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Holi Daze

by Daniel Sher / Images by Thomas Hawk / 22.08.2012

Prints of Che Guevara’s bewildered face stare into the shop-aisles of Canal Walk, hoping to flog the spirit of Socialist rebellion for the price of a t-shirt. Social media is a trap for the unwary who unwittingly sign their personal information away to the CIA: meanwhile Jacob Zuma dons a leopard-skin over his Armani suit, thereby shrouding his words and actions in a cloak of unquestionable authority that goes with the notion of ‘tradition’. Cynical writing is to the self-proclaimed intellectual what public nudity represents to the drunken philistine; nonetheless, in this day and age, a healthy dose of cynicism can go a long way.

Wading through the stagnant cesspool of advertisements, competitions and infantile 9gag humour endemic to Facebook, images of some very colourful people caught my attention. Now, before you vomit a conglomerate of accusatory words ending in ‘ism’, please note that I’m speaking quite literally: the images are predominantly of German youths covered head-to-toe in an unidentifiable, colourful substance.

Relentlessly circulated, these images advertise an upcoming outdoor festival in Cape Town. The theme is borrowed from the Hindu tradition of ‘Holi’ – a celebration marking the end of winter. The ‘festival of colour’ sees people showering each other in multi-coloured powder and perfume. These colours represent not only the vitality of spring and new life, but also the symbolic dissolution of racial, religious and caste boundaries.

Holi Festival Cape Town

It’s interesting to note just how enthusiastic Capetonians are about this event, considering how little has been revealed. There’s no official date, no proposed location, and no line-up. There’s not even a hint as to the festival’s music genre (though I would guess that it’s targeted primarily at rave and trance-party enthusiasts). Nevertheless, in just one month more than 6000 people have expressed interest on the Facebook page.

Further exploration from the comfort of my desk (investigative journalism just isn’t as glamorous as it used to be) reveals an official video promoting similar events in Europe. This video is notably more colourful than the aforementioned images – now is the time to hurl those ‘isms’. It consists predominantly of Indian people in ethnic dress. A slow-motion clip displays bearded men smiling sagely, whilst another high-definition shot renders children playing artlessly amongst floating particles of colourful dust. Combined with a melodramatic song, the effect produced is both ethereal and mystical.

Holi from Variable on Vimeo.

This is ethno-marketing at its best: A South African party offering an Eastern promise; the chance to combine joyous celebration with an ancient, authentic and profound Hindu tradition. Don’t get me wrong – I cherish the idea of playing in colourful dust just as much as the next pill-head, but the prospect of looking like a rainbow isn’t what’s generating all this excitement. It’s the promise of something exotic: the usual weekend of cheap drugs and bad music elevated to the status of cultural voyeurism and spiritual enlightenment.

Add the inimitable collective narcissism of Cape Town’s trance and electro scene, the envisaged scenario is truly cringe-worthy. People jostling at the front of the dance-floor, eyes shut and arms thrust towards heaven, embracing the falling colours as if Ganesha himself were ejaculating rainbows. Painted third-eyes, cramping jaws and forced expressions of ethereal enlightenment abound. Subtle glances toward the social photographers who haunt the sidelines in swarms; mystical moments of primordial ethnicity soon to be immortalized in Facebook profiles across the country.

And who will the corporate sponsors be? I can just see it: the spirit of Hinduism – brought to you by South Africa’s newest energy drink! Genuine mystical transcendence is not guaranteed: ticket-holders may be subject to heart palpitations, relentless marketing and brand-exposure in the process of gaining enlightenment.

Holi Festival Cape Town

In a final ironic twist, the young representatives of Cape Town’s upper echelons will congregate in the name of eternal peace, happiness and social harmony. Playfully spreading paint on each other, they will smugly disintegrate the symbolic boundaries between one-another, leaving intact the more pervasive racial and economic differences that exist between them and the multitude of Cape Flats’ residents who couldn’t quite afford the entrance fee.

So what am I getting at? Was this all just a bitter rant from a lonely cynic – a pitiable inflation of my own ego at the expense of those who I have taken delight in ridiculing? In part, yes; the bait was just too hard to refuse. But I also hope to have addressed some bigger issues:
Why has Holi captured Cape Town’s imagination so powerfully? What is lacking in our own way of life that we are so turned on by fantastic myths about faraway exotic peoples and traditions? And what are the implications of buying into this sort of ethno-fantasy in a country where our definitions of ‘culture’ have real material consequences?

Contemporary South Africa never ceases to amaze: a country where the ‡Khomani San are forced to appropriate Western stereotypes of primordial Bushmen, in order to have their land-rights recognized by a court of law; a country where political leaders habitually refer to ‘custom’ as a means of legitimizing their actions and policies. So let me end with the dictum that culture is currency, and that approaching concepts like the Holi Festival without the protection of a cynical mindset would be like a Delft sex-worker starting her shift without a pack of condoms in her pocket.

*Images from Thomas Hawk’s collection of Holi Festival pictures shot at the Utah edition of the fest.

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