Holi: The colorful German summer party
Holi, probably the most colorful South Asian festival, marks the end of winter and arrival of spring. Every year in March, thousands gather across India, smearing each other's faces with colors to celebrate Holi. Special drinks and sweets are made for the occasion, including the notorious "Bhaang," a sweet drink made from cannabis buds.
Like other South Asian festivals, Holi also comes with numerous origin stories, each bearing a regional variety.
In the east of India, Holi is known as "Dol" and is associated with legends of the lover duo, Radha and Krishna. The colors used for "Dol" are usually powdered, whereas in northern India, Holi is celebrated with both powdered and liquid colors, and is often referred to as "Holika" or "Dhuleti."
'Desi' Holi and the 'other'
In Germany, where approximately 171,000 Indians currently live, two kinds of Holi celebrations are available for people to participate in.
The first is the "desi," or typically South Asian, Holi which follows the Hindu calendar and is organised in March. These events are mainly organised and attended by South Asians, where regional food, music and colors are compulsory inclusions.
The Indische Gemeinde Düsseldorf e.V. is one of the diaspora associations that regularly organizes South Asian festivals like Durga Puja or Diwali in Germany.
According to one of their members, Arpan Ghosh, "despite March being a colder month in Germany, as compared to India, we try to organize Holi during that time, in a limited format, so that our children can feel the essence of Indian culture. There isn't an element of profit behind that."
But the second, "Germanized" version of Holi is more popular among the Germans and is today one of the most sought-after summer parties in the country.
What is a 'Germanized' Holi?
Pioneering the entry of Holi into German party calendars, entrepreneur Jasper Hellmann founded the Holi Concept GmbH in 2012, and has since been organizing Holi-themed parties across Germany in the summer.
These parties, according to Holi Concept GmbH's production team member Johanna Schemm, don't intend to be "traditional like the ones in India" and are "a fun version with colors and German techno music."
Typically, Germanized Holi parties are attended by thousands with the ones in Hamburg and Berlin drawing up to 10,000 to 15,000 visitors, says Schemm.
Not only limited to Germany, after a successful start in 2012, the organization took these Holi parties to as far as Mexico City and Johannesburg.
Inspirations and appropriations
I attended one of these parties in Dortmund's Galopprennbahn race course, where one of the attendees came up to me and asked, "why do you not have any colors on you"?
This gesture from a stranger immediately took me back to my childhood in India where strangers offered to include me in their Holi jubilation, in a similar manner. Back then and in Dortmund, appearing uncolored seemed to be an exception.
But for Arpita*, a young German with an Indian background, it is only the use of colors that remotely connects these events to Indian Holi.
Having attended two of these parties, she feels that naming them "Holi" could be inappropriate, even though because of "globalization, people tend to choose parts of any culture for profit."
Carmen Brandt, junior professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Bonn, brings in nuances on the cultural appropriation debate concerning Germanized Holi parties. "Since it is so difficult to trace Holi back to a specific origin," she says, "being protective of the term 'Holi' makes no sense, especially since Holi isn't a fixed, static cultural ritual. After all, it has always changed over time and was celebrated differently depending on the region."
"Elements of celebrating Holi today, like the use of colors, most likely pre-date the term 'Holi' itself," says Brandt. And that is why branding the contemporary Indian Holi celebrations in this context as the "original" Holi could be problematic.
German attraction towards 'Holi'
For Sarah*, one of the attendees of the Holi festival in Dortmund, the colors bring her closer to the new people she meets here.
Florentine Zimmermann works as an intern with the Holi Concept GmbH and perceives this event as a respite from the restrictions that the COVID pandemic brought upon people.
Neither Sarah nor Florentine could relate their Holi experience with the issues of sexual harassment and misconduct reported by women during celebrations of Holi in South Asia. For Sarah, it is like "just another party in Germany."
It is the "positive vibe" of these events that could help "India be portrayed in a new light, especially because of the rather negative news about the country in recent times," opines Brandt.
She notes, "it is the same positive feeling, mixed with a temporary opportunity to distract oneself from the daily hierarchies and limitations, thanks to the colors, that could be an explanation for the attraction young Germans and others" feel towards similar events.
*Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier