Holi 2001

This coverage of Holi 2001 appeared in the SF Chronicle on Sunday March 25, 2001 by Tyche Hendricks, Chronicle Staff Writer.

Holi was also covered by rediff.com here.


Stanford — It was a colorful spectacle: throngs of college students danced in the sunshine as families with small children reclined on a grassy lawn. All of them were smeared — faces, hair and clothing — with bright pigments in red and orange, green and blue, purple, pink and yellow. Most were also sopping wet.

The crowd of almost 1,000 revelers on the Stanford University campus was celebrating Holi, the ancient Indian festival of colors that marks the beginning of spring.

Those who weren’t dancing to the strains of Indian popular music, or standing in line for plates of curry and samosas, were squirting water pistols at friends and strangers alike and sprinkling them with colored powders.

“We celebrate like this in India every year,” said Netika Raval, 30, a business development manager for a Silicon Valley Internet start-up. “Everyone has water guns and water balloons. You go from home to home and sometimes when you’re at the front door, someone will sneak around from the back and catch you.”

The Stanford event was put on by a student charitable group, Asha for Education, which funds literacy projects in India, but it attracted South Asians from all over the Bay Area eager for a taste of home.

“We’re trying to create an ambience very similar to India,” said Asha member Khyati Shah. “When we started two years ago it was a very small event, but this year it’s colossal.”

Shah said she expected the daylong festival would raise about $10,000 to help build schools and improve the lives of poor children in India.

With the help of corporate sponsors, Asha imported 600 pounds of traditional pigments, called gulal, from India. The colored powders, packed in small plastic bags, were distributed freely to the crowd to “play Holi.”

The festival of colors has its roots in Hindu mythology. Traditionally, it begins with a bonfire the night before, using dried wood and branches left over from the winter. The fire signifies the destruction of evil, through the burning of Holika, a mythological figure.

In the morning, statues of the god Krishna are lovingly smeared with gulal, and his virile, playful spirit is honored in the exuberant festivities that welcome spring.

Holi, not unlike Carnaval and Mardi Gras, is a time to let loose and go a little wild. Flirtation and inebriation, normally frowned on, play an integral part. And the celebration brings together people from all cultures and classes.

“In Bombay, where I grew up, people forget all types of rivalries,” said Shah. “Even if you don’t get along with your neighbors, you still play Holi with them.”

And with that, Shah beckoned her friend, Vidur Bhandari. Another friend doused him with a pail of water, then she smeared his face with green powder and shouted, “Happy Holi!”

Bhandari just laughed and smeared her back.

Not everyone was thrilled with the idea of getting wet and dirty. Mohini Kar, 59, said she never played Holi in New Delhi.

“I would set myself in my house and hide,” said Kar, who drove down from Fairfield with relatives and was trying to keep her sari clean. “But over here (in the United States) we don’t have that many Indian people and we feel homesick. So we said, ‘OK, we should go to this.’ ”

“It’s my least favorite festival,” added Nripendra Singh Dhillon, who teaches medicine at UCSF. “You get filthy. In India in the big city, sometimes people would use grease (to mix with the colors) and you’d be cleaning yourself for the next couple of weeks.”

But Dhillon and his wife decided to expose their 6-year-old son, Karun, to his roots. Karun, his face and shirt a rich magenta, had caught the Holi spirit and was gleefully drenching everyone in his path with a Super Soaker.

Muktesh Meka, 32, who grew up in Hyderabad and came to the Bay Area nine years ago, had fond memories of Holis past.

“It was a huge thing for us as kids,” he said. “We’d be out buying the colors the day before. As we got older, we’d go on the road on motor bikes with our friends. When you’d stop at a traffic light, anybody could run up and put colors on you.”

His wife, Indira Meka, 28, said Holi was a more subdued family affair in the village where she grew up.

Then, without warning, as this reporter sat on the grass talking peacefully with the Mekas, four young men raced up with an enormous tub of water, dumped it on the reporter, smeared blue and purple pigment on her face and ran off in search of another victim.

Happy Holi!

E-mail Tyche Hendricks at thendricks@sfchronicle.com.

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