Does one know of any other festival in the world where the celebrants repeatedly and vociferously assert that it is, it is; and, that one should not mind it: ‘Holi Hai! Holi Hai! Buraa na mano Holi hai!’
Why this refrain, I used to wonder. Observing groups of revellers, it suddenly struck me. With painted faces they all don’t give two hoots to the world.
Decent young persons who would not otherwise allow even a speck of dirt on their clothes, or would not bear a strand of hair out of place (and if it’s ever so, it’s deliberate, mind you!); ladies who won’t bear the wind and the sun rob the skin of its fair hue; middle-aged people worrying constantly of the falling standards in manners and; the aged, ruing over the lost gleam of their days, all give a boot to everyday norms.
Profanities rend the air as the merrymakers go round town exhorting everybody to splatter them with colours. Self-professed teetotallers are convinced by die-hard tipplers that a sip on this day does not amount to ‘drinking’; and many do get convinced as the festival’s spirit commands it. Partaking bhaang’, of course, takes less of cajoling as, unlike alcohol, it has had a sort of cultural sanction on this occasion.
If mutton and chicken are for the non-vegetarians, the spicy katahal (jackfruit) curry, samosas and dahi-vadas becomes a vicarious pleasure for vegetarians. Not to forget the gujiya and the puranpoli. The fear of calories is put at bay as the delicacies get devoured by even the most health-conscious. The spirit of defying the customary is throughout.
As the groups of revellers amble along, absolute strangers neck each other and the young bend to touch the feet of the old, and the norms of social differences of class and caste get forgotten.
If the lathi-wielding ladies in Barsana break the gender norm, Varanasi’s (in)famous Assi Ghat Kavi Sammelan, where crass Hindi expletives are used in poetry, can be taken as a sort of subversion of the social, political and linguistic norms.
Latth-Maar Holi at Barsana (pic courtesy:Google)
Mikhail Bakhtin gave the concept of the carnivalesque in literature. Isn’t this festival a social carnival where social hierarchies of everyday life — their solemnities and pieties and etiquette, as well as all readymade truths — are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies?
Or, should we ask, wasn’t this festival meant to be so, that is, providing space to the non-privileged by shifting the authoritative norms of hegemony and its ‘high culture’ to the margins for a short period of celebration, because lately it has changed its colour.
The growth of modern, privatised individualistic worlds, perhaps, is leading to jealousies and a disbelief in the other, fun is yielding place to unpleasant jibes, and therefore, celebration for some metamorphoses into perversion sometimes.
Holi is the time when man and nature alike throw off the gloom of winter and rejoice in the colours and liveliness of spring. The strictness of the social structure in terms of age, sex, status and caste is loosened.
Beyond social divisions
The chant of Holi Hai! Holi Hai, perhaps, is meant to urge everybody to disremember the social divisions of hierarchy in all its forms and let essential playfulness reign. It has to be repeated so frequently to give a jerk to our mind, routinised in the rest of the 364 days of the year.
So let’s throw the taboos to the wind — the restrictions of status, language, age and, of course, the calories — at least for this one day and with pure fun in heart shout without any inhibition: Holi Hai! Holi Hai! Buraa na mano Holi hai!