On the Quad, billowing pink clouds of smoke encased students. Friends and strangers alike grabbed handfuls of green and red powder, decorating each other’s faces and clothes with a spatter of vivid colors.
Last Sunday, April 13 was Vassar’s first large-scale Holi festival. Organized by the South Asian Student Alliance (SASA) and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, the celebration was an opportunity to bring South Asian culture to the student body.
Holi holds different meanings depending on where it is celebrated. However, according to SASA co-president Saumya Bhutani ‘14, the festival’s name comes from the demoness Holika who was slain by the Lord Vishnu in order to save her devout nephew Prahlad.
The ancient Hindu festival usually begins with a bonfire the day before to celebrate this victory. Students burned away any items with negative associations, such as bad test papers.
While Vassar’s take on Holi lacked the intensity of traditional celebrations that include throwing eggs and tar, the core meaning of the celebration remained intact. Despite procuring 100 pounds of starch-based color powder, SASA still ran out of color an hour earlier than expected.
SASA Freshman Rep Saisha Srivastava ’17 compared how the day’s festivities to how it is celebrated back home.
“The spirit of how people engaged and celebrated with each other was exactly the same, because it was the same child-like excitement and enthusiasm,” she said.
Though some students maintain that the spirit of Vassar’s Holi celebration was a positive one, others voiced concerns surrounding the event’s promotion and charges of cultural appropriation.
Former member of SASA executive board Shivani Dave ’15 expressed that she was wary of the event’s implications on a predominantly white campus.
She wrote in an emailed statement, “I am thrilled that SASA has put this event together, despite much pushback from the college. My critique is not of SASA, but rather the majority white space that is Vassar College.”
Dave went on to cite concern over the celebration’s poster, which featured a white man covered in colored powder.
She wrote, “I do not want to see a white face with color on it advertising for Holi, that just reminds me of how much power and privilege whiteness has. Every space is already a white space; we don’t need to make South Asian culture more appealing or applicable for white bodies.”
She continued, “Though I know that this was not SASA’s intention at all…As students trying to bring awareness and appreciation of South Asian culture, we need to make sure we are disrupting that narrative.”
Bhutani explained how the poster’s image was screened and unanimously approved by the SASA executive board.
While she admitted she could not definitively perceive the subject’s ethnicity, what mattered more to them was making the event as welcoming as possible to all of the campus.
“The intention behind the poster was never to ‘white-wash’ Holi or make it appealing specifically to whites or non-South Asians. The intention was also never to exclude or include certain students from the event,” Bhutani wrote. “The intention was to make an appealing poster that would attract people to event, as most posters hope to do.”
SASA Public Relations Chair Adit Vaddi ‘16 pointed to the problems with events like Color Runs that appropriate elements of Holi.
He wrote in an email, “These individuals do not know the historical and cultural significance of the Indian festival of Holi.”
Dave explained the problems of assuming Holi practices without educating oneself.
“This is not about intellectual or cultural property; this is about respect. When you exotify and commodify my culture by never once attending a SASA meeting, never bothering to learn about the religious or cultural significance of Holi, and never caring about South Asian lives until it seems fun for you, I feel disrespected and hurt,” she wrote.
Srivastava added, “Anyone can participate in [Holi], provided they do it from a place of respect and mindfulness.”
SASA encouraged participants to learn about the event through the links on the Facebook event page or by visiting the information table set up on the quad.
Vaddi spoke of how he hoped Holi at Vassar could transcend individual differences, just as it does in India.
“The throwing of color serves to eliminate barriers within a community by blanketing everyone in a multitude of colors,” he said.
While Bhutani conceded that SASA perhaps could have chosen a more authentic image for the poster, she still felt that Sunday’s celebration spoke for itself.
She wrote, “I don’t think our poster gave up too much ownership of event because the image was used within the context of Holi, a South Asian festival being organized by the South Asian Students Alliance; an event that we chose to share with the entire campus.”
Meanwhile, Dave shared how she grew up celebrating Holi in her temple with friends and also being teased and subjected to racial slurs
She wrote, “If you want to come and celebrate Holi, by all means do. Google what it is, spend more than five minutes implicating yourself in the oppression of brown bodies and then join us for some fun. Nonetheless, I am thankful to SASA for putting on this event.”