Holier than thou 

It feels like Holi to Abhishek Vasavada and Isha Pandya from Gujarat. Photo: Elizabeth Flock  

On a windy spring day in Washington D.C., thousands of people descend on the waterfront, run around, and throw coloured powder at each other. ‘The Color Run’, as it’s called, has been taking place in the U.S. since 2012, and has now spread to cities all across the world.

I first heard about the event from a friend in New York City, who is not from the U.S., and who was riding the subway when he suddenly found himself surrounded by excitable Americans with colour on their faces. “New Yorkers have hijacked the Holi festival with none of the meaning or cultural understanding,” he texted me.

I am not Indian, but I have lived and worked in Mumbai, visited on multiple reporting trips, and celebrated more than one Holi there. I’ve also celebrated a Holi here in Washington D.C., where I now live, at an event hosted by the local Hare Krishnas. And so, when I hear about The Color Run, which sounds suspiciously like a Holi knock-off, I am curious to investigate.

At first glance, The Color Run does look a lot like Holi. Its website is populated by photos of people throwing coloured powder at each other, and in the air, outdoors, at the start of spring. The only difference, it seemed, was that there was a 5 km run added in. And that it cost $54.99 to participate.

But the website doesn’t mention Holi, except on a hard-to-find FAQ page, where it says the event was inspired by Disney’s ‘World of Color’, a night-time light and water show at Disneyland in California, and paint parties, which are essentially raves that use paint cannons to enliven the party. As if as an afterthought, the site adds it was also inspired “by festivals throughout the world, such as Holi.”

Founded by a Mormon couple in Utah in 2012, The Color Run has proved to be a brilliant idea. It has become so popular that it now takes place in 200 cities in 40 countries across the world (though nowhere in India). It claims to have over five million participants. ‘The Color Run’ phrase is even trademarked.

Before I go check out the run in Washington D.C., I read an article about the event published by a website called Brown Girl Magazine. The article is titled ‘Dye-ing Culture: Color Run, White-washing Holi Since 2012.’ The writer snarks: “Come uncultured, leave uncultured, that’s The Color Run, promise.” A comment from a white woman in Ohio says, “You don’t own color, lady!”

I decide to reserve judgement.

When I arrive at the National Harbor — about as American as a place can get — a ‘waterfront destination’ filled with hotels, chain restaurants, shops, condos and a convention centre, the line of cars waiting to get into the event stretches a mile. A harried policeman says 5,000 people have come to participate this year. As he talks, a group of young girls in braids, fluorescent T-shirts and shorts with ‘H-A-P-P-Y’ written across the back, excitedly runs past.

An organiser shouts out to a crowd of hundreds: “Can you all dance for me? Is it weird if I watch you dance?” The crowd starts dancing and shouting. They are all wearing white T-shirts so the coloured powder will show up better. The Color Run begins.

At each kilometre, the runners are doused with colour: hot pink, electric blue, lemon yellow. At the finish line, everyone gets a colour packet of their own to throw at each other. Teenagers take selfies with technicolour faces. Music blares from a stage. People throw colour at friends, family, even strangers. “ Bura na maano, Holi hain!” I think to myself (Don’t be offended, it’s Holi).

The Color Run bills itself as ‘The Happiest 5k on the Planet.’ Jenna Walden, who is 30 and American, tells me that she has done the run three times and now brings her friends along. “You get to throw colour, how awesome is that?” she asks. I ask an Indian couple, from Gujarat, now living in D.C., if The Color Run feels at all like Holi, and the woman, Isha Pandya, says it does. She points to the ‘Made in India’ stamp on the back of the powder packet she is holding. “Except it’s made with corn starch, so probably safer than what we do back home,” she laughs.

I pin down an organiser, Stephanie Holland, and we talk beside a merchandise table overflowing with varicoloured stuffed unicorns, wristbands and hoodies. (The Color Run is for-profit, and was estimated by one newspaper to make about half a million dollars per race.) When I ask her how much of the event is inspired by Holi, she pauses. “Well, I’d be lying if I said I knew the answer to that,” she said. “But it’s for families to enjoy a day out.”

Which, I think to myself, is part of what Holi is about too.

But after the powder had settled along the waterfront, I couldn’t help feeling like something was missing from the day. It felt so similar and yet so different from the Holis I’d celebrated in India. There, we had thrown colour with abandon on city streets, and I’d learned about Holi’s connections with Krishna and Radha, Holika and Prahlad. I had understood not only the playfulness of the day, but also why it celebrated the power of good over evil.

Cultural appropriation is a sticky phrase, one that’s been increasingly bandied about in the U.S. to chastise people for dressing up on Halloween as Native Americans or Eskimos (“we’re a culture, not a costume”), or to ask white girls to please stop copying black culture by wearing dreadlocks or cornrows in their hair.

Much of the conversation centres on the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, between stealing and homage. It also asks whether the original meaning of something — the ceremonial significance of a Native American headdress or the mythological significance of Holi — is mocked, distorted or lost when it is copied.

Holi has been a source of extra debate this year after artistes Coldplay and Beyonce played Holi in a music video. Indian writers in the U.S. published stories like ‘Dear White Artists… Step Away From the Holi Powder’, and chided everyone for exoticising India.

Where, in all this, does The Color Run fall? And not just The Color Run, because it turns out there are many such events in the U.S.: ‘Color Me Rad’, ‘Color Vibe’, ‘Color Blast’ and ‘Flavor Run’. The journalist in me thinks ‘trend piece’, because imitation of Holi is clearly a burgeoning industry. Then I think: You don’t own colour, lady.

Elizabeth Flock is a journalist based in Washington D.C. who has worked for Forbes India , The Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report .

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 9:46:30 PM |

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