Droves of Brooklynites lined up outside an abandoned lot at 485 Johnson Ave. in Bushwick for the Festival of Colors this past Saturday. Some wore GoPros, others wore Rastacaps. Everyone was dressed in white, eager to have their clothing stained with the throwing of brightly colored powder. This activity has come to represent the entirety of the Indian rite of spring, also known as “Holi,” for young people in America.
In South Asian countries with Hindu populations, particularly India and Nepal, Holi is observed religiously over a two-day period. Here in Brooklyn, it was celebrated non-denominationally over an eight-hour period — one consisting largely of playing with powder, eating from food trucks and drinking Tecate tallboys, at that. This weekend’s festival was predominantly white, with a vibe that felt more Coachella than New Delhi.
Naftai, 24, a first-time attendee, told us she saw an ad for the festival on her Facebook feed and recognized it instantly as the Indian ritual she’d once seen in a movie.
“I saw it on Eat Pray Love and I was like ‘I gotta go to this,'” she said. “I thought I had to go all the way to India to do it, but then they did it here.”
The event’s organizers claim that their festival is a positive way to bring Hindu culture to a wider audience. But can the commodification of this religious ritual be a positive thing? Or was this simply yet another example of cultural appropriation in Brooklyn?
Naftai said that the festival was “a beautiful way to celebrate spring” and that it provided one of those rare opportunities to “have fun with people as an adult.”
There was certainly no shortage of fun at the festival. Upon entry, you were given a single bag of colored powder to start with. If you weren’t covered in colors already, you stood out, so by the time you’d made a few rounds of the festival enclosure, you were covered by powder that other people had thrown onto you.
Before the event in Bushwick (now in its fifth year), Brokelyn spoke with one of its founding members, Jack Langerman. He explained the use of colored powder as a means by which the social “ice is melted” and said that the festival’s typical attendees were “people coming for the social contract agreement that we’ve all made, that this is going to be a day where the social norms and rules don’t exist.”
So is this what Holi is all about? Throwing powder onto strangers as a form of ice-breaker and an expression free love? Well, not exactly.
Holi is a religious spring festival that some believe dates back to hundreds of centuries B.C. Its legends are rooted in Hindu scripture. There are two rituals central to the holiday: a bonfire the night before Holi to purge evil spirits, and a colored powder-throwing celebration day-of to celebrate spring (and the metaphors of forgiveness and renewal therein). Americans often celebrate only the latter part of this festival, and do so seemingly without consciousness of the holiday’s history or its cultural roots in Hinduism. Because of this, American derivations of the festival often come under fire as instances of cultural appropriation and “whitewashing” of Holi. [Update: We should note that actual Holi took place on March 24 this year.]
“Just because you throw colored powder around, doesn’t mean you are celebrating Holi,” Priya Patel, a Bed-Stuy resident of Indian descent told us. She shared her own personal history with Holi as a counterpoint:
“My family used to go to a Hindu temple is Jersey City which was about a two and a half hour drive from our home. We had low key celebrations in the parking lot after service with dholaks and kirtans on blast. It was fun, [but] it was definitely a smaller scale operation. I never would have thought that 15 years later, hip white people would be jacking this very community-centered and meaningful holiday, sequestering themselves in an empty Williamsburg parking lot and raging out in the name of some vague sense of ‘oneness.'”
In some cases at this weekend’s festival, it was even more vague than that. Brokelyn spoke to another pair of ladies from Bay Ridge who were waiting to get on top of the “Quetzal bus,” a school bus spray painted purple and gutted to be re-purposed as a partying platform. They were clad in white robes that looked almost religious in nature. Like Naftai, they were first-time attendees, and told us they’d also found out about it from their Facebook feeds.
When I asked them whether they were here for the religious observation of Holi, they both shook their heads, and one replied: “I just wanna get colored!”
Langerman told us that his idea to celebrate Holi in New York was inspired by watching videos of the celebration in India that he’d seen on YouTube. The event’s first incarnation was, in his words, a “ratchet” indoor party thrown together in nine days and with a modest attendance of a few hundred people. In this fifth year, Langerman’s festival drew a crowd of almost 4,000 revelers over the course of its eight hours.
As far as addressing accusations of cultural appropriation, Langerman was sheepish but unapologetic.
“I try to be as understanding and respectful of their views as possible,” he said. “I understand, given the fact that I’m not Hindu, I’m some white kid who grew up in New York. I understand why that’s bothersome. All I can say is, Hindus figured out the best way to celebrate spring. It brings people together in a really magical way. And the underlying values — breaking down social barriers, coming together, burying old hatchets — those are universal values. I love it so much and think it’s so good that I wanna share it. Maybe I’m not the right guy but I’m the guy who’s doing it.”
Critics say this is the very definition of appropriation: taking only what is easiest to like from a cultural celebration in order to go play with it somewhere else. So Langerman’s explanation doesn’t win him any sympathy with Patel.
“It’s truly colonial to say ‘Look at this cool thing I discovered that’s been around for thousands of years, let me share it the way that I want to share it!'” she said. “I’m sure he’s a decent enough guy, but you have to admit there is a definite lack of awareness.”
Still, others share Langerman’s view. We spoke to a pair of older women who were taking in the action from the sidelines, seated in canvas lawn chairs. Sue and Tammy, both in their mid-60s, were visiting from New Jersey and the Bronx, respectively. Tammy’s son was one of the other event organizers, and this was her third year attending the festival. I asked Tammy whether she saw the organizers’ efforts as misguided.
“All they wanna do is have fun today,” she replied. “I’m a child of the 60s, so this to me is just peace, love and happiness.”
We also hung out with Bart, another parent of one of the organizers. (He shared with us that the boys’ families had been friends since the boys were Eagle Scouts together.) Like Sue and Tammy, Bart was in his mid-60s; but he seemed as eager to be powder-doused as the festival’s younger clientele. At one point he even suggested we get in line to climb on top of the party bus. While we were waiting on line, he surveyed the scene. Then he leaned over and yelled, “This is harmless!”
I asked him what he meant by that. “Well, do you see anyone smoking weed?” he asked. “Do you see anyone spaced out?”
He wasn’t wrong; there was something kind of wholesome in the air. The festival’s attendees weren’t your typical Governors’ Ball or Electric Zoo ragers. These folks actually seemed sated by the central activity of powder-throwing, and the positive energy of the festival did seem to mirror Holi’s underlying values of forgiveness, unification and rebirth.
“Various temples in Queens celebrate Holi, but I don’t see a mass of Coachella folks running to the Phagwah Parade where you can find actual Indian people celebrating,” Patel responded. “It’s uncomfortable to see people who have never had a relationship with the holiday, let alone Hinduism, plunging in headfirst celebrating the aesthetics of it completely detached.”
Brokelyn reached out to Langerman again for further comment, but he didn’t respond.
Spoiler alert: there’s no jury presiding here. The conversation about whether Langerman’s festival should or shouldn’t exist is caught in the politics of relativism between Americans like Langerman who claim that Holi’s values are “universal,” and the members of the Hindu community who feel slighted by these “detached” interpretations of the holiday.
“It’s hard,” Patel admitted, “because on the one hand I feel like it’s more in line with the spirit of the holiday to be fine and happy with even appropriated events, because it’s at least attempting to spread the intended message. But damn, there’s a lack of brown in those crowds.”