Ashish Sewgoolam
Ashish Sewgoolam

Nothing Holi about We Are One festival

On Saturday April 6 the Joburg leg of the Holi One We Are One festival took place at Emmarentia Dam where people congregated to throw colour into the air and at each other to celebrate the fact that “we are all one”. There were no VIP tickets sold but one did have to purchase bags of coloured powder for R20. Of course you weren’t allowed to bring your own, that is too selfish for “we are all one” I suppose and “damaging to the environment” according to the organisers.

Holi is a festival that is embedded in Hindu culture and has been celebrated for thousands of years. It is celebrated as the festival of colours, a day of fun and exuberance to welcome Spring.

Holi is also a “free pass” to misbehave and throwing coloured powder at strangers is acceptable and even consuming a marijuana-based intoxicant called bhang is considered part of the celebration. Hindu communities in South Africa have been celebrating Holi for many years, even generations. We celebrated this every year as kids and it was free and open to anyone who wanted to participate.

Having this context and given the backlash during Diwali celebrations I initially thought bringing Holi to the non-Hindu community would be a good cultural bridge that everyone could partake in.

The Cape Town leg (still called Holi One at the time) sold out with more than 10 000 people attending and there was a lot of interest on social media. I thought this was a step forward, but after hearing accounts from the Joburg festival I have to ask how acceptable it is to take a religious festival and re-define it for the purpose of commercial gain. Yes we live in a globalised world but taking a religious festival and keeping only the elements that you profit from by expanding it to a greater community does seem insensitive, if not grossly offensive.

I’m sure it was fun for all who attended and revelled in the colours while consuming alcohol (which is not part of the Hindu celebration) but this should not be mistaken as a cultural bridge and it certainly is not a Holi celebration. For starters Holi was on March 27 and Hindus celebrated it then. It does not occur on just any day and celebrating when it is convenient and has the most chance of drawing paying crowds is insulting. The name of the festival did change between the Cape Town and Joburg events but the festival goers are still referring to it as Holi, which it is not.

I’m well aware that we can’t stop a cultural or religious festival from being commercialised and its true meaning being diminished in the process but there will hopefully be some consideration when organising future festivals that could be considered demeaning and even seek help to ensure the necessary respect is given.

It’s very easy to dismiss this as a rant but when it’s your culture that’s being commercialised for financial gain it’s very different. How would you feel if there was a festival on Eid al-Fitr where everyone rejoiced and feasted all day indulging in anything they desired, or on Hanukkah where everyone congregated in a park and lit menorah candles while listening to live music, or Easter Sunday where crowds gathered in parks and confectionary companies staged massive Easter egg hunts … oh wait.

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    • Momma Cyndi

      You have a beautiful religion. Use this to educate people on it. Most people think your religion is about making animals fearful and practicing gymnastic sex. This is your opportunity to tell them about Radha-Krishna – which is what real love is about. Sometimes you have to make your opportunities

    • Enough Said

      Pity when cultural festivals and traditions are commercialized. The nature of capitalism. What do the Japanese say at Christmas time. “Goodwill to all Yen”. :-)

    • The Creator

      Holi sounds like fun.

      However, perhaps it is a little too gently un-South African. In a South African version we could all fling mud at each other and smoke Mandrax . . .

    • Touched

      Absolutely! Agree 100%. Well said.

    • Lennon

      Christmas, Easter, St Valentine’s Day…

      Bow down to your god: Money!

    • Aka

      Great article. Couldn’t agree more.

    • Stephen Browne

      Considering that religion is the quintessential make-it-up-as-you-go-along practice, can’t see anything wrong with mixing things up a bit.

    • Ashish Sewgoolam
    • Touched

      Go see the comment’s on Brent Lindeque’s Facebook Page – says it all.

    • Touched

      HoliOne: white upper middle class girls yelling YAY COLOURS whilst getting drunk on Bacardi breezer. Namaste.

    • suntosh

      Hi. Nice article. I agree with your concerns, but I’m not particularly worried.

      I was also trying to figure out what angle to take to write a piece on this, but, besides an irritated rant, I couldn’t think of any substantial critique.

      After all, this is the nature of the global village. Religion itself is a commercial entity, with waning spiritual significance. For example, I went for the annual firewalking ceremony at Pietermaritzburg’s age-old South Indian temple, and there is a clear element of public sensationalism, spectacle, blind ritual, crass entertainment, commercialisation, and even downright disrespect to the process and the symbolism, as one observes the spectators, officials, and some participants. My point is, that to blame “the other” – the greedy Western capitalists – for something that is happening anyways, within these relgious systems, is perhaps a bit unfair.

      Hinduism is a tolerant, all-embracing philosophy and does not suffer from the neuroticly low self-esteem of other belief systems, who would by now have launched nation-wide protests, violent or otherwise, to express outrage. Hindus would shrug, and carry on. Each to her or his own Karma.

      However – I hear you. I’d hate for our beautful festivals to descend into cheap secular fun, much like how Easter is about eggs and Xmas is about Santa.

    • DefecTalisman

      So you would rather they allowed people to bring in what ever powder they wanted? That would say allot of the organizers care for the people attending. Powders are usually highly flammable and can contain harmful chemicals. Even with the safest powder there where people having allergic reactions.
      As to turning a religious day into a festival, nothing new here. Every day that can be profited from is done so nowadays. South Africans even celebrate The Feast of Saint Patrick, yet we have no affiliation with it what so ever.

    • See-al

      I’m fascinated by this festival, the original Holi festival. I’m in Cape Town and I’d much rather celebrate it in the way it was meant to be celebrated with people who love the culture just as much. Alas, when searching for what I’m actually looking for- the colour festival pops up.
      I commend you for taking a stand and maybe misinformed people will learn something from it. This is cultural appropriation at its best, if you know of any places to celebrate Holi next year, let us know. Maybe you’ll start a revolution lol