New York’s Hindus drench the city in a rainbow of colors

By Sandra Lopez-Monsalve

Holi at Richmond Hill, Queens
Holi at Richmond Hill, Queens

— Since 1792, New York City turns green every March  17th as Irish Americans march down Fifth Avenue to mark St. Patrick’s Day. But this year, “Holi,” the Indian festival of colors, fell on the same day, drenching the city in a rainbow of colors, not just green.

During Holi, which has been celebrated in India for thousands of years, people douse each other in beautifully vibrant colored powder in hundreds of hues to welcome the arrival of spring. For Hindus, it is both a religious as well as a socio-cultural celebration, representing good overcoming evil. Holi also addresses the inequality of India’s caste system, which separates people according to the communities and classes they were born into.  Essentially, Holi makes the caste system disappear for a day, says Megha Kalia, founder of the New York City Bhangra club, the organization responsible for Holi Hai, one of the festivals that will take place in Manhattan.

“When Holi comes around, everybody becomes one,” said Kalia, “because when you use colors on people faces, the color of their skin is no longer seen. So there is no discrimination.”

There are many stories associated with the origins of Holi. One of them stems back to a legend involving Lord Krishna, according to professor S.N. Sridhar, director of the Mattoo Center for India Studies at Stony Brook University. The story goes that Krishna, who was dark, grew envious of his companion Radha’s fair complexion. The god complained to his mother, Yashoda, about nature’s injustice. To appease her son, Yashoda asked Krishna to apply color on Radha’s face and change her complexion as he pleased. Krishna did so and made Radha’s face look more like himself. Ever since, part of the Holi tradition is to smear colors on the faces of your loved ones.

Today, Indian descendants throughout the world—in Pakistan, Bangledesh, Kenya, South African, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, among other countries—still celebrate Holi, one of the most lively religious and cultural holidays. It is called “Dol Purnima” in Bangladesh and “Phagwah” in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. In New York, it is often referred to simply as the festival of colors.

“You smear colors on someone and you say Holi Mubarak or Holi Hai, which is the traditional way of saying Happy Holi,” said club founder Kalia. “It’s kind of a mischievous festival. It’s very fun, very lively.”

The date of the festival varies each year, depending on the calendar. This year it falls on March 17, but the festivities in New York City began on Sunday, March 16, with the 26th Annual Phagwa Parade in Richmond Hill, Queens.

Holi 2014 by Slidely Slideshow

“Holi Hai! Holi Hai!” could be heard along the streets of Richmond Hill on Sunday as  floats full of colorful balloons passed by.  On the streets, people with colored powder on their faces laughed and danced along the streets. Young and old, Hindus and non-Hindus, people jumped into celebrate, their faces painted with a mix of bright colors and white powder.  Strangers smeared colored powders on the faces and clothes of other strangers, but no one objected.

The parade  did not simply mark Holi, but also promoted awareness of the Affordable Healthcare Act and urged revelers to support keeping the anex attached to Richmond Hill High School open. The Richmond Hill Economic Development Council, sponsors of the parade see this is “an opportunity to connect the businesses with a community event,” said Vishnu Mahadeo, the organization’s executive director.

Traditional commemorations on temples, parades, festivals and even a Holi-themed cruise will run from March all the way to May to celebrate this ancient festivity.

At Stony Brook in Long Island, the celebration, sponsored by the Faculty Students Association and the Center for Indian Studies, will take place on Wednesday April 2 between 12 noon and 2 p.m. The celebration will focus on “the explanation of the mythological religious significance of this festival,” said professor Sridhar. “But everybody will be joining us and enjoying Indian food, colors and Bollywood style dance.”

Rang Barse, means shower of color in Hindi—and that will be the theme of a cruise around New York City scheduled for March 22 on the ship, The Respect. The ship sails at 12:30 p.m., sharp, from Pier 40 in Manhattan.

“We have been doing this event for about seven years,” said Rohika Hardas, founder of IN Group, a New York City-based event production company. “New York is a vibrant community where people want to immerse in other cultures.” This event will include food, drinks, Indian music and dance, and heaps of powdered color. The price is $89.81 including service charges.

On May 3, in Manhattan, the Holi Hai festival will present Bhangra dance, a traditional Punjabi folk-dancing style developed in the northern part of the region originally to celebrate the harvest. Rhythmic drums will beat to the music and girls wearing colorful dresses will offer the crowd “thalis,” plates full of powdered colors and Indian sweets. Music performances including salsa, flamenco, and Indian music will complement the free festival, beginning at 12:30 p.m.

No matter what the celebration or when, all of New York’s Holi activities will be showcased in a shower of bright colors.The powdered color is called “Gulal,” and it refers to all colors in Holi, which don’t have any definitive meaning.  “It depends on the context you are using,” said Kilol Butala, owner of the Butala Emporium, an importer and distributor of Indian goods, including Gulal. “Colors are associated with the planets, with all the gods and goddesses, they are connected with particular days, so it depends on what ceremony and purpose it is, but in general Holi is about all different colors.” White cloths are often used to make the colors stand out.

In the United States, almost any color can be turned into a powder— a small company in Utah, called Hippie Powder,  has been making them since 2011. “We can make custom colors,” said Justin Knapp, Hippie Powder’s vice-president of marketing. “As long as it’s not a metallic color, we can probably match it.”

In America, the company’s powder formula follows the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, a law passed in 1938 to ensure the safety of food, drugs and cosmetic products. Since the powder complies with the law, it means that the  U.S. Food and Drug Administration has certified the color additives used to produce the powder. Some companies even promote their products as being organic.

While Holi mostly features elements of fun, Hindus also go to temple to worship on the day. For priest Sri Shankar Parial, at the Bangladesh Hindu Mandir in Queens, Holi “happens for social development and mental development.”

It’s “often like Christmas in this country,” said Stony Brook professor Sridhar. “People forget that Christmas is really a religious festival, so it’s become a party and about commercial sales. But still people go to the temple on that day, pay their respects to the gods and then have a party.”

The festival of colors also marks the beginning of spring. “Holi is all about the new season. We welcome spring after the winter, it brings all the flowers and their colors,” says importer Butala. And after the particularly harsh winter New York has experienced, Holi couldn’t have come at a better moment.

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