The fairground gradually fills with foreigners in cheap white kunis and souvenir t-shirts. There are cameras covered in plastic bags everywhere. The foreigners out number the locals and everyone is waiting.
The sight of all the cameras and white faces immediately repulse me. This is not what I am looking for.
In his youth, Krishna despairs whether fair skinned Radha and other Gopikas (girls) will like him because of his skin color. His mother, tired of the desperation, asks him to approach Radha and color her face in any color he wanted. This he does, and Radha and Krishna became a couple. The playful coloring of the face of Radha has henceforth been commemorated as Holi. The festival celebrates the arrival of spring, end of winter, and for many a day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair ruptured relationships
We arrived in Jaipur with the intention of witnessing and documenting this colorful festival. Janu, our fixer, is supposed to take us somewhere both local and safe for Holi. Drinking is part of the celebration and for a culture where alcohol consumption is a rarity; many are drunk and unruly by high noon on this day.
Janu takes us to a small fairground organized by the Rajasthan Tourism Bureau. There is music and dancing, and platforms set up for media outlets to film the event. This is a good PR concept the tourism board has arranged. Great coverage of all the foreigners having a blast, no one is being molested, easy to contain and manage. Come to Rajasthan! Except, this is not what I came for.
I find a spot in the corner, ready to be an unhappy spectator and wait for a good time to leave for something else.
The music starts and the color fly. There is a low rumbling of something bigger, a riotous longing waiting to be unleashed. I stopped being disgruntled and started watching the tourists in earnest.
I was wrong. This is Holi.
Everyone in is in search of an “authentic” “local” experience these days we forget the Jane Goodall problem. The minute a foreign presence is introduced, the behavior / event / environment changes, especially in something as naturally fluid and mutable as culture. It might be impossible to witnessed the “truly” authentic as a foreign presence disrupts the foundation of that authenticity. Further more, what does authentic really mean? Unchanged for hundreds of year? That seems unlikely. One look at the colored powders used for Holi you know it is synthetically produced. Untainted by foreign influence? To search for that on a sub-continent with a deep colonial past, in the state with the highest tourist traffic, that seems to be an oxymoron. Let’s remove those seductive buzzwords for a moment and just look.
In a small fairground, there is a large assembly of foreigner with a small peppering of locals. There are people of all ages here. There is music, there is dancing. Strangers go up to one another and color each other with powder and wish them Happy Holi. The mood is festive and the people seem liberated. There are men and women dancing on stage with the band and I’m willing to bet under normal circumstances, it is unlikely they would stand up and take center stage.
Krishna colored Radha, it acted as an equalizer and now they are free to be their true selves. The tourists are dusted in color, the same as each other, the same as the Indians, and the selves are free of their usual identity construct, to dance and celebrate.
Is this experience manufactured and controlled? Yes. It absolutely is. Do the local kids celebrate Holi in a different way? Most probably. But, one cannot look at these faces, see their joy, and claim they are not having an authentic experience of their own. It is not a time capsule devoid of outside influence but it does not make it untrue.
And these good pilgrims will return to their homes and tell tales of ecstatic joy in the hot sun, throwing colors at strangers, covered in all shades of the rainbow as if they are an Easter Egg and what they’ve learned of Indian’s Spring celebration. The word will spread and in a couple of generations, Western children will throw color powders at each other as part of their Easter Egg hunt.
We wind down at this very public, organized Holi celebration and leave for a private Holi at a friend’s. In the backyard of a friend of friends, there are a dozen men and women (this is the first time I’m seeing Indian women play Holi) and everyone is already covered from head to toe.
The playing here is more intimate and hardcore. The girls come up to me with handful of powder and rub it on. When you resist, the colors end up down your back, your shirt, and your hair. There is no escaping. You will be colored. There are buckets of water scattered around. It didn’t take long before it descended into an all out water fight. I put down my camera and pick up a fistful of color.
And there it is….the public, the private, the touristy, the local. Maybe we should reframe our concern and our search. Instead of authentic and local let us for truthful and present.