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11 September 2015updated 04 Oct 2023 9:39am

How the festival of Holi has become a textbook case of cultural appropriation for profit

This weekend, revellers will pay £43 to throw coloured powder paint around, but with little understanding of Holi’s religious or social dimensions.

By Rahul Verma

Tomorrow’s “HOLI Festival of Colours” will see 15,000 excited, fresh-faced revellers pour into Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to throw coloured powder paint around – to an electronic music soundtrack – and they’ll pay between £29.99 and £42.99 for the privilege.

This “Holi festival” is inspired by “Holi” the Hindu festival of colour, which is based on the fable of a hubristic King who believed he should be worshipped as a deity – in India it’s celebrated in late-February or early March and in North India it marks spring’s arrival.

Holi in India has a playful, mischievous headiness and it’s a time to come together, share food, bury grudges and “play Holi” – splat young and old with “rang (colour) while it’s not uncommon to get high with bhang (cannabis-based drinks), or alcohol.

So far so fun, however as a Hindu (albeit non-pious) I’m confused as to why Berlin-based HOLI Festival of Colours (HFoC) founded by Germans Jasper Hellmann, Max Riedel and Maxim Derenko is hosting a “Holi festival” (in the Coachella sense) in London, for non-Hindus, on the cusp of autumn.

Especially as this year alone HFoC is putting on 50 similar events in 20 countries, as co-founder Maxim Derenko outlines. “We do the most events in Germany where we do a big tour, we also do events in Europe, South America, Australia and the Middle East maybe in the next two years we can grow from 50 festivals to 100,” he says.

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Clearly rave and festival-style Holi events for non-Hindus are massive business (Holi One promotes similar parties) and there’s a demand, but it feels uncomfortable that a trio of Europeans – one of whom experienced Holi in Delhi in 2011 – with little understanding of Holi’s religious, cultural or social dimensions, are touring a loose approximation of Holi (yet trading off its name) around the world to make loadsa money.

On the one hand I can see the appeal of Holi raves, they’re harmless, photogenic and gimmicky fun a 21st-century foam party for the gap year generation with a warm and fuzzy, “one love” sheen.

But in terms of representation and who’s telling this story of Holi, how it’s being told and why, it’s troublesome, and arguably a textbook case of cultural appropriation a suggestion that Derenko firmly denies.

“That’s not the case we just took the core values of Holi – the way it celebrates togetherness, mutual respect, happiness and joy – and made them accessible to everyone, outside of India. We give the link to where it comes from so people can read about it the origin so people aren’t confused,” he explains.

Derenko’s spreading the wonder of Holi argument doesn’t wash or allay my uneasiness, particularly as HFoC’s short film explaining Holi In India portrays India as a spiritual, ancient place of weird yet wonderful rituals. India is pre-modern, there’s not a car, or mobile phone in sight, but there is a craggy-faced sadhu (Hindu holy man) applying a tika (red mark) to his head and plenty of celestial lighting. Really?

It’s an outmoded Orientalist gaze reinforcing, hackneyed colonial stereotypes, that seems to symbolize the combination of ignorance, insensitivity of this particular phenomenon, and rubs salt in the crass-cultural-appropriation-for-profit wound.

Rahul Verma is a freelance journalist covering arts and culture, social affairs and South Asia for outlets including the Guardian, Vice UK, BBC Culture and BBC Radio 4. He tweets at @_storywallah.

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