At Large  March 8, 2023  Natasha H. Arora

Colors as Transgression in the Holi Festival

Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Photo: Natasha Arora 

Raj Singh and Shivdas Jodhpur Maharaja Man Singh's Holi Procession. c.1810

Considering Holi and Diwali’s spectacularity, and a growing number of Indian immigrants ebbing westward into American and British media, it is a small wonder that these two Hindu festivals have developed a cultish following. This March, before the Irish (and anyone sympathetic to martyrdom, Guinness, and the color green) honor the death of the patron Saint Patrick, Indians everywhere will celebrate the riotous festival of Holi by chasing their loved ones and pelting them with colored powders and waters. While today’s iterations of the festival are most appealing for offering adults an excuse to indulge in children’s games, Holi also traditionally symbolizes a legitimation of social transgression. 

On March 7th, merry-makers everywhere will don their palest, most comfortable, and most disposable-in-the-event-that-stains-cannot-be-removed clothing, retreat to an open field or space and throw gulal at each other in a chromatic and bellicose adaptation of tag. This gulal, or colors, are generally a mass-produced form of cornstarch dyed with food-, drug-, and cosmetic-grade pigments, but were historically organic materials: turmeric powder, red sandalwood, and henna, to name a few. The performance or game of Holi licenses the blurring of social strata. No matter a player’s caste, gender, class, or age, anyone can be an attacker or victim—there are no winners, as victory simply manifests as a thicker coat of colored powder. It is perhaps precisely this physical obfuscation that illustrates transgression: if masters, men, and Brahmins are unrecognizable, and targets of symbolic violence, then their authority surely vanishes until players don their clean clothing once more.

The Cleveland Museum of Art, JSTOR

Hindu God Krishna Being Dressed in Women’s Clothes for Spring Festival Holi. drawing with patches of opaque watercolor, c. 1790.

It is difficult to say from whence these themes of misbehavior—or indeed, Holi itself—originated. Set on the full moon in the month of Phalguna, Holi marks the arrival of spring, so practices may in part be a reflection of vernal fertility. Yet the Festival of Colors also derives from Hindu mythology; it juggles the threefold purpose of commemorating the love of Radha-Krishna (a hermaphroditic personification of pleasure) and representing the destruction of the impious demoness Holika by Vishnu—one of the three principal deities in Hinduism. Holika’s vibrant death by fire is another partial explanation for colorful contemporary celebrations, and this flamboyance and material interaction with art materials make Holi a favorite motif in Indian visual culture.

Maharaja Man Singh’s Holi Procession (1810)a typical sample of the Marwar school of art—depicts a nimbused king, riding elephant-back, shooting gulal out onto his kingdom. Against the extant Kunjbihariji temple and Mehrangarh fort, he and his citizens douse the city of Jodhpur in a permeant pink, which blurs in juxtaposition against the figures’ crisp lines. Overcrowded and oversaturated, the painting illustrates the revelry and community that the holiday demands: flushed with magenta powder, Jodhpur blushes with pleasure as genders, classes, and castes blend.

Wikimedia Commons

Colors used in the Holi festival

The Hindu God Krishna Being Dressed in Women’s Clothes for Spring Festival Holi (1790) is similarly transgressive, featuring (as the title suggests) Radha and village women in the privacy of their boudoir, dressing Krishna, who—thanks to Holi—titivates in their space, without violation. Ironically anemic, this unfinished painting carries vats of bright yellows and reds that will eventually become instruments for play. Gender binaries unravel in this scene, as Krishna dons women’s clothes and melds into the domestic sphere. 

Despite such paintings, contemporary critics argue that Holi’s claims of transgression and informality are mendacious (after all, who scrubs post-frolicking paints from spattered clothes and floors if not frequently female dalits, or “untouchables,” and other lower classes?), but it is difficult to find any Hindu holiday—or indeed, any holiday—unriddled by inequality. Dutch Christmases still insist on blackface in the performance of “Sooty Peter,” and Columbus Day and Thanksgiving enjoy the extermination of Native American culture. The commonality of celebrating suppression certainly does not excuse it, but a South Asian immigrant’s freedom to enjoy their festival no matter their location is significant—and Holi’s steady dissemination into other cultures even more so.

The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Radha and Hindu God Krishna Celebrating the Festival Holi (1800-1810). in and color on paper.

As celebrations of Holi extend and invite new revelers, they unite people under the banner of enthusiastic, religiously sanctioned play—this foretells the contemporary beauty of a holiday that perhaps hypocritically peddles transgression. Additionally, the festival’s brilliance may instead be found in a less social transgression; the game of Holi is an artistic activity in itself, wherein players become both canvas and creator. Breaking the bounds between artist and subject, mythology and reality, Holi is not only a celebration of community but of the renewal of the self.

About the Author

Subscribe to our free e-letter!

Art and Object Marketplace - A Curated Art Marketplace