Friday, March 6, 2015

Holi: A Sexy, Sexist and Oppressive Festival

(Times of India report on 5th March 2015, page 11)

In the newspaper Times of India, dated 5th March 2015, on page number eleven at an inconspicuous left corner I saw a ten liner story, which I would have missed without remorse had it not been the words ‘Dalit’ and ‘Holika’ in the title. Eminently miss-able, this tiny little news item told me about a Dalit man who was attacked by a mob comprising of ‘naturally’ upper caste Hindu men. The reason, as the story went, was this Dalit man’s audacity to burn a Holika effigy. He was thoroughly beaten up. The dateline showed an interesting name: Varanasi. I would not have felt a sense of surprise and frustration had it been just Varanasi, which is the seat of all Hindu holy men and women. But today Varanasi has an added value; it was from where India’s Prime Minister was elected with a thumping majority against conscience of Indian youth, Arvind Kejriwal, who within nine months showed the Prime Minister that the defeat in Varanasi was just a preamble to a big win that he would script in Delhi in February 2015. Mr.Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister now, after a spate of attacks on the Christian religious establishments by fringe elements of Hinduism, had said it in parliament that his government would never tolerate such highhandedness and intolerance by any religious group. But in his constituency, a Dalit man was attacked for burning the effigy of Holika, to herald Holi, a festival of unity (in diversity) and colour.

I do not want anybody to smear colours on my body for two reasons; one, hygiene, and two, the hypocrisy that has come in our daily lives. There is a third but very important reason behind it. Mythological-ly speaking, this festival is a huge injustice done to women. Holika was Hiranyakashipu’s sister. Hiranya’s son Prahlada was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. Holika was a devotee of Shiva. Holika was asked to hold a rebellious Prahlada on his lap and enter into the fire. Agni, the lord of fire had assured her that she would come out unscathed. But she was burnt to death while Prahlada came out without a scar. When Vaishnavism was fighting for supremacy such dissenting Shaivite women and men were either killed or decimated. Shaivaites have become today’s Dalits. They cannot emulate anything that is legitimate in Vaishnavism. The Dalit man who was setting fire on the Holika effigy did not know the political implications of that burning. If he knew that Holika was his sister, he would not have attempted it first of all. Having done that, he faced the ire of the upper caste men because he was encroaching upon the legitimized system of burning Holika in the dominant Hindu religion.


Ironically, today Shiva and the Shiva cult are hijacked by the dominant Hinduism. Shiva is no longer a dissenting god. From his pagan roots he has been enthroned as an avenging god who unfortunately avenges his own clan people. If we look at the basic pattern of playing Holi, we could see that most of the lower caste people including Dalits play this so vehemently that even the upper caste ones cannot match the vigour of their playing. From the Dalit’s part it must be a way to gain social acceptance or social equality or even a mode of breaking the invisible and visible norms of untouchability. By smearing colours on people’s face or body and by masquerading one’s caste identity in the masks of colours, one may be revelling at the same time taking revenge upon his detractors. But that could be a protracted reading. What I want to believe is that Holi is a politically lost festival which does not any reason or rhyme to exist in the current Indian society. Look at the poor people who do not have enough clothes or cleaning materials carrying on with the same colour stained dresses and hair for another two or three months. Holi is a game of the rich and for the rich to which the poor are lured into cut themselves extremely sorry figures.

As I mentioned elsewhere, I do not like playing Holi mainly because I have tactile phobia. I do not know whether such a condition exists but I can tell you for sure that I do not like people touching and feeling my body. I do it in privacy with the ones whom I love. I hold hands with the ones whom I love. But I do not want my neighbour to come and hug me and stain me with colours just because it is a festival and he wants to insist that he is in ‘love’ with me as my neighbour. I just do not want him/her to do that to me. Children are lured into this business of colour festival because they like anything that breaches the norms of daily routine. They like break free from the strict regimes of school and they like getting drenched and getting cuddled up. They are like puppies. There is no problem if children play it; they are innocent. But when the grown ups play it is all about hypocrisy. Throughout the year they bitch about another community, another region, another language, another religious, another sect and another whatever, and on the Holi or Diwali day they come with godforsaken colours, sweets and sweet words as if they do not have any other problem with any other human beings. These are the same people who kill for a parking space or litter the neighbour’s doorsteps.

 (they play it apolitically- some foreigners playing Holi- source net)

This hypocrisy ridden society plays Holi, the sight of which makes me sick. They say this festival heralds the arrival of spring and the emphasis on colour makes it more attractive. If it is a spring festival then it must have been a pagan festival which later got adopted to the dominant Hindu religion. Psychologists say that in such festivals the collective repressions come out and by playing it out it serves as a social venting, which would transgress gender and caste boundaries. Krishna myths would prove that there had been a sort of collective venting of suppressed erotic feelings during the festivities of Holi. If a red bindi or red sindoor on the forehead of a woman could suggested her marital status, then smearing of colours all over the body could equally suggest that it is a transgression and releasing of the restricted ideas of sexuality. If that is genetically coded in the Indian psyche, then Holi festivals we could see how men and women become a bit ‘outgoing’. I have seen women getting literally molested during the Holi festivals by their own male relatives right before the eyes of her husband. Like any other festival in India, Holi too is gentrified and hieratically arranged. For the film stars and politicians there are different Holi venues. They have sophisticated the acts with affluence. For the rich business families and neo-rich there are different types of Holi venues. For the middle class it is always an occasion to transgress. For the lower class it is to do all what has already been mentioned. In Haryana, there is a Holi called ‘Lathi Holi’ where women could beat men with long bamboo poles on the Holi day. They take out their anger on men not only by beating but also by rendering beautiful and descriptive expletives, leaving nothing to imagination. Feminists may support such a Holi festival but the rest of the year they would bear the brunt of what they have done for that one day. In Mathura, I am told there is a ‘pathar Holi’ means stone pelting Holi. Too dangerous and too perverted.

(Krishna playing Holi with Gopis- illustration)

Holi was in my mind when I was a child. Always the pastures at the other shore are greener. Hence, during childhood, when we were reading social studies texts, we came across North Indian festivals like Holi, Dussera and Diwali. We had small scale Diwali then. But no Holi and Dussera. Now I believe because of the resurgent Hinduism in its worst possible ritualistic forms, any kind of festival is available anywhere. The migration of work force from the poorer parts of North India to South India also has caused the proliferation of such festivals in those parts. Someone had gifted a couple of calendars to my mother. One of them was a Russian calendar with all those pictures of space ships. The other one was of Indian festivals. One of the pages showed a Holi festival. Beautifully rendered watercolour picture on that calendar showed a turbaned man and women in colourful clothes splashing colours at each other. I dreamt that one day I would also play Holi. When I went to Baroda to study, I came across Holi for the first time and in the faculty they played Holi in the dirtiest possible ways by dipping friends in a dirty ponds filled with muck. I never played Holi there. In Delhi,  I started involving in Holi because the neighbours took this festival very seriously. When my children were born and when they grew up to play festivals I partook in the festival reluctantly though. I never liked Holi and I do not think that I will ever like Holi in my life. When a Dalit is thrashed for burning the effigy of Holika, how can a level headed human being in India play the same festival? I have decided not to celebrate any religious festival, including the Hindu festivals. I know my Hindu religion. I do not want some rogues to smear it with silver paint. 

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