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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