In Tune with Holi Memories

It’s rainy and cloudy in NYC, and quiet in my apartment, but I’m determined to transform my morning into a Holi celebration anyway. How? By listening to this awesome playlist of Bollywood Holi songs. holinyc1.jpg

The music is bringing back vivid, colorful memories of my childhood in Pune where I could hear music blaring over LOUDspeakers from the early morning hours to late at night. I’d stand in the balcony of our apartment with my sister and cousins and we’d fill up balloons with color water and drop them down on passersby. That was tame, believe me. In the opposite balcony, teenage boys would fill up buckets and pour out steady streams of red, yellow, green, and orange water! Below, people dressed in white shrieked in delight and emerged from the surprise bath with their hair, clothes, and faces completely soaked in all the colors of the rainbow. And, of course, there was the powder that, if you weren’t careful, would be smeared all over your face when you least expected it, getting into your nose, mouth, and ears. (Yes, bathing at the end of the day was always an ordeal!)

I’m not sure about Holi celebrations in the US, but in India, sales of the colored powder–which are mixed with starch and topia before perfumes and scents are added to give them a fragrance–are in the six-figure digits and grow at the rate of 15 percent per year, according to Reuters. In recent years, manufacturers have been responding to concerns about their safety (some contain lead) and expanding into the business of producing organic colors made out of fruits and vegetables.

During my college days, I helped organize a few Holi celebrations on campus. There was something immensely empowering about seeing a whole bunch of brown folks taking over one of the main quad lawns, playing loud Bollywood music (we even had a dhol player one year), dancing, and throwing colored powder all over each other. Sure, it attracted attention, but in those days (the mid 90s) when Indian students had less of a visible and active presence on the college campus, it was also an opportunity to share a unique cultural festival that transgresses religion with our peers and professors. By the end of the afternoon, the lawn would be packed with desis and non-desis alike and it was nearly impossible to recognize one another!

Although I don’t play much Holi these days (my celebration is limited to a few smears of color rubbed gently and affectionately on my cheeks by family members and vice-versa), I do miss the days of carefree abandon, masti, and rang. And to fill that gap, I turn to music which helps me relive my memories (until I figure out how to make new and better ones).

Even the Big B, who is not celebrating Holi in memory of the recent attacks on Mumbai, is aware of how closely the holiday is associated with “Rang Barse,” his signature dance and song from the film Silsila. Without it, this day is somehow not complete.

The Hindustan Times has a nice feature on musical Holi memories of various Bollywood music figures. What kinds of Holi memories do you have? Was it a festival you celebrated during your childhood or that you somehow celebrate today?

34 thoughts on “In Tune with Holi Memories

  1. Another Bollywood song about holi. I only bring up such cheesiness because I had to drop in a clip from it into an Asian cable show I was editing years ago, so that chorus comes up in my head whenever someone mentions Holi. ;) I also watched a friend’s footage from Holi in Bombay a few years ago and it was a bit scary — guys with blue and pink faces acting like they were RILLY HIGH on something. ;)

  2. Hi Sandhya,

    I am originally from Poona (or even better Pune, as you put it) and so had to ask…which part of the city did you live in? Your post brought back a lot of memories for me.

  3. I am originally from Poona (or even better Pune, as you put it) and so had to ask…which part of the city did you live in?

    @ Mathematiker – I used to live in Agarwal Colony, which is in Camp (Bhawani Peth). Pune is how I write it, but I always say Poona :)

  4. It’s almost 8:30AM in L.A. and this video has me dancing in my chair, and I’m not even Hindu. Happy Holi all.

  5. Pune is one of my favorite cities in India. Happy Holi to all and I hope next year I am in India celebrating Holi rather than being stuck at work:)

  6. Aaaah Holi….it was my ‘favoritest’ festival in my younger days ;) . Thanks for posting this Sandhya. There is some extra edge to this festival. Holi also allows marginal amount of touchy-feely with that crush you have had :p . But it was the ‘sense’ of day long, wild party that made it fun. Even aunties and uncles used to prowl on the road with colored water in buckets to douse known people. But as a tinier kid, I used to feel absolutely confused and a bit offended at seeing parents acting like rowdies and looking so disheveled and colorful.

    In US, there are NGOS like ASHA that organizes local Holi. (They also have pool of colored water to dunk your favorite person and hoses apart from regular color powders). They also have bollywood music to dance yourself dry and chaat and other goodies. If you haven’t played Holi yet, I highly encourage you to go.

    Question: Have you invited your non-brown friends to Holi ? If yes, how did they feel ? I would appreciate your answers so that I can decide whether I can invited some non-brown friends. Sandhya, I hope it isn’t off topic.

  7. As i was reading the post this song started playing in my head…’rang barse bheege chunar wali, rang barse!”. And then i saw the video link. It’s like a Holi anthem!

    For me too, Holi has changed over the years. Over in Newyork, it is just a little color application on/by family members. Not as much fun as it used to be back in India as a kid.

    Is there some sort of public holi celebration anywhere in Newyork? Would love to know. I know there is something happening over on South Street Seaport this weekend.

    Happy Holi everyone!

  8. Used to celebrate Holi but when I found out that it has anti-dalit origins, I stopped celebrating it.

  9. Well, even if people believe Holi started out that way, it is very different now. Since the time of the Mughals, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and everyone (mainly in North India) have been celebrating it together. Holi celebrates humanity and spring and the joy of living, and it has been that way for centuries.

  10. In fact, there are stories that the poorest people would good-naturedly douse the Mughal emperor in colored water, so I’m not sure where the anti-Dalit thing comes from. Either way, I would suggest just enjoying it for what it interpreted as by most people – a happy, inter-religious, casteless festival.

  11. Thanks for this post Sandhya. Growing up in Bombay, I celebrated Holi in much the same way as you did. It was a little sad that this year I had no clue Holi was today till I recieved a call from my parents.

    There isnt much in terms of Holi events in NYC – atleast not in Manhattan, though I was just informed of a dry Holi event held at the Dorrians in Jersey City last Saturday

    As an aside, does anyone know if I can find decent gunjias or gujias around nyc? (gunjias are homemade sweets typically enjoyed around Holi)

    @ zee’s question in #6: It would really depend on how cool/open-minded your non-brown friends would be to the idea of colors, etc. I would suggest gauge their enthusiasm before hand before inviting them over. We always had a fair share of non-brown ppl join us at the Holi events we had at our university campus in Colorado.

  12. 11 · Mizzle said

    so I’m not sure where the anti-Dalit thing comes from.

    It comes from a troll trying to get a rise out of you without regard for facts or evidence.

  13. I live in Chicago (moved here 2 yrs ago from Canada) and with all of the Indians that are here – I always thought it would be cool to do a Holi festival event, maybe at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park – but don’t know if it would work due to the cold weather – and not really sure how many would actually show up. There is a mix of fobs and also 2nd/3rd generationers – don’t know if many would be too cool for Holi.

    By the way – anyone see that Amazing Race episode where the contestants had to run through a ‘Holi’ gauntlet ? Made the whole thing look REAL bad – people getting assaulted with colors, hit in the face, etc – was such a bad way to show it. The movie Water has a great Holi scene. I am Punjabi but would love to get in on the Holi fun – Happy Holi !!

  14. To Priya #12 That link is from Dahi Handi celebrated on Janmashtami (Krishna’s birthday), usually later in the year during summer, its not from Holi..sure is lots of fun though.

  15. Carnaticdiva beat me to it — was gonna post as well, the Richmond Hill phagwah festival is this Sunday, and the Jersey City one is on Saturday. They reportedly draw up to 30,000 and 15,000 people respectively. Indo-Caribbeans know how to represent! I’ve not been — but if I can shake this cold, I wanna check it out.

  16. Just had an awesome idea – people should go out and play paintball on holi if you miss the festivities of India. Too late for this year, but I think I might organize something like that for next year.

  17. So for our campus holi celebration, which is going to be later this month, we’ve been trying really hard to get “natural color” from India. It’s pretty cool, but unfortunately extremely expensive to ship…we’ve gone with non-toxic powdered tempera paint for the second year running.

    For those who are curious, natural color is sold be eco-exist as Rang Dulaar.

    If you’re in India and still planning on having a weekend celebration, definitely check it out.

  18. The music is bringing back vivid, colorful memories of my childhood in Pune

    love pune. brings back very fond memories :) but I hated holi- growing up in Chennai it was a very north indian festival. not too many people played with colours (back in the 80s’) I remember fighting with other kids because they brought in colour to throw. Even today I hate it :( – I dont mind watching.

  19. Thanks for the heads up about the Richmond Hill event this weekend. Actually, for pics of a past celebration, click on the image in the post. It’ll take you to a pretty cool flickr slideshow!

  20. I adore Holi! We had a HUGE celebration at a park near my house in Houston. Over 8000 people showed up, and it was definitely multicult. Black, white, brown,Latino, Asian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu…it was amazing.

  21. As a non-brown, non-South Asian person, this is the first I’ve heard of Holi (how do you say it, Holly or Holy or something else?), and I’m so happy to learn about it, Sandhya. I’d like to know more–looks like fun. (Except for the miffed young woman in the video who isn’t so pleased that the cute singing, dancing guy is showering the beautiful woman with the extraordinarily long braid with so much attention….! Love those zoom-in shots… yes, yes we get it! she’s pissed!) Obviously I can’t comment on Holi, but comments here remind me that our childhood memories of holidays are among our most cherished memories, and for many of us adults, holidays are no longer as magical or as much fun. I know you guys have the cultural disconnect getting in the way for you, but for me, you know, even a holiday such as Halloween just isn’t the same as it was when I was a kid. So, OK, tell me, what’s Holi all about?

  22. Hey Debnev! Holi is the Festival of Colors, a major spring festival that is particularly popular in North India. Although it is originally a Hindu festival, everyone enjoys it regardless of creed or caste or color. I think it also coincides with Id and the Sikh New Year, so it’s definitely a big event in India.

    Everyone gets pelted with colored powders or colored water – bright dyes like red, yellow, purple and pink. Most people wear old clothes on Holi in anticipation of getting colors thrown on them and returning the favor. And of course, people drink bhang, a spicy, milky drink that is laced with cannabis. The festival celebrates the coming of spring, and the fertility and high spirits that spring brings.

  23. If you are planning a trip to Thailand next month be sure you are there for the Songkran festival, a Thai derivative of Holi (without the colored powder though, they use only white powder). Like Holi it is a lot of fun and it is not uncommon to see people filling up huge tanks of water and riding in the back of pick up trucks dousing people with water. The fact that Songkran is celebrated during the hottest part of Thai summer makes it all the more fun (it runs every year from April 13-15 and is the only time when Bangkok traffic is bearable.

  24. Come to the Stanford ASHA holi at Stanford on March 28th and celebrate the North Indian way!!! Our northern california adoption group has been celebrating holi at this event for the last 6 years! It is a fabulous, rock out holi. One year, one of the white security guards told me that next year he was not going to be working at the event but playing holi with the rest of us.

    Details here:


  25. Coming from Kerala where there is no Holi wasn’t sure what to expect on my first Holi in Delhi. One of the janitors at my hostel -totally drunk on bhang- caught me in a bear hug while we were going around in a group spraying color. (woman from a non-hugging family. Not even my father had hugged me till then.) Spent the rest of the day in confusion and embarrassment – whether it was proper for a strange man to hug a woman, did I unintentionally invite his hug, was he using Holi to indulge in his lecherous impulses, what anywone who witnessed the hug would have thought of me …..

  26. One year I was in Delhi for Holi and was set upon by the boys (at my cousin’s urging) in our neighbourhood. At one point, there were four or five of them hanging onto me and smearing paint (yes, paint, not this fragrant powder) all over my face. I felt fingers in my ears, and one finger was simulating a toothbrush. It took about 2-3 days for all the stuff to come out ;-)

    It is a great holiday, especially for kids. You can throw colour/water on elders, random strangers without danger of retribution. Of course, when I got older, I discovered bhang ;-)

  27. How some men have everythin, LOL!

    Women tear off the clothes of men as they play huranga in Dauji temple near the northern Indian town of Mathura March 12, 2009. Huranga is a game played between men and women a day after the Holi festival during which men drench women with liquid colors and women tear off the clothes of the men.

    Its a third pic from top

    Have you noticed how not one woman is interested in seeing a man naked.

  28. Thanks SC! It sounds like wicked fun. Bhang… so THAT’s the stuff the guy in the video is drinking! (If it’s anything like a lassi with intoxicants, I’m in!) The Western festivals of Mardi Gras and Carnivale seem to have some things in common with Holi. Spring is indeed a time to let loose. We could use a bit more of that spirit up here in the dreary, cold Northeast.