May 03, 2012

holi “khelna”: playing without consent

Once upon a time, one played holi*. A literal translation from the Hindi “holi khelna”, play could certainly mean to have fun, to fool around, to amuse yourself, to take part in. Playing holi as a child and then as a teenager in my growing up years in Bombay (now Mumbai), that is what it was: to participate in a festival of colours, when people were drenched in water and dyes, a time when hatchets were buried (at least for the day), mild flirtations were enjoyed, and barriers between people fell as they embraced each other with gulaal and cried out, “Holi hai!” A friend who grew up in Delhi says it was the time to put away one’s woollens and bring out the cotton saris as Holi heralded the official start of summer.

The girl in the auto rickshaw screams in pain as a water balloon hits her smack on her face as she makes her way to work. And it is the day before Holi! Yet another is blinded as she is hit by one on her eye from a passing train. Women dare not step out into streets in many north Indian cities on the morning of the festival. Otherwise they are “asking for it”. Which means being coloured and having one’s breasts pinched. Incident upon incident. I wonder why we never hear of women “attacking” men in like manner. And, no, I am not pacified by the story in the New York Times about the men from Nandgaon cowering before the women of Barsana (villages in Uttar Pradesh) striking them with bamboo sticks in response to their colourful “teasing”. Custom dictates that the men do not retaliate, says the writer, but try getting women to believe this as they resist the advances of men in more recent times on Holi or otherwise!

Even as it seemed wild and chaotic, holi was played within well understood boundaries. Who could play with whom, which liberties could be taken and how. Consent was a key factor. (Interestingly it still is in Goa where the celebration of the festival takes place over two whole weeks and no one has reported an ugly incident.) And it was certainly not played with strangers. And it certainly wasn’t one-sided. Within housing colonies, building compounds and chawls in the cities, within village lanes and squares, many people let their hair down to join in the revelry. There was teasing, no doubt. Even creeping up on people and surprising them. Yes, people even screamed. But in that uncanny mixture of shock and delight. Not in alarm or terror or pain.

This is not a whinge about the degeneration of Indian festivals, but a protest against one more expression of male power – Holi often becomes yet another opportunity for men to assert themselves over women. The patriarchal understanding that public spaces belong to men makes a woman vulnerable, and the accepted licentiousness embodied in this festival makes her even more so. Arguments that men even target other men on this day are advanced. This is certainly a fact, but facts are rarely just that (do men pinch other men’s nipples in such assaults?). Attempting to neutralise and generalise a woman’s discomfort is another way of covering up the existing power structures that accord men their “rights” of public behaviour which erodes the “rights” of women to dignity.

“Woman” is the creation of the masculine gaze. How women look, behave and “perform” is the outcome of centuries of occupying limited spaces, shrinking their persons and adapting to idealisations of their image and interactions. Their bodies thus become cultural objects whose validities are hard to challenge. Feminist studies are revealing the underlying dynamics of the social constructions of “gendered bodies”, helping us to question such hegemony, even in the seemingly innocent celebration of Holi.

* In this piece, the word holi is capitalised when the word refers to the name of the festival (proper noun), while its “playing” (with colours) is not.

5 comments to holi “khelna”: playing without consent

  • Just wanted to say I enjoyed this piece and really like the content of the new team.

  • Uzma

    I’d like to disagree with the Goa statement. I was there once during Holi in 2006 and there was most certainly forced Holi ‘khelna’ going on. My friends and I, while travelling in a mini-bus, had the windows forcefully opened from outside and colour splashed all over us and our belongings. On another day, a jeep full of men chased our two wheeler and tried to corner and throw colour on us.

  • Shruti

    “Attempting to neutralise and generalise a woman’s discomfort is another way of covering up the existing power structures that accord men their “rights” of public behaviour which erodes the “rights” of women to dignity.” – Well said!

    It’s interesting that you say it’s a recent phenomenon. I know it’s often used to excuse and explain street harassment and even rape (especially in Delhi) but do you think it is because of women are occupying public spaces more often? Also, I wonder what our mothers and grandmothers would have to say about their experiences with non-consensual holi “khelna”.

  • Aditi Malhotra

    Totally agree- “Women dare not step out into streets in many north Indian cities on the morning of the festival. Otherwise they are “asking for it”.”

    Living in Delhi all through I can say Holi for men is a social sanction to behave in any manner. Typically Holi would mean openly consume alcohol, tease and harass women, carry balloons- go around colonies in small gangs on scooters/bikes and hit women at their chests and thereafter ceremoniously enjoy this sport. Well ofcourse, any protest against such behaviour is baseless and countered by “bura na mano holi hai”. All women in Delhi will have their stories of Holi bruises when the sharp shooters practice balloon throwing at us and we in return are supposed to graciously bow and say- good shot!

  • Anjuli

    Dear Uzma,

    Guess Goa is going the way of the rest. Sorry to hear about it, though not too surprised. My three year experience comes from living in rural Goa. In fact it is called ranga panchami and not all villages observe it on the same day. People in cars do get stopped sometimes, but one can usually wave away the revellers. But I suppose I got carried away by its mildness in contrast.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>