My Sunday Guardian column for March 2013 (and I disclaim the print headline):
I've been a believer in Holi as long as I can remember. Actually, no, I do have one hazy six-year-old memory that would count as anti-Holi: a couple of Defence Colony uncles perched in and on a car, their deep purple and shiny green avatars just slightly less benign than their regular selves. But even then, I don't remember being terrified; only guarded. After that, I spent several Holis in Calcutta. Family formed the core of the celebrations, with close friends of either my parents or my aunt and uncle often being added to the mix. At 10, I was already the bespectacled child with my nose buried in a book. But Holi seemed to bring out all my latent energy: I remember running up and down pretty much all day, armed with one of the grandparental household's old brass pichkaris — a solid, effective weapon, and heavy, too: not one of these childish plastic playthings that get trashed each year. Once I played Holi at my best friend's house, with her cousins and aunts and uncles, and the faux-family ties cemented that day still feel like something, even if the friend and I are no longer close.
Back in Delhi as an adolescent, I discovered the delicious frisson that only Holi offered — water made everyone frisky, and putting colour on people involved actually touching them. I remember crushing on a classmate's elder brother with the perfect filmi Holi persona — colour-spattered white kurta, stubble and beautiful singing voice. His colours, I decided, were reserved for me. The secret love I nursed for a boy could be publicly expressed with gulaal. The festive flirtation could be conducted openly, in front of family and friends, and yet remain unseen. Holi offered other unusual liberties: if you had a colony/building gang, you could roam from house to house all day without parental censure — not something girls often did.
It was years later, reading about carnival in a cultural anthropology class, that I began to recognise Holi in it. A ritual feature of pre-modern European popular culture, carnival at its widest involved feasting and communal drinking, dancing and music and open-air amusements, comic verbal competitions and farces that often enshrined the low forms of folk humour. The Soviet-era theorist Mikhail Bakhtin used the Renaissance writings of Rabelais to think about carnival as an analytic. The excesses of carnival offered liberation from the utilitarian norms that governed agricultural society. Humdrum, everyday time was suspended, everyday hierarchies reversed. Joining the carnival throng, often with the anonymity of masquerade, allowed people freedom from the strictures of being themselves. The profane self, released from work, social rules, or moral boundaries, was given free rein — eating and drinking and sex and laughter — and all this as part of a collective body.
I had to wait many years to experience the adult equivalent of that childhood sense of collectivity, of licensed upheaval, of owning a neighbourhood — and it came via the JNU Holi. Delhi University, where I studied, never gave its women a campus that felt truly free, overrun as it is by the male-dominated street culture of Delhi. In JNU, on the other hand, the practices of Holi, like most things, manage to feel entirely rooted (dare I say 'traditional'?) while actually being quite particular to this unique post-independence campus. So bhaang-filled thandai, unmatchable intoxicant traditionally drunk on Holi across North India, features crucially in the JNU festivities too. But here each hostel mess actually produces a batch, and the re-filled mineral water bottles that circulate across campus often come with the implicit suggestion of which hostel's thandai is better. The night before Holi is devoted to a weird and wonderful contest for the title of Chaat Samraat. "Chaat" (lit: "to lick") is slang for someone who talks on and on, until you're bored to tears. He who is crowned the Emperor of Chaat is placed on a donkey and led on a procession around campus.
Last week, I read a 1966 essay about Holi in Braj, the only anthropological treatment of Holi I've read. McKim Marriott spends his first Holi in Kishangarh befuddled — both by bhaang and by what seems like pandemonium. By his second Holi, everything seems to fall into "an extraordinarily regular social ordering. But this was an order precisely inverse to the social and ritual principles of routine life." The women beat up the men. Lower caste women are the most avid beaters, and the wealthier Brahmin and Jat farmers their chosen targets. A "burlesque dirge" is sung for an unpopular "very much alive moneylender"; the 'King of the Holi' put backwards on the donkey is a famous high-caste bully (the implications for Chaat Samraat are interesting!). Holi functions, in brief, as a carnivalesque rite of reversal.
A very preliminary speculation, but it seems to me that whether Holi works or doesn't work depends on whether it enables a reversal of hierarchies, or simply reinforces the dominant power equations. In the North Indian city, it is certainly not men who need ritual license — and if Holi seems to give them that, it will feel wrong. My Holis, from childhood onwards, have always enabled rather than disabled, letting me embrace the bodily excesses of carnival; do things I might not have done otherwise. Of course, there is no reason why you should need a festival to free you — but for all the other creatures of ritual out there, Holi is waiting for you to claim it for yourself.
Published in the Sunday Guardian.