and dance among men and women clad in white, flinging color at one another. The song is synonymous with Holi celebrations in India (it is my father’s absolute favorite).
Decades after “Rang Barse” was filmed, Western pop musicians have also sought to capitalize on the visual power of Holi with music videos set in India during the festival. The most high-profile of these is “Hymn for the Weekend” by Coldplay, featuring Beyoncé.
As I watch lead singer Chris Martin prance through Indian city streets, I can’t help but cringe as chocolate-skinned children plastered with the colors of Holi serve as props for a White pop star’s dalliance with a culture he clearly sees as foreign and exotic.
The contrast is the point. And it is jarring: His colorlessness versus their color, his wealth versus their poverty, his fame versus their anonymity, his modernity versus their ancient ways, his hipster style versus their quaint folksiness.
Compliment or Cultural Appropriation?
I can’t speak to Martin’s inner motivation for this juxtaposition, but a charitable interpretation could infer that the video simply intended to showcase the rich beauty and awe-inspiring cultural norms of those Indians celebrating Holi. And this is where things get (even more) complicated, because many Indians do take it as such.
First-generation Indian immigrants to the U.S. and those living in India often dismiss notions of “cultural appropriation” as Western, and specifically American. For those Indians who have less direct experience with American racism, the use of Holi as a prop in a music video viewed by millions is not an insult—it’s publicity, and a source of pride to see a foreigner so taken with their culture that he centers it in his work.
For second-generation Indian Americans, Holi has become another front in the battle over culture.
About a decade ago, three German men named Jasper Hellmann, Max Riedel, and Maxim Derenko registered a trademark for “Holi Festival of Colours” after Hellmann was inspired by a visit to India in 2011. They continue to run a website, overseeing a presumably successful money-making venture in marketing India’s centuries-old tradition to Germans as a form of enjoyment, cut off from its cultural context. VIP tickets cost nearly 100 euros per person.
In the United States, The Color Run, a for-profit corporation, has similarly capitalized on Holi. The company began in 2011 and organizes 5K runs where participants wear white and are doused with color. The company, perhaps careful to not admit cultural theft, says it is inspired by “several awesome events, including Disney’s World of Color, Paint Parties, Mud Runs, and festivals throughout the world such as Holi.”
This is reminiscent of how Disney sought to trademark Día de los Muertos, the iconic fall festival celebrated by Mexican Americans, Chicanos, and Latinos, sparking accusations of cultural appropriation. While Disney eventually relented, the purveyors of Holi have faced no organized boycott and have persisted in their ventures.
Lifelong immigrants like me spend our lives being told in myriad ways that we are outsiders. Our culture therefore becomes a bulwark against the constant messaging that we don’t belong. It offers us a source of pride and a sense of ownership over a powerful, often ancient set of customs, icons, and symbols that we cling to fiercely.
But culture is mutable. And every culture is the product of borrowed traditions, a constantly changing fabric woven from disparate threads. India’s own variations on Holi are a testament to this dynamic.
When the defensive responses fade away, it becomes clear that rather than building a fortress around our culture, we can and should share it. Especially when it is something as wondrous as Holi.
Is Holi for Everyone?
So, what should a non-Indian living in the West who has been invited to a “color run” or a Holi celebration do? My answers to this question are as subjective as the constantly shifting cultures we seek to preserve. But as an Indian immigrant to the United States, I can suggest some do’s and don’ts.
Don’t dress up as an Indian when you attend Holi-related events (with the exception cited below). Don’t be like Iggy Azalea in her music video for “Bounce.” Don’t randomly stick bindis all over your face, don a “belly dancing” skirt, or adorn yourself with henna “tattoos” you ordered off Amazon. My culture is not a costume.
However, do wear Indian clothes if your Indian friend has invited you to a traditional celebration and offered you an outfit or given you suggestions on what to wear. Making the effort to dress appropriately upon request is a mark of respect and will be greatly appreciated, especially by Indian aunties and uncles.
Do educate yourself about India’s celebrations of Holi and acknowledge that you are partaking in someone else’s culture. For example, if you post photos on social media for your friends, label the event as what it is: Holi, not “color run.” Use respectful language to describe how much you may have enjoyed the experience of being drenched in color, and the playful communion it engenders.
If you are not Indian, don’t organize a color run or a Holi-related festival yourself—unless you’re collaborating with an Indian organizer or the local Indian–South Asian community in your city. And, especially, don’t try to make money off of it. Instead, consider raising money for immigrant communities or to support Indian-led projects in India.
Ultimately, think about what culture means to immigrant communities and adjust your responses to it using the same reverence you might expect for traditions you hold dear.
I remember the joy on the faces of my brown-skinned half-Indian sons as they played Holi for the first time. As they grow into adults, sporting the traditional names I have proudly given them, I can only hope they remain connected to festivals like Holi, and revel in pride and ownership of a culture that is rich, vibrant, infectious—and generously shared.
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com