April 27, 2006

Holi and the White Man

The origin of the Holi celebration comes from a mythic story which is really quite beautiful. Following one of the standard Hindi Bollywood masala films that are a staple and a mainstay in modern Indian life (see A Night at the Movies) but actually predating and probably being the primary influence on Indian film itself, the perennial favorite of the Hindu deities, Krishna, falls for this girl named Radha but of course, there was one problem, his skin was much darker than hers and this caused him much angst.

He went to his mom and voiced his frustrations. His mother said, “Look, take this colored powder and joyfully toss this on each other. Then see that there are no differences.” Of course, she was saying that this difference of skin color was a minor, if not superficial, indication of one’s person. It is beneath this where the importance of our beings dance. That is what we should be striving to see and to experience.

And so on this day of festivities, most of Hindu India celebrate in one of their favorite festivals; it’s called Holi. I pretty much new what to expect around the tourist ghettos: all of the workers in the area that had to serve the jerks and air heads from the last twelve months finally had license to let off some steam with probable group ambushes using special force like choreography all in the name of a little fun and celebration – yeah right, that will be a lot of fun. I knew it would not be fun for everyone for very long so I decided well in advance that I would be somewhere else on that particular day.

I asked several people where they thought I should go for Holi. “Where will people really be celebrating in a very Indian way?” is what I would ask. A village several hours away called Shantiniketan kept coming up. Besides several hours of travel, I would have to leave several hours earlier than I normally wakeup to ensure that I arrive for the climax of the festivities, in the morning. But because the name of this village kept coming up, I thought it must be a sign; the same recommendation from all of these people, I must go. And so I did.

Not long after my arrival there, I realized that the fear I had had of being at the center of a lot of unwanted attention wasn’t just some unfounded fiction and it wouldn’t be quite so easy to dodge. It was real and it would prove to manifest itself in a variety of forms. Here, it wasn’t just what the lightness of my skin color represented, I attracted an excessive amount of attention because I was one of the few non-Indians there, in this little village, I really stood out and so people would stop what they were doing – and I would see this over and over, turn towards me as they elbowed their friends around them and then begin to converge on me like walking Frankensteins . I felt like I was in some strange Indian zombie movie. Attack of the jolly Hindus!

People from all around had made a pilgrimage to this village famous for it’s University named after the beloved renaissance poet/writer/playwright/musician Rabindranath Tagore. There seemed to be plenty of merriment all around even with the traffic of rickshaws taking people to and from the campus that had open-air classrooms and many large shady trees.

Yes, everyone seemed to be celebrating with playful vigor but my presence convinced me that I must have something that resembled a small disco ball attached to the top of my head. My being there caused heads to turn and feet to move – towards me – with clenched fists full of powdered dyes of radiant hues. There was always the convivial wide, full tooth smile and the “Holi hai!” or “Happy holi!” After a while, my first mental reflex was the second of a three part experience. Just after their eyes met mine and the switch of my seemingly electromagnetic pull turned on, I would think, “Yeah right! Here we go – again.”
One would begin by politely smearing a colorful powdered dye on my forehead, cheeks, and anywhere else on my face that hadn’t already been tagged. Then I would feel the tumbling drizzle of powder falling down my back, between my white shirt and my sweating skin. Everyone had to have their turn with me. Each with an overly-enthusiastic smile, and the happy holi! bullshit. The smearing and then the avalanche of unnaturally bright synthetic dyes cascading down from the top of my head to my feet, dusting my skin and finding small creeks of perspiration to coalesce into. My hair became a dry mat conglomerate of the six or seven most popular colors. My skin would have to be vigorously scrubbed in the shower for many days after. And my clothes, well, they would never look the way they once did. That I knew from the first minutes after my arrival.

For this white man, Holi was fun for about the first three minutes but then became redundant with the tiring thrill of “Hey, there’s a tourist! Let’s get him and than ask him some boring questions that he must hear 30 times a day!” of course what I thought would be a jackpot of photographic opportunity became a challenging (and frightening) experience due to all of the powdered dyes flying around and the cheeky Indians who thought they were clever to sneak up on me and surprise me with a billowing cloud of yellow powdered dye thrown over my head. Yeah, another original idea – let’s ambush the tourist! But here are a few images I thought you might enjoy. I made them when my camera wasn’t hiding in a zip-lock bag, tucked in the pit of my arm.

I met and became friends with these great people, amazing dancers. I am wearing what was once a white shirt.

No comments: