Holy Holi

Festival of Colors

India: a country filled with rich colors, exotic smells and spices, a myriad of dialects, a wealth of exquisite textiles, and auspicious holidays—is a place where significance, spirit, and celebration coincide. From the banging firecrackers and the sparkler-lit streets of Diwali, to a Rajasthani wedding whose bride is adorned with an intricately woven silk sari of red and gold, to the Ganesh Festival where fluorescent pigment painted on terra cotta Ganesh sculptures dye bodies of water in which they are submerged-- these holidays are joined through the symbol of color and spirit. 

From the many holidays that I either witnessed or participated, Holi was definitely one of the most action-packed. Holi, known as the “Festival of Colors,” is a physical play of color and spirit: symbolic of happiness, community, peace, and passion.  Although it is known to be more of a secular holiday than religious, it holds great meaning and symbolism. Celebrated the day after the full moon in early March, the beautiful colors of Holi signify the arrival of spring, vibrant life, and the new harvest. 

During Holi, people of all ages and walks of life dance to the beat of drums, shouting “Holi Hai!” (‘It’s Holi!’), as they excitedly propel and smear colorful dry powder (‘Gulal’) on friends, colleagues, or passerby’s, and squirt diluted pigment (‘Rang’) on each other. Faces, clothing, and landscape transform into a festive sea of multi-colors: from pinks, to reds, to greens, to yellows, to purples, to blues.  Like a performance, pigment comes to life as colorful dust swirls, dances, and catapults towards the sky. 

Holi is a celebration of transformation, as elegant saris and dupattas (shawls) are “re-dyed” into new colors and patterns, revealing new meaning from the symbolic nature of pigments that penetrate their clothing.  India’s textiles and colors hold great meaning, and Holi takes this concept to a whole new level, as each color has its own significance. Red, a very auspicious color is the traditional textile color of choice for brides, symbolic of purity, luck, love, fertility, and marriage.  A red bindhi or hand-rubbed “trail” of red powder called Kumkum, beginning from the forehead’s hairline, proceeding down the hair’s part to the peak of the forehead, is symbolic of prosperity and the married Hindu woman.  Symbolizing the Hindu god, Lord Krishna’s skin, blue holds special significance. Green signifies nature, growth, and the harvest. Yellow equates to happiness, hope, and sunshine.  Yellow is also intertwined with the color of turmeric, a healing and medicinal spice. Purple signifies creativity, mysticism, and vitality. Pink symbolizes happiness and lightheartedness.  (I quickly learned that the Holi dyes, like textile chemical dyes, have carcinogenics that are proving harmful to the skin, but that there has been a resurgence of natural dyes being produced for the very sake of Holi).

My first Holi experience was during a time when I was working as a Professor of Fibers and Textile Design to undergraduate university students in Bangalore in 2008 and 2010.  I was awestruck by the vibrancy and intricate detailed work of textiles and saris accompanied with matching bangles of any desired color, worn by all classes of women and girls in India. When I first taught my students how to dye textiles they were fearless. They wanted to get their hands on every color and incorporate it into as many projects as they could.  It was like second nature to them, and they found immediate excitement and were very comfortable working in color. It was as if color naturally channeled through them, which was no surprise, since color and the celebrations like Holi have surrounded them for their whole lives.

Upon meeting or seeing pictures of my students’ mothers and grandmothers, I noticed that red was the most common color that they carried through all three generations of their wardrobes.  In addition, red was typically the most popular color that my textile department students--who were all females--created in their dye bath.  Although there was an immediate intuitiveness with working in color, my students rarely wore vibrant colors themselves.  Their own wardrobes consisted mostly of blue jeans and t-shirts similar to that of my American students.  Oftentimes, the t-shirts would be substituted by neutral kurtas (long tunics) with corresponding dupattas (shawls) worn with jeans. I enjoyed seeing this combination of embracing both east and west fashion.  Simultaneously, however, I felt a deep-rooted concern of too much outside influence on a country that I have always felt was one of the meccas of beautifully colorful textiles.

I found that my students and other urban Indian youth were so connected with their cultural identity that this shift in fashion was more generational rather than a cultural disconnect. My students’ grandmothers were raised wearing saris and proclaimed they will only wear saris, while their mothers wore saris and salwar kameez sets (matching kurta, pants, and shawl) and some have begun to wear western clothing. 

While influence around the globe will continue, the auspiciousness of color will forever speak through many generations of India’s language and identity. It is holidays such as Holi that will continue to keep the spirit, art, fashion, identity, and symbolism of India’s vibrant and connected culture alive.

Rachel Miller is an artist. Her work focuses on environmental patterns and how they interconnect with our own patterns of growth, departure, and rejuvenation. Using both the body and landscape as cynosure and subject, she coalesces topics from ritual, archeology, architecture, travel, textiles, and nature. Her works, which include sculpture, installation, performance and costume, examine the constant resurfacing of the past, and its integration with the present. To learn more about Rachel Miller, please visit www.rachel-miller.com.

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