Holi 2019: Starting a Conversation Beyond Just Playing With Colors

On Yampa Field afternoon Sunday, on April 28, Indian music boomed from behind Ahlberg Gear House, while groups of color-drenched students wrestled their still-clean friends and threw handfuls of colored powder at each other. 

This was Holi, a Hindu festival widely celebrated throughout much of Asia during the spring. But the event this weekend, organized by the Students for the Awareness of South Asia, went beyond simply frolicking in clouds of color. 

“If we’re being critical,” co-leader of SASA Saluja Siwakoti ’21 said, “everything can be brought down to casteism and sexism.” 

Lasting a day and a night and known as the “festival of spring,” “festival of colors,” or “festival of love,” Holi is a major festival in Hinduism. On the first night, called Holika Dahan or Choti Holi, bonfires commemorate the burning of the demon king Hiranyakashipu’s sister, and symbolize the triumph of good over evil. On the actual day of Holi, people celebrate by engaging in a free-for-all, throwing colored powders and paints at anyone and everyone, and wreaking further havoc with water guns and balloons. Later in the day, families and friends gather for quieter festivities. 

Photo By Kochi Nakajima

“It’s very rowdy,” said Siwakoti, who grew up in Nepal, of the celebration. In the week leading up to Holi, Siwakoti often had water balloons thrown at her as she walked to school. But she said coming together with family is still special. 

Siwakoti said in a short speech at the event, “For all these years that I myself have been celebrating Holi, or learning about it, Holi was a festival of colors, joy and happiness — one that brings community together. But like all religion, the triumph of one over another calls for further questioning.”

As Siwakoti recently found out through social media, Holi is essentially the celebration of brahmin (or the traditional highest-ranking and most educated caste in Hinduism) over the lower castes. A celebration of masculinity and incidents of gender-based violence are not far from the surface. Pradnya Waghule, an author for the platform Feminism in India, wrote in an article published before Holi last year, “The forced water, colours, and balloons made me see how my body was considered a free-for-all source of entertainment for men.”

“I feel so ignorant, like I don’t know my own culture,” Siwakoti said. “I’ve celebrated this for 20 years.” 

Dr. Rushaan Kumar, associate professor with the Colorado College Feminist and Gender Studies Department, advised Siwakoti and other SASA members on how best to proceed with the event in light of its recently learned connotations. 

“We didn’t want to legitimize it,” Siwakoti said. The problem is, as Siwakoti acknowledged in her speech, “If being critical of the foundations meant not celebrating, the culture would probably die away.” 

Following Dr. Kumar’s suggestions, SASA proceeded with the event but asked attendees to think beyond “just playing with colors.” They played music from artists within the Dalit community — members of the lower castes whose subjugation is symbolized in Holi celebration — in tribute to the current resistance movement in India, and told people to look out for future resources and information.

The mission of SASA is to “promote awareness for South Asia, create a safe space for South Asian students, and celebrate diversity.” Although SASA has focused primarily on events in the past, Siwakoti and other SASA members want to extend the scope of the club by connecting with South Asian students at other liberal arts colleges, hosting conversations about important topics in South Asia, and bringing speakers to campus.

“It’s been dormant,” Siwakoti said of SASA. “[But] we ourselves have been learning from voices otherwise silenced, and call you to do the same.” 

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