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Why 'Holi-Inspired' Paint Throwing Parties Make Me Queasy

Holi is a religious festival in India, but recently it's become an "experience" for Westerners.
Photo: Vicki Burton / Flickr / CC By 2.0

Known as the "festival of colours", the ancient, annual Hindu festival of Holi took place last weekend.

Often associated with the beginning of a new season and the triumph of good over evil, people all over India gathered in the streets to throw coloured powder (gulal) over family, friends and complete strangers. For anyone in India, it's one of the most exciting and energetic times of the year: some people invest in turbo water guns the size of a small child as it increases the accuracy and frequency of their attack. Indians do not take half measures when it comes to Holi.


In the last decade, something bizarre has happened: this celebration, which is so wrapped up in Indian culture, became something I saw everywhere in the UK.

The first Holi-like event I heard about was the London Festival of Colours. A friend told me a story of how a group of people she knew had the best time there the year before; apparently they all got really drunk, listened to music in the sun and took MD when the colour fight began.

Wikimedia Commons, Holi Festival of Colour

Holi Festival of Colour was started by a man named Jasper Hellman after a visit to north India in 2011. After experiencing Holi there he wanted to bring the festival to Europe.

Along with two other men, Hellman registered the Holi Festival Of Colours as a trademark and called the company Holi Concept GmbH. After their successful first event in Berlin, it became a global tour throughout the Western world, including Sweden, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Australia and France, among others. Now, the events can expect around 30,000 guests. The next one is in London, on the 28th of July, months after it happens in India.

In a press release for the event in 2013, a spokesperson for the festival said: "The fans can look forward to a colourful day in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park with great sounds and a jolly atmosphere – and of course enjoy the Indian flair."

That "Indian flair" is also integral to an event called Color Run, owned and operated by American company The Color Run LLC . Described as "the original, largest and most unique 5k colour fun run in the world which celebrates healthiness, happiness, friendship and having the time of your life", the event similarly draws inspiration from Holi's colour powder throwing, except with the added layer of running for charity.


On The Color Run's website, it touts itself as "the world's first colour 5k event", and says it was founded in March of 2011. According to the company, they now host events in over 200 cities and 40 countries. When listing their inspiration for the event they reference "several awesome events, including Disney’s World of Color, Colour Parties, Mud Runs, and festivals throughout the world such as Holi".

The Color Run Melbourne/Wikicommons

They’re not the only Western brands trying to cash in on Holi – Pharrell and adidas just launched a new trainer "inspired by" Holi, although Pharrell at least went to Mumbai to launch it.

Despite their references to Holi being an inspiration, however vague and non-committal, there is no context about the original festival. It's more insulting that they mention Holi in their promotional material, only to completely ignore it in actuality and focus more on jolly white people jiggling around like they’re in an extended zumba class. Looked at through that lens, it's clear the promoters are simply repackaging an Indian tradition and marketing it as the new foam parties.

Holi is split into two days: Holika Dahan and Rangwali Holi. While the former includes people creating a bonfire to signify good defeating evil (specifically the God Vishnu helping to burn the devil Holika to death), the latter is the day of colour. Holi's use of colour might be a signifier for the beginning of spring, but it’s also rooted in mythology. The story goes that Krishna (the blue-skinned deity) was in love with Radha but thought she would never fall for him because of his skin colour. Apparently, his mother playfully told him he could use coloured powder to make them both the same. and this tradition of coming together has stuck ever since.

I'm not sure the Henries and Tabithas chucking paint packets at each other are thinking too much about religious fables about race and love.

Whatever your views are on cultural appropriation, it's jarring seeing mostly white audiences use these traditions as an excuse for a drunken day out, with no visible relationship to the Holi in India. Ultimately, Indians cannot stop the widespread adoption of colour fights, but those who insist on wiling away summer afternoons by throwing paint at each other should at least know something about Holi before they do.