Holi, perhaps the most colorful South Asian festival, marks the end of winter and the arrival of spring. Every year in March, thousands of people gather across India to paint each other’s faces to celebrate Holi. Special drinks and sweets are prepared for the occasion, including the infamous “bhang”, a sweet drink made from cannabis buds. Like other South Asian festivals, Holi comes with a number of origin stories, each with regional variations.
In eastern India, Holi is known as “Dole” and is associated with the legends of the loving couple Radha and Krishna. The colors used for “dole” are usually powdered, but in North India Holi is celebrated with both powdered and liquid colors and is often called “Holika” or “Dhooleti”. (Also Read: Hajj 2022: Date, History, Importance of Muslim Pilgrimage and Day of Arafa)
‘Desi’ Holi and ‘Other’
In Germany, where approximately 171,000 Indians currently live, there are two types of Holi celebrations available for people to participate in.
The first is the “Desi” or generally South Asian Holi, which follows the Hindu calendar and is held in March. These events are mainly organized and attended by South Asians, where regional food, music and colors are mandatory additions.
Indische Gemeinde Düsseldorf eV is one of the diaspora associations that regularly organizes South Asian festivals like Durga Puja or Diwali in Germany.
According to Arpan Ghosh, one of their members, “Though March is a cold month in Germany compared to India, we try to organize Holi in a limited form during that time, so that our children can experience the essence of Indian culture. . . There is no profit factor behind it.”
But the second, “Germanized” version of Holi is more popular among Germans and is one of the most sought-after summer parties in the country today.
What is a ‘Germanized’ Holi?
Pioneering the entry of Holi into German party calendars, entrepreneur Jasper Hellmann founded Holi Concept GmbH in 2012 and has been organizing Holi-themed parties throughout Germany during the summer ever since.
These parties, according to Johanna Schemm, a member of the production team at Holy Concept GmbH, are not meant to be “traditional like in India” and are “a fun version with colors and German techno music.”
Typically, Germanized Holi parties in Hamburg and Berlin draw 10,000 to 15,000 visitors, Schemm says.
Not limited to Germany, after a successful launch in 2012, the organization took these Holi parties to Mexico City and Johannesburg.
Inspirations and Appropriations
I attended one of these parties at the Galloprenbahn race course in Dortmund, where one of the attendees came up to me and asked, “Why don’t you have colors on you?”
This gesture of a stranger immediately took me back to my childhood in India, where strangers similarly offered to include me in their Holi celebrations. Then, and in Dortmund, appearing off-color seemed to be an exception.
But for Arpita*, a young German with Indian background, only the use of colors remotely connects these events to the Indian Holi.
After attending two of these parties, he feels that naming it “Holi” is inappropriate, though “because of globalization, people pick up parts of any culture for profit”.
Carmen Brandt, junior professor of South Asian studies at the University of Bonn, brings nuances to the cultural appropriation debate surrounding Holi parties in Germany. “Since it is very difficult to trace Holi back to a specific origin, the defense of the word “Holi” makes no sense, especially since Holi is not a stable, fixed cultural celebration. After all, it has always changed over time and is celebrated differently depending on the region.
“Aspects of celebrating Holi today, like the use of colors, often pre-date the word ‘Holi,'” says Brandt. And that’s why branding contemporary Indian Holi celebrations as “original” Holi in this context can be problematic.
German attraction towards ‘Holi’
For Sara*, one of the Holi festival attendees in Dortmund, the colors bring her closer to the new people she meets here.
Florentine Zimmermann works as an intern with Holy Concept GmbH and perceives this event as a break from the restrictions that the COVID pandemic has brought on people.
Neither Sarah nor Florentine can relate their Holi experience to issues of sexual harassment and misbehavior reported by women during Holi celebrations in South Asia. For Sara, it’s like “another party in Germany.”
Brand opines that the “positive vibe” of these events “helps portray India in a new light, especially given the negative news about the country in recent times”.
“It is the same positive feeling, mixed with a temporary opportunity to get away from everyday ranks and limitations, thanks to the colors, which may be the explanation for the attraction of young Germans and others” feels about similar events.
* *Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.