Holi Moliby Katie de Klee / Images by Stu Shapiro / 08.03.2013
White is the colour of peace; of new beginnings and fresh starts, some even consider it to be the colour of perfection. Cricket players wear white. It is a game with a genteel history and white helps keep you cool in the sun. If you followed the trail of white-clad people to the pit of Cape Town’s stomach on Saturday you would have found your way to the Rainbow Nation’s first festival of colour. The Holi One Festival™ began at midday on the Grand Parade, Cape Town’s oldest public square; the city’s very own stage.
The city centre bakes in the heat of the day and there is very little shade. Tented bars flanked the Grand Parade where you’d normally find market stalls, but their insides offered little relief from the high temperatures, and they ran out of bottled water well before the peak of the afternoon.
The Grand Parade is lined with tall palm trees, whose thin trunks barely cast their outline on the concrete. The strength of the sunlight also seemed to bleach the colours as they flew around the crowd in clouds while they danced for the DJs on the stage. For a daylight celebration of colour and love, the music hit midnight far too early – heavy base and fast beats that were too hard to move to in the harsh light of day.
On the hour, every hour those who had peeled off to the shadows and the bars were called back to the dance floor to throw their colours in unison. A countdown from 59 minutes to 10 seconds and then suddenly the air was full of coloured powders that rose up and faded to a mottled brown in the air.
Security guards dressed in black patrolled the perimeters, but even their clothes were soon splashed with colour. The rubbish pickers too had their yellow vests dusted green and their tear ducts laced with pink, as they moved quietly among us collecting cans and empty powder bags, blinking the coloured dust of their eyes.
For a while I sat with my back against the railings. On the other side there was a small boy waiting for his mother to pack up a stall of cheap handbags and t-shirts. Inside the fence the crowd was younger than some of the outdoor trance parties I’ve been to (a lot of grade 12 kids who didn’t need cars to get to the party had made it here today), but his was the youngest face I’d seen. I took a handful of pink and threw it down in front of him. He shrieked and stamped his foot on it and when he looked up he had pink freckles.
But it was only when the sun sunk behind the clock tower of City Hall and dusk encroached that the colours really came to life. Without the sun to dull them, the powders became luminous. As it got darker the wind picked up, and powder rippled off people’s shoulders like sand off the dunes, blowing the coloured dust towards the railway tracks and leaving mysterious clues for Monday morning’s commuters who weren’t there, who didn’t see. Who hadn’t heard it was happening.
In Cape Town, as usual, the full rainbow wasn’t represented. Some of the colours were missing. But just as planned, as the layers of powder thickened on our faces we became a homogenous crowd of dusty brown people, flecked only with the freshest of the colours that had hit us.
In India and Nepal, where the Holi festival originates, it is a celebration that, in the Hindu tradition, welcomes spring and all its vibrancy. It’s a day where people are supposed to unite, embrace and celebrate as equals. But in South Africa it happened in Autumn as a commercialised global rave concept. Invariably this attracted a fair bit of backlash from the South African Hindu Maha Saba. In India people run through the streets throwing colour and water at each other. In Cape Town we threw colours behind a fence. It was a festival that promoted the good stuff like love, peace and tolerance but those concepts were reserved for the privileged who could afford to participate. The fact that it sold out only added to that irony. It’s hard to lambaste the idea that people, no matter where they come from, want to be part of a positive and entertaining experience. But it’s important to recognise where the inclusive and deeply human Holi festival ends and the necessarily exclusionary capitalist enterprise begins. The quickly produced promotional video for the Holi One Festival, made independently by AVA and launched soon after to beat the marketing drum for the Johannesburg leg, was the focus of much social media ire as it just so happens to start in a township, with kids running through the shacks and dusting themselves flourescent. Alas there was very little township present on the Grand Parade. And it’s exactly that kind of window-dressing that poses the biggest problem for the Holi One Festival.
But at the end of the day, if you could manage the modern capitalist malaise, it was just a party. And a really good one at that. Even now, days after the delirium there are flashes of green powder on the pavements, and I’m still finding yellow in my eyelashes.