Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 2, 2010

Colorful Hindu holiday brightens Stanford

Traditional festival of 'Holi' celebrates spring, raises money for education in India

by photographs Veronica Weber / story Martin Sanchez

More than 5,000 people converged on Stanford University's Sand Hill playing field Saturday afternoon to dance, sing and cover one another with huge quantities of colored powder for Holi, a Hindu holiday celebrating the coming of spring.

This incarnation of the ancient festival was also a fundraiser for the Stanford chapter of Asha for Education, a nonprofit group that conducts educational programs in India, according to Stanford student and event organizer Hari Kannan.

Holi has acquired much mythological significance over the years, Kannan said, but the holiday's most recognizable activity involves people plastering friends and strangers alike with "gulal," a brightly colored powder.

On Saturday, two volunteers waited at the festival's entrance with bulging sacks of powder and made sure no one entered the party unadorned.

Inside, exuberant attendees wandered the field flicking handfuls of the dusty stuff on the faces and clothes of passersby with the accompanying greeting "Happy Holi!" (pronounced "holly"). Others — children, mostly — mixed powder and water in water pistols and tried to catch their targets by surprise.

Occasionally, an inattentive teenager was scooped up by four or five others and whisked off to a faucet to receive a thorough soaking. It was not always apparent that these captives knew their assailants, but none of them seemed to mind either way.

Vibrant red, blue, green, yellow and purple dominated the scene Saturday, but those shades quickly blended together on the bodies of particularly persistent revelers. As the event wore on, enthusiastic gulal use caused a thick orange haze to form over the playing field. Brighter-hued blossoms frequently punctuated the cloud as people threw handfuls of powder into the air or at nearby faces.

Asha for Education volunteer Akanksha Bapna said covering passersby with gulal represents "a celebration of brotherhood, of putting aside differences."

Her favorite part of Holi is "definitely the colors, but it's nice to know the money is going to such good causes," she said.

Others saw Holi as an opportunity to break down social barriers as well.

"I heard a couple talking to their daughter, and they said, 'No, you do talk to strangers!'" Stanford student Eve Thorne said.

As Thorne's friend Emily Knight put it, her favorite part of Holi is "a toss-up between the food and having my face touched by strange people."

Holi drew families as well as students.

"It's a great time, very good family fun. The color, everybody running around with squirt guns, it's great," said Palo Alto resident Jay Miller, whose daughter Madeline was perched on his shoulders. Saturday was the first time either of them had celebrated Holi, he said. He heard about the event from friends who had attended in past years, he said.

Palo Alto resident Ruma Nandi also attended the event with her children.

"At my kids' first one, I told them, 'You can throw anything on anyone and they won't mind,' so that's great for them," she said.

Saturday's event also attracted people of diverse ages and ethnicities, Nandi said.

Festival goers also enjoyed dancing to catchy Bollywood-style songs sung in Hindi, though some featured snatches of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" or Queen's "Under Pressure." Dancers who knew the music cheered and sang along with their favorites, while others merely smiled and grooved.

Nearby, a First Aid team administered a steady stream of eye drops to those temporarily blinded by gulal. Most patients were quick to rejoin the party.

Prathima Venkatesan attended the event with the "Indian fusion" dance group Project Pulse, which performed several times during the event.

"It's all so colorful. It's really just celebrating life," she said.

The event's organizers sold approximately 5,400 tickets, Kannan said. Stanford ticket office employee Kevin Hahn said there were more than 3,000 tickets sold at the event's entrance alone.

Profits from the event's admission fees will fund 11 projects in India, including an elementary school for children with disabilities, Kannan said.

Staff Photographer Veronica Weber can be e-mailed at vweber@paweekly.com. Editorial Intern Martin Sanchez can be e-mailed at msanchez@paweekly.com.

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