Shorts In The Dark

Why we celebrate Holi the way we do

As you lie back on the grass, hallucinating legally, you feel at one with the world and humanity.

 |  Shorts In The Dark  |  5-minute read |   11-03-2017
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Preparations for Holi would begin early in Allahabad. Unemployed neighbourhood youth would go around door-to-door collecting "chanda".

Soon you would see the same youth climbing up electricity poles and installing conical loudspeakers, two to a pole. For four days Hindi film songs blared from these loudspeakers.

The quality was tinny and screechy. At times, half the poles on the street were playing one song, and the other half another.

Songs collided in midair and exploded like water balloons.

Most of the songs were from Allahabad native Amitabh Bachchan's films - "Ramba ho ho ho", "Mere anganey mein" and, of course, "Rang Barse" from Silsila.

Competing with Amitabh were songs from Mithun Chakraborty movies: "Jimmy Jimmy", "Disco Dancer" and "Zooby Zooby".

The night before Holi, the stroke of midnight in fact, I would go with my father to the colony "chauraha" or crossroad.

It was the moment of Holika dehan, when a small bonfire would be lit, symbolising the triumph of good over evil.

holi-hai_031117095011.jpg Rang Barse! Photo: YouTube 

It was a quiet contemplative moment, the lull before the colourful thunderstorm to follow the next morning.

Among all the festivals of the world, Holi and Diwali are perhaps the most fun for children.

Other festivals involve fasting, feasting and praying - all distinctly adult activities.

Christmas involves the giving of presents, which children enjoy, but it's not about playing - it's about playing into a consumerist fantasy. In contrast, both Diwali and Holi are about playing, pure and simple.

These are the days when playing is officially sanctioned for kids. You squirt each other with water guns; you burst crackers. Remember the phrase in Hindi is "Holi khelna", where "khelna" means "play".

But in India, there is also an officially-sanctioned dampener right in the middle of Holi - the annual exams.

You have a Maths paper tomorrow: should you play Holi or not?

In school, the real stars were those who turned up for the Maths paper looking utterly pink, proof that serious Holi had been played the preceding day, and still maxed the exam.

The only advantage of Holi falling in the middle of examinations was that one could be sure of at least one question in the Hindi and English paper: "My favourite festival".

Exams are the reason why the Holi-release slot in Bollywood is not the most fought over.

Big releases are slotted for Eid, Diwali and Christmas, but never Holi.

Filmmakers wait till the end of March, the end of the exam season.

The dangers of Holi are well-known. Commuters on Bombay's suburban rail network have fallen off trains and lost their lives or gone blind in incidents of balloon-throwing, the balloons often being filled with gutter water and small stones.

My own Holi-playing days as a schoolboy came to an abrupt end as I would develop eye allergies and skin rashes.

This was ironic because the Palash flowers, which bloom in March, have been used down the centuries to make natural colour on Holi.

My name is inextricably linked with the festival, and yet I couldn't play it. In the '80s, chemical colour was all that was available in the market.

holld_031117094135.jpg In 2016, the video for Coldplay's 'Hymn for the Weekend' featured members of the band and Beyonce dancing in swirls of colour. Photo: YouTube

When you are drenched in colour, you are drenched in harmful chemicals. Metallic pastes contain carcinogenic elements like lead oxide, mercury sulphite and copper sulphate.

The silver paste, which was much in vogue at one point, and would stay on your skin for weeks, is full of the deadly aluminium bromide. Gentian violet, a commonly used water colourant, is highly toxic; while dry colours - "gulal" - are a festival of heavy metal: lead, chromium, cadmium, nickel, copper, mercury, zinc, silica and asbestos.

It's like standing under an AA-sized battery shower.

Unfortunately, the use of chemical colours is still widespread.

That's what you'll get in your neighbourhood shop, especially in small towns.

Fortunately, there are options like Himanshu Verma's Red Earth, which offers organic colours, though the copywriting makes the colours sound more like craft beer than good ole gulal: "100% floral gulaals, artisanal blends and traditional gulaals by our master blenders."

Holi has also become our most exportable festival. It's India's La Tomatina. The Holi Cow festival in Delhi, which happens every year on Holi, is crawling with expats and foreign tourists.

Last year, the video for Coldplay's "Hymn for the Weekend" featured members of the band and Beyonce dancing in swirls of colour.

Diwali, with the noise and air pollution that it brings, is the time when most foreigners want to get out of an already-polluted capital city.

All said and done, there's something very romantic about Holi.

It's a day when we turn the world as we know it upside down. We paint our faces, erasing the differences in our features.

We drench ourselves in water, itself an elemental celebratory emancipating act. Both water and colour are symbolic of freedom.

And for grown-ups, who have long grown out of the pleasures of squirting each other with water, there's the glass of thandai.

As you lie back on the grass, hallucinating legally, you feel at one with the world and humanity, while Lucy floats in the sky like so many diamonds.

It's one day you are allowed to forget what you look like and who you are. It's a break everyone can do with.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Also read: Holi should stop being an excuse to sexually harass women


Palash Krishna Mehrotra Palash Krishna Mehrotra @palashmehrotra

The writer is the editor of 'House Spirit: Drinking in India'

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