Holi – a Springtime festival of Colour

The clocks may have gone forward to signify the beginning of Summertime, but there are other colourful signs of Spring and Summertime that are bursting from nature in this part of the northern hemisphere. It is also festival time for Holi – the ancient Hindu festival celebrated to mark the coming of spring as a time of renewal, regeneration and reconciliation.  It is celebrated with colour to represent vibrancy, fertility and togetherness associated with family and friends who have gathered to have fun. There are other significant stories of the festival such as the story of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha, as well as the story of Holika and Prahlad. It is a time of vibrant celebration when people run around covering each other with the rainbow of Gulal powders or coloured liquid, the latter known as abeer. Drums known as dhol and other musical instruments are played whilst people laugh, sing and dance in the streets or fields. The festival is celebrated in India and various parts of Asia – including the Indian diaspora in the West Indies, North America and even the UK. All in all, the festival represents love and the victory of good over evil.

 

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I was happy to see and learn more about the spring celebrations from past centuries in the Mughal Empire Exhibition at the British Library. The manuscripts and paintings were brilliant and capture the period in time by recording images of people, music, fashion, Holi-playing equipment, the entertainment and fun they obviously had during the celebrations. It was heart-warming to see the extravagance, elegance and details of the Mughal celebrations in the past in their regal settings. I am sure they got dirty too! I was compelled to buy a Holi celebration post card as a souvenir as the festival will always be special to me.

 

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These are some well-documented past celebrations in books with beautiful illustrations and online that show how it was celebrated by all classes in a society – from the Mughals to the people in the streets.

 

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Playing Holi / Phagwa in my village in Trinidad late 1980s.

 

Celebrating the festival of Holi is one of my best childhood memories, and it still makes me happy to see it celebrated from afar. It is a time for peaceful fun with the family, neighbours, friends and other villagers. It certainly is still very much a festival of togetherness which showcases the physical activity like a special rainbow – full of vibrant colour, music, dance and love.

 

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Phagwa, as we call it in the West Indies, is an integral part of the cultural calendar and is still very much alive considering it was brought from India to the West Indies by the indentured labourers in the 1840’s. Holi goes according to the lunar calendar which means it is usually celebrated in March. It is a national holiday in India but in Trinidad it is celebrated on the closest Sunday to the Indian date. Our local temple (mandir) is still the hub for organising and congregating for the celebration in the village, with persons wearing mainly white clothes prior to the start of the coloured festivities. With dholak drums carried around the neck and other musical instruments – the procession starts at the temple and goes along street after street, where people are invited in homes for some drinks, sweets or refreshments. This can last a few hours.

 

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It is exciting, thrilling and fun to play Holi. According to the Government of Trinidad and Tobago’s website – ‘A Carnival-like atmosphere pervades as willing participants are sprayed with a variety of coloured dyes.  You can hear the strains of special folk songs called Chowtal being sung, accompanied by two instruments – the Dholak, a small hand drum and Majeera, percussive instruments.  The music is fast-paced and extremely infectious, making you want to take part in the joy-filled revelry’.

It has gained popularity over the years by other non-Hindus and ethnicities. In the chapter ‘A rich blend of cultural influences’ in the book ‘Trinidad and Tobago: Terrific and Tranquil’, the island is described: “…but then in Trinidad and Tobago, always expect the unexpected, for this is a nation of two separate territories, many different ethnic groups and religions, and discrete and common cultures. You’d be hard pressed to find a population as ethically or culturally mixed as Trinidad’s, in such a small place, anywhere in the world”. The chapter also goes on to say: “Holi is an integral part of the cultural calendar”. Phagwa, March’s Hindu spring festival is celebrated on savannahs throughout the island to the singing of chowtal or pichakaaree songs and the drenching of all with colourful abeer”.

 

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Abeer is the purple liquid that my father would make in a bucket early on the Sunday morning of Holi. It used to be still warm from the water used to infuse the dye when we used to fill our saved and recycle bottles for the purple liquid. The buzz of getting that first spray with colour is truly joyous, fun and bonding! You certainly would not wear your ‘Sunday best clothes’ because by the end of the day your clothes will be soaked, and even ruined. In the 1980’s the coloured Gulal powder was introduced but prior to that we would use mainly the abeer liquid for spraying or drenching each other. My father would try to find some of the elders, such as Mama and Argee, in the neighbourhood to spray with abeer as a sign of respect, and to join in the fun. Throughout the day, we would look to spray our neighbours, family and the temple group as we go street to street through our special village. Phagwa is still celebrated with much fervour through Trinidad – now in schools and has been adopted by some as a national celebration and part of our identity.

 

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My Roman Catholic School – Holi Greetings on Facebook

 

My mother, family and villagers still welcome the local temple groups to our home for Holi, as do many homes along the parade in the village. I am grateful for the persons who are committed and still carry on these traditions after many years. It will always be our heritage and a true celebration of our past journeys across the seas. The message of good over evil, and the joy of life are always relevant. I am thankful to feel part of the great festivities, and the contagious happiness when I witnessed them on social media.

 

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Holi has influenced our multi-cultural society, such as when carnival band designer Peter Minshall used the spraying off colour on his masqueraders for his band Callaloo in 1984. Chutney music, which is the fusion of Caribbean and Asian beats and melodies, has been successful in creating mixed and modern music for the festivities. There is still a religious festival so there is no alcohol consumed on the day. So it is pure fun and happiness with the colours, music, dance and interaction with people.

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Callaloo – Carnival Band by designer Peter Minshall.   Source: Tumblr – http://carnival2014-blog.tumblr.com/post/46371316750/peter-minshall-callaloo-1984-photo-roy-boyke

I also can’t help thinking of Holi when I see the music video for the calypso by Machel Montano, better known as the Soca king, called ‘Fog up de Place’ with the lyrics: ‘you can’t play mas if you fraid powder’. J’ouvert and the Carnival sailor masqueraders share powder for different reasons (US sailors stationed in Trinidad used talc powder to cool themselves from the tropical heat), but the visual effects of the powder in the air is still amazing and similar. We have these festive traits in common.

 

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A few years ago, I saw that there was a globetrotting event based on Holi called Holi One Festival at Battersea Power Station in London. I also recall seeing some people on the London Underground with the powder on their once white clothes. There is a brilliant article ‘Holi One Colour Festival – Battersea Unites in an Explosion of Colour’ which explained the festival’s aimed to bring together people from all walks of life to share music, arts, fun and vitality. It was reported that: “14000 expectant revellers dressed from head to toe in white – three quarters of them women – streamed along the pavements like angelic ants, moving collectively towards one of London’s most recognised landmarks. They would leave an entirely different colour!” At the end of the event – the organisers found it promoted the ideas of togetherness and vitality that did not disappoint – “they were multi-coloured and it’s fair to say – unrecognisable mess”. A jet-wash was used for the clean up the next day. I can relate to this, as it is absolutely true too that you can still see some of the colour stains and evidence of Holi for a few days after the event. Your hair and fingernails will also bear the colours of Holi as a gentle…and sweet reminder afterwards. I don’t mind that.

 

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The Indian Bollywood film industry has helped us to appreciate the festival for its connection with the East Indies and West Indies. In the 1980s, we had neither Internet nor social media, so film such as Silsila was brilliant for us to see the visual expression and art of Holi as it is celebrated in India. We also know some of the songs, and they remain classics to this day.

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Film – Silsila 1981. Source: Wikipedia.

Holi is celebrated and popular throughout other West Indian countries such as Guyana and Suriname, where there are large Indo-Caribbean communities. I have also seen celebrations on social media in New York, Houston, Paris, Canada etc. The event in Queens, New York seems to be a merger of West Indians and East Indians, and there are Tassa drums used in the parade. The New York Police Department also participated in one of the Holi celebrations and used the opportunity to showcase their LGBT+ community. The rainbow symbol is very apt. It is a festival of time for everyone regardless of religion, colour, class, gender and age from my personal experience.

 

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A few years ago I went to the Caribbean Hindu Temple in North London to celebrate the festival and it was nice to be welcomed by the community and to play Holi again after so many years. I was going to play it this year but was busy on the day. I saw on social media that Indian students were also celebrating Holi at Middlesex University recently, and a couple of primary schools in the UK.   It was nice to see the celebrations in secular environments for the happiness and fun that playing Holi brings.

 

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Holi has been given a lot of exposure (rightly so!) by Google. Google’s logo is colourful and has evolved over the years.  In the last few years they have commissioned colourful and animated ‘Goggle Doodles’ for Holi with clearly explanatory details of the festival. In 2018, it depicted the traditional dhol drummers amongst a cloud of colour, who move from house to house, adding a musical touch to the day’s festivities. In 2019, it states that the visual excitement marks the start of spring but also offers: “a time for renewal, and a reversal of the social hierarchies among ages, classes, and castes. Holi’s also known as the festival of colors or the festival of love because it marks a time for coming together and releasing old grudges”. 

At Holi, the story of Holika is depicted with bonfires.  The bonfire signifies the demoness Holika, who tried to destroy her nephew Prahlad in a fire, but burnt herself to death in the end. Its’ meaning at springtime reminds us about the true victory of good over evil.

 

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The colourful festival of Holi is a diverse and inclusive celebration of dance, music and other rituals, which is a common thread amongst most cultures. The vibrancy, warmth and togetherness by people taking to the streets or in their community spaces, is something we all should try to experience at least once. The rainbow colours of the festival are played to the beating of songs of joy and happiness. It heralds a warm welcome to the new spring season with its’ stories, merriment, song and dance. In some form or another in human life, we can learn and admire this rich ancient celebration as we dance along to the beat of drums.

 

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One thought on “Holi – a Springtime festival of Colour

  1. Hello Rishi, Thank you for getting in touch. I will do now. I had put them on one but will put them on all. Was it you who took them? I will put the Source as the Phagwa Facebook Group. Many thanks, Seema

    Like

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