The Holi for the Everyman

By Akansha Singh

Yoga. Butter chicken. Priyanka Chopra. These are some of India’s top exports—and now, it seems, so is Holi.

The Hindu Festival of Colour has become one of the most widely recognised events in the world. Aside from being an integral part of the Hindu calendar, it’s instantly recognisable for its massive clouds of bright, rainbow powders, and for the hundreds and thousands of people that congregate in celebration. Photographers and filmmakers are drawn to the festival; it’s a unique event, and a wonder to capture on film. The colours symbolise the arrival of spring and encourage forgiveness—so it’s no wonder why this religious tradition is one India’s most famous events.

But that doesn’t excuse the Colour Run.

Every year when I see the Colour Run event making the rounds on Facebook, it’s difficult not to feel frustrated. This might be indulgent of me; I grew up in a Hindu family, and the Holi celebrations in India are the stuff of legends. Primarily though, I am frustrated because a religious event that millions of people celebrate, has bred a cheap imitation in the form of the Colour Run.

The Colour Run is obviously culturally appropriative. These words are thrown around a lot these days, but cultural appropriation essentially means to take elements of another’s culture, without permission, for use within your own. Holi—with a history stretching back thousands of years, and originating in a country as deeply religious as India—is foundational to Hindu culture. The Colour Run is not.

“Don’t play the race card,” I hear you say. “It’s multiculturalism, not appropriation.” And true, the line between cultural appropriation and multiculturalism is blurred. But not this far.

It’s not multiculturalism if the exchange only goes one way.  It’s not multicultural if one event has existed for thousands of years, and another since 2011, with crowds more willing to attend the one without the pesky religious and cultural strings.

And I understand, of course, that there are greater problems facing India than the westernisation of Holi—problems like domestic violence, poverty and hunger. But that’s exactly what makes the Colour Run so appropriative; it’s taken one of the easiest, most attractive parts of India’s culture, and has neglected the less popular.

This is such a hurtful practice because it is dismissive of the history and the significance of Holi as a cultural festival. It’s especially destructive because of the history of colonialism in India. It may have ended in 1947 but the repercussions are still being lived by India’s inhabitants to the current day. From this perspective, I think we can still hold westernisation of Indian customs as a very real problem being faced by Indian culture.

The Colour Run is for charity. It’s for exercise. India doesn’t own it. But when something has existed for thousands of years in one country, and reaches peak popularity when it is westernised in another, it can’t be claimed under the umbrella of multiculturalism.

Ask yourself this: if it’s the practice you enjoy, why are so many more willing to attend the Colour Run than Holi? There are plenty of marathons in the world, and they don’t garner nearly as much attention as the Colour Run. It’s the playfulness, the colour, and the surrealism that has made the event so popular, and it is exactly these elements that have been copied. Holi has existed for thousands of years, and Indian diaspora is not a recent phenomenon. There are plenty of places to celebrate Holi, even outside of India.

Most of all, the Colour Run is just lazy. It’s the latest in a string of offences against India due to westernisation, and proves an inability to see that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Perhaps the day will come where we don’t have to have these conversations. When Coachella comes around, and there won’t be a bindi in sight. When Halloween costumes are hilarious, and not insensitive.

Until then, we should watch the marathons we run—just in case we’re running into a more hurtful, and divisive, future.