Life begins as a white shirt: A look into Holi at UC Berkeley

Hayden Irwin/File

Holi is the Indian festival of colors, a celebration of new life and spirit. People dress in white clothing and commemorate the holiday by throwing extravagant colored powders on each other. By the end of the day, the white shirts look like canvases full of vibrant colors from a spring garden. Like celebrants during Holi, life begins as a white shirt. Even though all participants use the same colored powders to play Holi, no two people can ever look the same after participating in the festival. The assortment of experiences we face makes us unique, each color represents a different challenge, teaching us important lessons.

Holi is a South Asian Hindu festival with an ancient origin: it celebrates centuries of heritage and mythology. The festival rejoices the ultimate triumph of good over evil and the importance of love. There are many renditions of the story behind Holi, but according to Hindu beliefs and the Holi Festival website run by the Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India, the most commonly told version is about Hiranyakashipu, a king in ancient India with demon-like characteristics. He wanted to seek revenge for the death of his younger brother, who was killed by Lord Vishnu. The demon king prayed for years to rise to power and ordered people to worship him. But he had a young son named Prahalad, who was a sincere devotee of Lord Vishnu. The king was so stone-hearted and egoistic that he decided to kill his own son because he declined to worship him over Vishnu. He schemed to kill his son by asking his sister Holika, who had the boon to enter fire unscathed, to sit on a pyre of fire with Prahalad in her lap.

But their plan did not follow through successfully because Prahalad, who had been reciting the name of Lord Vishnu throughout the process, emerged unscathed, but Holika, who had a supposed immunity to fire, got burnt to ashes. The defeat of Holika and the king’s plan signifies the burning of evil and malevolence. Holi is celebrated as the triumph of a true devotee: No one can cause harm to a devoted follower.

 Like celebrants during Holi, life begins as a white shirt. Even though all participants use the same colored powders to play Holi, no two people can ever look the same after participating in the festival.

Holi is also the celebration of the season of spring and the love between Lord Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu) and his partner Radha. According to Hindu beliefs and a story I personally have grown up hearing every year at the occasion, Lord Krishna complained to his mother Yashoda about a curse that left him with a blue skin tone and how he thought Radha would never love him because of her fair complexion. His mother suggested that he apply color to Radha’s face to see her complexion mirror his. Since then, the playful coloring of Radha’s face commemorates the spring of new and youthful love.

The defeat of Holika and the victory of morality and love are celebrated as a carnival of colors in places all around the world, including UC Berkeley. The Indian Students’ Association at UC Berkeley has hosted the Holi Festival on campus for several years.

The festival has seen a significant rise in attendance over the past few years. In 2008, the attendance for Holi was 200 students. This past weekend, more than 2,000 people arrived for the ceremony. By hosting the event, the ISA hopes to “allow people who are Indians or of Indian origin to have an avenue to celebrate this cultural festival and for non-Indians to learn about the meaning behind this celebration,” according to Ravina Pattni, the ISA’s external vice president.

The religious holiday has inspired several widely popular events such as the Color Run, Paint Parties and Disney’s World of Color. Unfortunately, it seems that participants in these branch-off activities don’t realize that the root that started with the Holi festival. This had led to claims of cultural appropriation from those who believe that the trademarked events are co-opting Indian culture. When people attend these events, do they think about the story of Prahalad and Lord Vishnu? Or the origin of playfully coloring each others’ faces? Unlike other color-throwing affairs, the festival of Holi this weekend provided a platform for students to gain insight on the Indian community and to take part in the culture.

The celebration of Holi at a demographically diverse school like UC Berkeley is a unique and culturally unifying experience. The festival brings members of the UC Berkeley community from diverse backgrounds together in a way that connects with the exuberant spirit of Berkeley while staying true to the essence of the religious holiday. “Events like Holi are good ways to tie together the Indian community while exhibiting our heritage to peers of different ethnicities in a positive light,” said UC Berkeley freshman Rasika Sudu.  

Freshman Dani Solis, who attended Holi for the first time April 17, said “everyone was so colorful and undistinguishable. I felt connected to other people because we were all covered in different colors, so you couldn’t see anyone’s skin color or what they actually looked like.”

Each Holi, amid the spectacle of vibrant colors, we are reminded that life is full of varying hues, some bold and festive, and some dark and monochrome; but those dark colors make the brighter ones stand out. Holi is not about focusing on the dark colors; after all, it is the unifying quality that makes us complete.


Contact Toshali Katyal at [email protected]