Holi, Festival of Colors, Comes to Manhattan
Missing Holi in India? Even though the festival has passed, it’s being celebrated in many parts of the US and you can catch the Holi Hai celebrations in Manhattan. This year it is on May 2, 2015 – the details here
Imagine entire streets, neighborhoods drenched in color. Imagine people so immersed in red, purple, green and yellow powders that you can’t distinguish one from the other! Yes, Holi, the Indian festival of colors is here, heralding Spring and the exuberant love of Radha and Krishna in Mathura. There’s joy, playfulness, a reaching out to friends and strangers. The festival has traveled well to America, brought in as part of the traditions of Hindu immigrants. Holi is also celebrated with great energy by the Hare Krishna community in many parts of the US. It is celebrated as Phagwah by the West Indian community. And Holi is brought to Manhattan in a free fun festival by a group of young Indian-Americans.
For many Indians who were born in the U.S.A, Holi is a festival they’ve heard about but never experienced firsthand in India. We spoke with some Indian-Americans who shared their memories of this ancient Hindu festival and how they are bringing their own version of the festivities to New York.
Memories of Holi
Megha Kalia, who grew up in Mumbai, recalls the celebrations which would begin several weeks ahead in her neighborhood of Andheri where Holi was a huge craze for everyone. “Adults and kids would blast water-balloons from high rises weeks before the day of Holi,” she recalls..”My mom bought water guns and packets of water balloons for us. We spent hours filling buckets of water preparing to have water-balloon-fights with our friends the next day. The night before Holi friends came over to help us fill lots of water balloons in preparation for the balloon fights with friends and neighbors.”
Next morning, friends would rush in with fistfuls of colored powder, and Megha and her twin sister would hide in the bathroom – to no avail. By the end of the day everyone was multicolored and had won and lost a lot of balloon-fights.
Holi Hai – May 2nd 2015 in Manhattan
Sweta Gupta also has great memories of the festival which she has been celebrating since the age of 2. “Like many Indians, I have Holi coded into my DNA! It’s been a major part of my upbringing. It was an event where her entire family, community and friends would meet and celebrate, preparing for weeks and making sweets and special foods. The whole city would shut down for this festival and play with water balloons and color.”
She adds: “My father and I loved this festival so much that we would host over 100 people at our place. It was not only about putting color and drinking the famous “bhang” but also celebrating the killing of evil,” she says.
“Holi is important because it brings families together and it has a very important mythological reasoning. This festival shows that evil cannot prevail for long. One day good and belief in God will kill it. If you have the will to do the right thing you succeed in whatever you do.”
Holi Celebrates Spring
Although Holi is mostly celebrated in the North, parts of the South (such as Telangana), also takes part in the celebration. Jahnavi Uttukuri’s mother is from the South and has shared her childhood memories of Holi. Says Jahnavi, ” She told me that she loved playing with all the colors with her siblings and relatives. The colors included gold and silver and sometimes it was hard to wash them off. They used to smear so much color on each other, that they couldn’t recognize their relatives from one other! And after all the playing was done, the parents would buy them these sugar candy garlands which the kids loved eating after a day of play.”
When her parents were in Kanpur they would visit all the friends’ houses in a North Indian tradition, smearing color on each other and have a a party with good food and sweets. Ask Jahnavi, who’s never experienced Holi first hand herself, why it’s so important, and she says: “Holi is the festival of colors that celebrates the arrival of Spring. It brings people from the community together for one main purpose – to celebrate!”
Rachana Gandhi’s family was even further removed from India and the festival of Holi – her mother grew up in England before migrating to the US. Neither her parents nor grandparents ever spoke about Holi, so Rachana, while attending Bal Vihar classes at the local temple on Sunday mornings during childhood, created her own memories: ” This is where I first learned of different holidays and traditions of India.”
Ask her about the differences between Holi and other Hindu festivals, and she mentions the playfulness factor. “Having been born and raised in Western culture, I would almost liken it to a louder, brighter, April Fool’s Day—anything goes, and if you are pranked, it is all part of the lightness of the day!”
She adds, ” Holi is the first major holiday in spring, which in itself evokes a cheerful disposition since its around the time flowers begin to bloom, days are longer and warmer. There is something special about how the playful atmosphere can soften even the sternest, most serious adults (seeing the occasional strict “auntie” in a sari come up and casually smear their relatives and kids with colored powder is definitely a funny and heartwarming sight to see!’
Holi Hai in Manhattan
For all these Holi fans, it seemed sacrilege to let the festive day come and go without shaking up things in New York. Megha, who runs NYC Bhangra, a dance school in the city, and also is a student learning modern dance at the Martha Graham Dance School, decided to stir things up for Holi. This was five years ago when she threw the first big neighborhood bash for Holi. ” My strongly rooted emotions and love for the Indian culture made me decide to create an outdoor, free Holi event where everybody gets a chance to have fun with the colors, without any fee. Being an artiste, I also wanted to provide other artistes a platform to showcase their art form thus keeping in line with NYC Bhangra’s mission of ‘spreading joy and awareness through dance’.”
The Holi Hai festival which was held in the open space of the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza near the United Nations in Manhattan brought in the sweets, food, dancing and color play, along with dhol players and dancers. There is a stage for the performances, Indian food and vendor stalls and this has to be the most colorful street fair in Manhattan. The dholis (drummers) pump up the crowd with their bhangra beats and the NYC Bhangra dancers reach out to families and children, drawing them to participate in the dance. The festive Holi colors are also given at no cost to those who would like to play. Having the support and sponsorship of Time Warner Cable has ensured that the festival remained free and open to whoever wanted to join in. As Megha points out, ” People from Greater New York area can play Holi in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, but nowhere will you find a free celebration inviting children and families that provides sweets & colors, dance & music all flanked with delicious Indian food. This truly is an all-
Holi can break the barriers between generations, even genders and bring everyone to the same human level,” says Sweta. “This is why it’s so important to share this festival with fellow Indians and non-Indians alike because not only is it unique to our culture, but it shows the world that no matter your age, sex, or social status, you can find joy and celebration in the ‘organized disorganization’ of the colors and antics surrounding Holi.”
She adds, “With all the rules, restrictions and codes of conduct enforced so often in our culture, isn’t it nice to have a holy day where everyone can (respectfully and non violently of course) celebrate the spring season without judgment and without reservation?
“Like the different colors of Holi, everyone blends into each other”
Rachana, who also dances in the troupe, says it is the first time in 20 years that she is celebrating Holi as a part of a community. And for many attending, it will a similar experience – of interacting and being part of a larger community, a more global one.
” I have fond memories of playing and chasing friends around the temple parking lot with color as a kid, and we want to provide the same memories for kids in the NYC area. We encourage families to play and show young kids in the city a little about Holi. This is a safe, well regulated environment where we distribute color and organize people into various sections of the park for specific activities,” says Rachna.
The best part of Holi is that people of all religions join in the festivities in India. Says Sweta, “Like the different colors of Holi everyone blends into each other. You will see people from all races and it’s the festival of building relations and killing our materialistic differences. And of course it’s lots of fun, food and energy.”
This Holi story shows how culture embeds within our psyche almost like a myriad particles of color, and we want to recreate our childhood memories for our children. Megha, who learned dance in Amritsar and Mansa, Punjab, is now bringing those same steps and echoes of folk music to New York City. On this day dance, music and Holi color come right into the heart of the city; childhood memories are relived and for children, new memories made. The dance, music and color fights play out on a major thoroughfare in Manhattan, underlining the fact that Indian-Americans and their culture are very much a part of the landscape.
“This festival eliminates all racial and cultural boundaries and brings people together, bonding them in colors and joy,” says Megha. “I think it is very important for many professionals who live a stressful life in the city to experience a rich culture and an amazing festival. I like to be that drop in the ocean that is behind the scenes for making this possible in New York City.”