The Metamorphosis of Holi

Bollywood music is blaring in the background. You walk into a field of people. Before you can reach your hand into your rectangular plastic packet and come up with a game plan, your face is blinded with three different colors. Five minutes later, your spit is colored a dark purplish-brown. You have color deep in the beds of your fingernails and the roots of your hair.

I don't know whether it's because of my South Indian upbringing, my perpetual fear of particles getting stuck in my contact lenses, or some other subconscious aversion, but I never had the chance to experience Holi until I came to college. While I did get color powder stuck in my lenses (and my mouth, and ears, and pretty much everywhere), Holi gave me a chance to run around and throw mountains of colored powder at my friends while listening to loud Bollywood music and eating hot Indian snacks. It was the perfect combination of excitement and relaxation. However, the tradition that allowed me to be unapologetically Indian is at risk of losing its cultural meaning and becoming a distorted version of itself.

Many people across America share my love of Holi: the Google search index (a measure of the relative popularity of a term compared to all Google searches in a region during that time) for "Holi" in the United States has increased from 40 in March 2014, to 100 in March 2015, and 95 in March 2016. The exponentially growing popularity of Holi has created an equally popular debate regarding whether or not celebrations that use Holi traditions are appropriating Hindu and Indian culture. While this event is not strictly celebrated as an Indian festival (in fact, there was recently a Holi celebration in Pakistan), the roots of the festival are traced back to Hindu sacred texts. Color runs, powder fights and most recently, Coldplay's "Hymn for the Weekend" music video have come under fire for not only appropriating Indian culture, but also profiting off of minority belief systems. These discussions are part of a larger dialogue on Indian and Hindu identity that involves bindis at music festivals and Halloween costumes.

While I am thankful that such color powder celebrations portray India in a light that does not involve the typical Slumdog Millionaire images of corruption and illiteracy, there are significant drawbacks to consider as well. Unfortunately, the popularity of powder fights comes at an invisible cost that David Howes discusses in his piece, "Cross-Cultural Consumption: Global Markets, Local Realities." There is a "mutability" phenomenon that occurs when one culture starts to use another: in the process of hybridization, the cultural significance that makes this tradition important is suddenly lost in translation. Ovid's Metamorphoses tells the story of Daphne being turned into a laurel tree in order to escape Apollo, losing her humanity in the process. Holi is at risk of undergoing a similar metamorphosis, one that hollows its meaning and turns truth into slogan. What's left is a half-baked version that feeds colorblind ignorance and disrespect. It paints a picture that does not do justice to the rich depth that South Asian history has to offer, instead trading culture for commodification.

The stereotyped homogeneity of South Asian culture in Western media particularly hits home for those of us who have grown up with feet firmly planted in two different worlds. Navigating this mixture and determining what I can truly claim as my identity is an ongoing and deeply reflective process that can be difficult at times; simply put, I am too Indian to be American, but too American to be Indian. This is a struggle that many minorities and first-generation Americans must negotiate on their own terms, and Holi is a great example of an event that carries different significance for different people, especially among the heterogeneous South Asian community. The way I see it, Holi is a chance for me to be part of something that allows me to express my hyphenated identity, one that involves grandmothers in saris and sneakers, green chutney on toast, and the ubiquitous "...but where are you really from?" So with Holi season coming to a close, it's important to remember that when it comes to culture, there is a difference between respecting it and silencing it, a difference between "taking part in" and simply "taking."