Indian students in Columbia make Holi their own

Saturday, March 10, 2012 | 6:56 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — First, a puff of green.

Then, a cloud of red. Smears of purple. Streaks of orange. Specks of yellow. 

Background on Holi

A Holi Legend

The tradition springs from legends of Hindu gods with themes of good triumphing over evil.

The festival gets its name from Holika, the daughter of a demon king who attempts to kill her brother, Prahlad, but is killed herself when her plan backfires — literally. She is consumed by flames.  Today many people light bonfires or burn Holika effigies as part of Holi. 

The Colors

Traditionally, the colors were made from dried and pulverized flowers, including orange ones known as Tesu (aka "Flame of the Forest" or Butea monosperma). Now they are made from industrial dyes and silica or asbestos. Doctors and Indian environmental organizations warn against the synthetic colors because they might contain heavy metals that are harmful to your health. This year 200 people were hospitalized in Mumbai because of Holi-related poisoning.

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Indian artists and LMFAO YouTube videos thumped from an upstairs window and mixed with shrieks of delight.

"Happy Holi!" the partiers shouted as they spread bright powder on each others’ cheeks and hair. Soon water balloons shot down from above like a grenade, and buckets of water streamed from the door, dousing the Holi players.

On Saturday afternoon about 20 people gathered at a downtown apartment to celebrate the Hindu festival of Holi. The "festival of colors" marks the beginning of spring and features revelry, mischief and most of all, an enormous amount of powdered pigment.

Thursday was the official day of Holi in India, but the partiers delayed festivities until Saturday to suit their school and work schedules.

It is one of Rohini Puri's favorite holidays. The MU doctoral student is originally from Kolkata in northeastern India and teaches an undergraduate class called "Experiencing Cultural Diversity in the U.S."

She said Holi is a "leveler" across categories that divide people.

"People coat each other in colors irrespective of caste or creed," she said.

Everyone plays Holi, from street urchins to rich people.

"You walk along the streets and see people and smear color on them," Puri said. "It's a good way to connect to people."

Holi loosens society’s rules for a day. 

"Burana mano, Holi hai!" they'll say in Hindi, or "Don't mind, it's Holi!" she said.

It's the first time Puri and her roommates have tried to make a proper Holi party at home.

MU doctoral student Srijita Dhar said last year they missed Holi so much they stalked their friends door to door and covered them in colored powder that someone happened to have from a trip to Boston.

This year they filled plastic Hy-Vee bags full of colors by mixing baby powder, corn starch and tempera paint they bought from Michael’s.

"It's definitely the best smelling Holi that I've had," said Suresh Menon, a party-goer and mechanical engineer in Jefferson City.

It was Menon's first time celebrating Holi in Columbia after moving from North Carolina last year. He didn’t know anyone when he first got to Missouri, so when everyone was celebrating the festival elsewhere, "I moped around the house," he said. Back home in India, if you don’t play Holi "people will drag you out physically" from your homes to join in the revelry, he said.

Food is an integral part of the celebration.

Anik Datta, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in food science, said he misses his mother's homemade Indian cuisine. He pointed out each dish that covered the apartment table: "Dum Aloo" with peas and potatoes; a rice pilaf, or "Pulao," with turmeric, cinnamon, dates, raisins, peas and cashews.

Datta moved to the U.S. six months ago and said he remembers celebrating Holi with around 30 family members at a time.

"You can't celebrate it the same way, when all is said and done," he said.

For Puri, it's not about recreating what they have at home. After living in the United States for five years, she realized you have to take your traditions and "make it your own."

"This is not how Holi will be in India," she said. "This is how Holi is in Columbia, Missouri. It's the best we can do."

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