Complete with brightly colored body parts, smiles stained blue and orange by biodegradable colored powder and pounding bass rhythms from a mixture of contemporary American and desi dance music, Occidental’s Holi festival was filled with youthful exuberance.
The event was organized by the South Asian Students Association (SASA) in coordination with several other on-campus groups, including Associated Students of Occidental College Senate, Diversity and Equity Board, Intercultural Community Center, Programming Board, Phi Kappa Psi and Active Minds. SASA has celebrated Holi for the past three years with a traditional Indian dinner, but this year marks the first occasion that it has been able to offer the color-throwing aspect of the event — known as playing Holi — on campus, an essential element of the traditional Hindu spring celebration.
According to SASA co-president Sanjana Datla (senior), the Campus Event Advisory Committee helped to plan the event so as to avoid possible problems and ensure it went smoothly. Coordinators in past years feared that students would come to the festivities intoxicated or wield powdered color inappropriately within the dorms. There were also questions of allergies and liability for Office of Student Life. According to Datla, the possibility of students behaving destructively was reduced by the decision to hold the festival from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon in front of Stewart-Cleeland Hall.
Another major concern for SASA was the potential for cultural appropriation.
“[Holi] is deeply rooted in our culture,” said Jeevin Sandhu (first year), SASA executive member and event organizer. “I was worried about cultural appropriation because it’s a part of my identity, you know, it’s my culture. It’s not okay to steal one aspect of my culture, [one aspect] of the issues that we go through daily.”
To address these concerns from worried students and organizers, SASA held a public meeting last Wednesday with the other event organizers to discuss how to navigate Holi and other cultural celebrations ensuring the focus is appreciation rather than appropriation. A sizeable group of Occidental students, led by Abhilasha Bhola (senior) with help from Venetia Boyce (first year), hashed out what constitutes appropriation, drawing on tangible examples such as white rappers to differentiate appropriation from appreciation. The goal of the meeting was to find a happy medium in which students of diverse backgrounds could come to an understanding of how to participate in a holiday that they knew little about without making it their own.
“I think especially at Oxy, everyone comes from a place of curiosity,” Datla said. “They’re very mindful. The questions they ask, they ask because they are curious, and if you make an error we’ll tell you and that’s okay.”
The audience was engaged with the discussion asking questions and showing their approval of the speakers with applause and snaps.
“I liked that they actually gave us information on the culture and the meaning of the event,” attendee Alexander Levers (first year) said. “I feel great about this.”
Ultimately, many of the people at the Holi festival Sunday were pleased with the education they gleaned from the meeting and the festival itself.
Holi opened with a buffet style feast of Indian food from Bhan’s, including mango lassis and samosas. Students in white tee shirts gathered on Stewie Beach to enjoy the building anticipation for the main festivities, chat and eat. Students crowded each other as they lined up at white tents to buy biodegradable powdered color packets, available in seven different colors. University of Southern California’s (USC) Punjabi dance team performed a traditional Bhangra dance and then led a workshop on the lawn for the audience.
As it is a traditional Indian celebration, Holi lacks any direct analog in contemporary America.
“There’s no grinding involved,” Datla said. “[It’s] not a music festival, but the cultural practices that go with it are kind of similar. Like we drink bhaang [a cannabis-infused drink], and there’s lots of sweets, food and it happens in large scales.”
Sandhu was pleased that the traditional Bhangra dance style was featured — he comes from Punjab, a region of South Asia where Bhangra originated. According to Sandhu, the music and type of dance differs from Bollywood style in the instruments and upbeats that create its rhythms. At the event, the USC team wore colorful Bhangra dress while other SASA e-board members also dressed in their traditional Indian clothing.
“We just try to embody our culture and share it with other people as much as we can,” Sandhu said.
The actual color festival was a blur; it was spring colors, mad dashes towards the tent for more color and the blindness that results from running around in a mist of powder. Friendships were formed and torn down as former allies turned to shower each other in paint.
“I played Holi last year at a larger public festival, but it’s definitely more fun with your friends and community,” Datla said. “It felt safe, and for a little while it felt like India.”