As many of my friends and colleagues are celebrating Passover and Easter, I am winding up my celebration of Holi. Depending on the Hindu calendar, this occurs around February of March each year and just the thought of it makes me think of bursts of “gulal” or perfumed colors, food and community.
Several stories accompany this festival and you are free to choose whichever feels comfortable. As far as I am concerned, the more stories there are, the greater the relevance to common life and living. Spring season with the ending of the winter crop in itself calls for celebration in some parts of India and in other parts the harvest comes a month later.
Nevertheless Holi does count as one of those festivals that celebrate the transition of one season to another.
Legend has it that a demon who was granted several wishes including life, created havoc in the human world. He was deemed invincible – he could not be killed by man or animal, at home or outside, neither during the day or at night. He spared no one including his son who was a believer and worshipped the Gods the demon vowed to eliminate. He tried to kill his son several ways – trample him under an elephant, drown him in the ocean but he survived. The demon’s sister Holika who was given the boon that she would not be harmed by fire decided to take the child on her lap and sit on fire. However because the son prayed, he was saved from the fire while Holika perished. And the demon, to complete the story was killed by “Narasimha” an incarnate of the god who was half man, half lion, at dusk on the threshold of the house. So every household today burns scrap paper, wood or waste material a day before Holi - derived from Holika ridding themselves of all evil and purifying the air. The next day – the day of Holi is about exuberant colors, folk music and enhanced interactions in the community celebrating the triumph of good over evil.
Another story is about Krishna who was tired of being asked about his dark complexion when compared to his friends which included Radha. To change things Krishna devised the prank of throwing colors with the intention of changing complexion of his friends, girls included. Folk hymns and songs are composed and sung about Krishana romancing Radha who after initially resisting his advances gives in to his charms. This sounds as harmless and romantic as it can get. Another interpretation is that this story often becomes the sounding off point for what is known as “eve teasing” especially during Holi. Culturally Holi “allows” for what many anthropologists call “anti-structure” that implies role reversals, and the normal is turned on its head. All distinctions of caste, class, creed and gender are thrown to the wayside. Further, approaching another person hitherto unfamiliar and applying color on them is completely permissible during Holi. In an egalitarian world this would have been fine and for the most part it can be. Many incidents have been recorded before and during Holi where women are prone to attacks including groping and smearing colors without their consent. This can be because of ingesting the traditonal “bhang” an intoxicating drink made from cannabis but not necessarily so because offensive behavior is not regulated this day.
Perpetrators get away saying “this is Holi, please don’t take it otherwise.” The fine line between flirtation and sexual abuse diminishes as for many men it provides an easy access to women’s bodies. This behavior takes away from the essence of celebration. In the end many women recede into their homes where they are safer and not partake of the festivities or put up with all the transgressions that tantamount to abuse, which the men can “get away with.”
In the whole scheme of things the divide between women and men celebrating the festival inevitably grows. Nowhere in the texts – religious or otherwise is there mention of limited participation of women during a festival - which is what it has come to in urban India.
Subsequent to the heinous rape and death of a woman in Delhi, a recent survey conducted reveals that 9 out of 10 women feel unsafe in Delhi. The continuing instances of sexual assault on women reflects ingrained patriarchy which is further perpetuated through convenient interpretations of religious texts thus leaving the door wide open for serious lapses. My hope and wish is that the essence of Holi with its vibrant approach envelops everyone irrespective of who or what they are and transition to a more equal and just society.
Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.