As a middle-class woman who has lived in a city all her life, my disaffection with Holi began quite early. I think I was 15 when I decided it is not a festival worth celebrating, and I have not really participated in it since.
Regardless of what my 15-year-old saw fit and had decided however, it was still a festive occasion for my family. My mother and my aunt still made some delicious puran polis every year, fried up some kanda bhaji, made aamti (for want of a better word, a curry made from the water that the dal for the puran poli stuffing was cooked in) and of course, gulavani—a preparation made using water and jaggery to dunk the puran poli into. We were never allowed to touch any of it till an offering was made to the burning pyre which symbolizes the death of Holika and evil.
In spite of all this rosiness, I opposed Holi. My opposition to Holi and Rang Panchami, back then, was couched in a cushy concern for the environment. Burn down trees? Generate toxic fumes? Waste water? No thanks, I am educated, I used to think.
Within a year or two, from a concern for the environment, my “educated” self moved on to find a term and politics that I had longed for without ever having known it. Feminism encompassed everything that bothered me about my life: the different rules for me and my brother, the constant surveillance my body was subjected to and the desire to break free from it all.
Armed with this lens, Rang Panchami then became to me another legitimated patriarchal vehicle for violating my bodily integrity as a woman. The forced water, colours and balloons made me see how my body was considered a free-for-all source of entertainment for men.
Now that I look back, I am amazed by the ease with which such a vocabulary and apparatus were made available. An apparatus that made it possible for me to contest a day sacred to so many with declarations that were as glib as they were contained by my peculiar social location, contaminated by my class and its biases.
This realisation is even more painful given that I have not had such easy access to an apparatus that asks questions that are as fundamental, if not more, about what Holi really represents. That missing apparatus was caste. And it was an apparatus that was not available to me in spite of being a Bahujan woman.
So what is Holi really about? As K. Jamnadas points out in Holi – A Festival To Commemorate Bahujan Burning, it is a holiday premised on Bahujan burning. In the same piece, he points out how the festivities around this day are indirectly connected to Hiranyakashyapu. From the many versions of the story behind the festival—which involves burning a pyre one evening, and celebrating with colours the next—the one constant is that it was a part of Narasimha’s scheme to save Prahlad’s life.
Narasimha is considered an avatar of Vishnu. Hiranyakashyapu’s son Prahlad had recognized the one true God in Narasimha and had gained popularity as his ardent devotee. This did not go down well with the asura king Hiranyakashyapu, who obsessively plotted his own son’s murder. One such foiled attempt was when he sent his sister Holika for the hitjob, who decided to use a special blanket to protect herself from the fire while she made Prahlad sit with her in a lit pyre. Prahlad’s prayers to Narasimha ensured that he was unharmed while Holika burnt.
What we celebrate is this burning of Holika. A Bahujan woman. To those who want to ask how I can accept that asuras represent Bahujan, and give credence to the racial theory of caste (one that Ambedkar himself does not believe in – see Who Were the Shudras), I say you are missing the point. The racial theory of caste suggests that a foreign race invaded India and this race went on to become the Brahmin class, while the peoples they conquered and subjugated went on to become the lower castes.
A refashioning of this theory, which began with Mahatma Phule’s Slavery, declares that the Vedic and Puranic stories which dictate our festivals rely on suppressing the story of the lower castes, and it is they who are painted as asuras. This refashioning is a part of the attempt to contest hegemonic constructs of culture; constructs of culture which have a project of invisibilising the lives of the marginalized written into them.
Vedic and Puranic stories which dictate our festivals rely on suppressing the story of lower castes, who are painted as asuras.
As Reju George Mathew has pointed out, “One cannot consider it as stupidity or lack of awareness when a group of Dalit, Adivasi, and Bahujan students (along with some Christian, Muslim, Atheists etc.) attempt to project the Asura-Dravidian cultural and identity symbols, along with declaring their pride in being Asura” What is more important here is the recognition of the context in which these new cultural norms are sought to be instituted. And setting the agenda of culture clearly cannot remain an upper-caste privilege.
After all, it has taken me over two decades to realize that though my family makes puran poli for Holi and celebrates Holi—Brahminization in full display—there is a reason we make gulavani with it, while my savarna friends do not. They have puran poli with milk. Our gulavani is a carry-over from the times when my family did not have access to milk. Because the culture around me is so silent on caste, I could not make sense of my own life practices.
So if there is one thing you set fire to this Holi, let it be the structures that thrive on one version of culture being all-pervasive. Structures and stories that do not allow a vast majority to make sense of their lives.