April marks the springtime festival of fertility and harvest, Holi, which is celebrated throughout northern India. Because Holi is a yearly event that includes a large amount of revelry, without the obvious presence of the sacred, it’s become adapted by some odd pockets of people. I even saw a “Festival of Colours Run” race recently: you run a 5 km race and get bombed by coloured powder (immediately after that, I found a blogpost titled, “The color run is the most cultural appropriative shit I’ve ever seen” on the Blog “India is Not a Prop Bag”). What a pity that the organisers and participants of various “Holi Fests” in South Africa didn’t get that memo. Even calling it “Holi Fest” irritates a little—as if it is now commodified nicely into yet another Neohippy Wellingtons meets muddyshit-and-rapedrugs-in-drinks music festival.
There were Holi Fests in Cape Town and Durban (both equally silly), but the video of the Johannesburg leg left us at AIAC wondering if the stars of “Jersey Shore” were sent on a cheap version of Spring Break with some ground up chalk dust. The original posters took down the video, which was playing freely on YouTube last week—most likely, a featured performer was embarrassed enough that she/he asked to have it taken down—but not before a whole bunch of us saw it and many of our readers sent it around to us. Now, we found out that the video has been uploaded again:
There you have it. The video features young South Africans (overwhelmingly white) being predictably drunk, embarrassing themselves at the “‘We Are One’ Festival” (assume that’s a reference to the 1990s TV slogan “Simunye”). As AIAC Dylan Valley summed it up first: it basically looks like “a piss-up where people throw colored powder at each other.” Indeed, we see mostly white people plastered in what appears to be very cheap pastel powders, mouthing such gems as:
“I actually went to the real Holi fest in India and I have to say this is much better”; “I hope I don’t turn Indian”; and “Get super colorful and get pictures and get DRUNK! Fuck girls sideways!”; “YOLO!”; also this dude: “There’s plenty bitches but they all look the same because they’re all so colourful.”
Three black guys also make their debut—so it is diverse like a “rainbow” we suppose. Then there’s that awkward moment when one dude who’s sober enough to remember his schooling gets what he’s doing: “besides the really fucking terrible music, and exploiting someone’s else’s sacred festival… it’s a chance to get drunk and get colourful”.
Deep. We get what the post-racials are looking for: to be “colourful” but without the trouble that comes with being colourful.
The video’s one redeeming quality: Dylan again: “At least the makers of the video seemed to intend to show it up for the farce that it is.” And I have to agree, though they don’t seem to know much about the mythologies surrounding Holi, why it is a significant moment of revelry and merrymaking, or about the music they picked as the soundtrack.*
The song playing at the opening of the video is an invocation to Lord Shiva: “Satyam Shivam Sundaram” (Truth is Eternal and Beautiful); “shivam” can refer directly to Shiva, or to the idea of the eternal. The songstress is Lata Mangeshkar, who is as beloved and famously mythologized as any goddess, singing in a style that truly does invoke the sacred. Here’s the original, created for a movie directed by Raj Kapoor. The film is about a vain man who can’t see past the skin-deep beauty for which he hankers, and learns to see past his earthly obsessions and find love and beauty in a deeply scarred human being only when his earthly projects are destroyed. The opening scenes in the music video will tell you that despite some pervasively repressive sexual notions, Indians are no prudes: the fire-damaged heroine is lovingly ‘bathing’ a lingum (a stone phallus that symbolises Shiva’s virility) set on a yoni (the goddess Shakti, who symbolises the strength of female creative energy), invoking the arrival of love and fecundity into her life.
In our on-again-off-again YouTube video of Jozi’s Holi Fest, some neo-Punjabi dance music is cued in after Lata Mangeshkar sings her invocation to Shiva. That’s also somewhat accidentally appropriate, because bhangra is traditionally played at revelries following harvest, though morons shouting “bitches are so colourful” are a rarity at such moments of celebration.
In Cape Town, things went down like this officially, and like this in reality. And Durban’s version boasted free entrance to the beach (glaringly obvious that the festival of Holi should never require an “entrance” fee, since…well, like one of Dylan’s friends said: its like getting people to pay to fast for Ramadan). Apparently, no liquor was involved, but “herb”, however, may have made a strong appearance. The presence of marijuana wouldn’t be a serious problem in any case—or somehow make Holi ‘inauthentic’: some in northern India drink a heady mix of sweet, full-cream milk and ground up marijuana buds to transport themselves to a trance-like state. It’s not like we’re objecting to people who actually find ways to understand another culture’s way of experiencing carnivalesque escape, and participate. But too often, some ‘westerner’ is busy licking a frog in the Sonoran desert or something because they want to get high—it’s not about a quest for spiritual ecstasy or oneness with Almighty Creator.
Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian critic, described “carnival” as a literary mode evident in Medieval and Renaissance works. Using humour, subversion of hierarchies and chaos to disrupt dominant modes of structuring society, carnival frees—if only for a moment—those who are beholden to those structures. He stressed that carnival was distinct from any official or sanctioned ceremonies, providing a different space than did theatrical performances. Whereas theatre, at least that which follows western conventions, is based on creating distinctions between spectators and actors, in carnival, all are participants, experiencing a sort of “second-life” or alternate, upside-down moment in which all may, without impunity, temporarily suspend social hierarchies. Here, the actor is the spectator, and vice versa; master may be servant, the bishop a layperson, and the maid could don a man’s clothing and harass the master with the same level of disdain that power makes available in intimate zones. Such festivities provided a practical release for repressed and regimented societies, but they also had spiritual and ideological functions. Laughter, the most important part of revelry in carnival, could be directed towards anyone without impunity, and with multiplicitous meaning: happy and inclusive at one moment; mocking and disparaging in another. Thus, the grotesque is intrinsic to carnival: while there are elements of ideal and utopian in such moments of abandon and revelry, they are also open to the possibility of alienation and hostility.
Like the infamous Jersey Shorites, who frequent the boardwalks of the US’ Eastern seaboard every summer—to score deep orange tans, attempt to ‘DJ’, throw up while riding bikes completely smashed, proudly display their douchebag abs for the camera at a moment’s notice, occasionally dance with a hotel lobby plant, and then put it all on television—anyone can see that these kids in the Johannesburg “fest” are posers doing their best to do the dance of youthful bravado. Their nod to carnivalesque hedonism—however tame—is no different from that of tens of thousands of others around the world who are privileged enough to be able to indulge themselves in such expensive escapism. In any case, one can’t stop assholes from putting a statue of a “fat Buddha” in a bar, any more than one can stop these desecrators, who are busily—and completely unawares—agreeing to the commodification of their own youthful lives: that’s hardly revelry and rebel-ry. Sadly, rather than upending social conventions, and questioning hierarchies, this slew of commercial Holi fests re-inscribe and reinforce the hierarchies of an uncomfortable society. Here, Holi is for those who can afford an entrance fee, have free rein to tap into the grotesquery of carnival, and want to experience it all without “becoming Indian”.
* Holi, btw, has its origins in a couple of myths that, like many legends and fairytales, are not altogether savoury. It is generally seen as the celebration of the victory of good over evil, but much of the content of these legends favours the triumphant arrival of a new pantheon of Hindu gods over the ‘demonic’ creatures that were part of the belief system of the subcontinent’s indigenous people. The roots of one myth involve the story of “demon” king Hiranyakashyap, who, with the help of his demon sister, Holika, wished to end the life of his son, Prahlad. Prahlad, despite his father’s demonic and arrogant nature, was a faithful devotee of the god Vishnu: this terrified his powerful father, who believed himself to be the ruler of the universe, and thus, above all the gods. Holika, the sister, was enlisted to destroy the holy Prahlad. She had the magical power of immunity to fire granted her by the gods, so she leapt into a fire, and held Prahlad in middle of the conflageration. But no harm occurred to Prahlad; instead, Holika burnt in the fire: one must never use a gift from the gods for evil purposes.
Then, there’s also the story of Radha and Krishan, which is closely linked with the tradition of throwing colored powders during Holi. Young Krishna, who had a dark complexion (he’s usually painted a beautiful turquoise blue), was supposedly jealous of his beloved consort Radha’s fair skin. One day, he playfully applied colour on Radha’s face. This story still prompts young lovers to paint their beloved’s faces as an expression of love—at least on the Bollywood screen. This legend clearly reveals the subcontinent’s anxieties about our dark skinned ancestors—so there’s much to find problematic here. But part of what I like is the negotiation with self-loathing that Krishna must go through—it is an admission of his fears and envy, revealing a process of wrestling with a positioning that neither he nor Radha can control. At some point (not necessarily at the conclusion to his self-loathing), he decides to paint his love with colour, and in that action, sees his own colour as something desirable.