Holi, the festival of colors, is a popular Indian festival which is celebrated in the Spring to welcome the new season. Bonfires are lit, people of all ages get involved, and everyone has fun. Definitely the most distinctive feature of this colorful festival is no doubt, the paint throwing.
People dress in white clothes to begin with, and this is where the fun kicks in! Because at the end of the day your clothes will be drenched in a variety of colors, as adults and children, people of any caste or class throw powder paint and/or colored water on each other in an explosion of colors!
The festival itself can be traced back to a few origins across India, most notably Khrishna, who playfully threw colored water on milkmaids.
Abhishek Iyer, also known by his rap alias Shake, shares his experiences of celebrating Holi.
What does Holi mean to you?
To me, Holi is an excuse to bring color to a world filled with shades of gray. I think people just need to let go from time to time and do something crazy. Holi is definitely one of these days. Seeing your city, town, and country drenched in a collage of amazing colors is one of the best things for the individual and collective spirit and soul. All humans are artists by nature, and Holi is nature’s way of allowing us to express ourselves through celebration. It’s a blessing that India has an abundance of cultural days that allow us to celebrate simple beauties like light (Diwali), and color (Holi). In my heart, Holi represents a day of spiritual freedom and joy expressed through color!
How would you describe Holi to the average Chicagoan who isn’t aware of the festival?
It’s somewhat like body painting…except most people are wearing clothes. There’s no rules, except doing something that may harm you or those around you.
Be prepared to throw away the clothes you wear on this day unless you love Tie Dye clothing! Imagine your suburb or city turning into a battlefield for colors…there are no losers and no winners! Everybody is equipped with water color guns, balloons, and anything else that can hold colored water or powder. After that, it’s all about using strategy to color the person, and/or location of interest. Groups of people find their favorite hiding spots, and wait for the perfect moment to drench their family, friends, and strangers in as much color as possible. Everybody from children, adolescents, and adults participate in the event. It’s unlike anything you will ever see!
How do you celebrate Holi?
To be totally honest with you, we don’t really celebrate Holi like we used to… I even forgot that it was coming up on the calendar. Major shout out to you for sticking to your roots and keeping the spirit alive! However, I spent 12 Holis in India, so I’m gonna talk about those days.
I would wake up as early as possible and get dressed in my most disposable clothing. Followed by that, my family, friends, and I would gather to size up each other’s color inventory and color guns, balloons, and vessels. Some would have water guns with amazing range and aim, and others not so much! Some would have high-grade hard to remove colors, and others wouldn’t. But, equipment and color quality would only take you so far…awareness of your surroundings, loyalty to your team/group, and sneakiness are the most important things when trying to survive a day of Holi.
My favorite spots to operate from were rooftops, and balconies. I was a pretty good sniper and balloon thrower, but I also had a decent ground game. I was fast, so I could avoid ambushes easily. I’d spend the whole day playing with colors, and the celebration would wind down as the sun set. After the day celebration was over, the nights were usually filled with prayer, good conversation, and amazing food! That pretty much wrapped up the whole day!
From 12 yrs old till 18, I didn’t really celebrate Holi much, I was busy familiarizing myself with American holidays and culture. In college, our Indian Students Association at UIUC threw an amazing Holi event every year. We used our main quad to do exactly what I explained in question 1. It was great because it spread awareness about the festival among our fellow students. UIUC was a culturally diverse university, so such events were highly encouraged.
The closest thing to Holi that I did recently was an event called ‘The Color Run’ in Chicago. It is a 5 km marathon where people throw color on you at regular checkpoints during the race. At the end of the race, everybody gathers in a communal area where they essentially celebrate Holi! There’s music performances and competitions on stage, and everybody is filling the air with amazing colors! It definitely took me back to some amazing childhood memories.
What Holi events are happening in Chicago?
There’s a few events happening in Chicago in April. Most of these events are organized by temples, and other cultural groups. I’m definitely going to check out some events this year since you reawakened my joy for the festival by reaching out to me for this interview!
Do you feel Holi is celebrated in the Western world by South Asians as much as it is in India?
I think there’s more limiting factors in the Western world than in South Asia for such an event (security, permits, clean-up etc.), so my answer is no, it is not. But, the answer would change from person to person. I may just not be as knowledgeable as someone who’s got their eye on the festival every year. Events like ‘The Color Run’ carry the same message of expression of spirit through art, just like painting, music, or any other creative action, so I’m glad that Holi, and certain variations of it exist all over the world.
Your favorite Holi memory?
My favorite Holi memory serves as an important life lesson till date! At the time, it wasn’t the greatest experience but I can laugh at it and learn from it now. On one Holi, when I was maybe 8 or 9, I got drenched by a large bucket of hard to remove color within 15 minutes of leaving my house! It’s a sign of accomplishment when someone has little or no color on them by the time the sun goes down…that was always my mission. However, on this particular Holi, I had failed my mission before it even began.
Instead of accepting my fate gleefully, I got disappointed and cried my way home to my parents. I insisted on not going back outside because I was embarrassed, it seemed like the biggest tragedy at the time.
Today, I don’t enjoy losing at anything. I’m driven and competitive by nature, and I usually get what I want by playing the game the right way. That Holi experience definitely shaped this part of me. My parents refused to let me sit in the house and sob over what had happened. They aren’t the type to accept defeat either, and I’m proud to say they’ve raised me the same way! To make me feel better, my parents explained to me that the spirit of Holi, and life in general was to play the game for the fun of it, and leave the result up to God. There’s always winners and losers in competition, but everybody can walk away feeling proud of themselves for putting forth their best energy and effort. After much convincing, I wiped away my tears, went back outside, and proceeded to enjoy myself for the rest of the festival.
I carry that anecdote with me till date to remind myself to play the game of life, have fun, and not worry about the result too much!
Thank you for your time Abhishek! I hope you enjoy this years Holi just as much!
You can join in on the festivities by inquiring of local Holi celebrations near you! Holi falls on Monday March 17th, so get colored up!
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