Mixing street theatre, colour and spectacle with religion and tradition

Holi or Phagwah is a religious festival. It is also a national festival in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago where it belongs to other categories as well, viz, a calendar and a traditional festival. There are many stories about its origins in ancient India a few hundred years before the Christian era, but it was brought to the Caribbean by indentured Indians, has imbedded itself in local traditions and has grown to be a national event out of its earlier observance among Hindus on the sugar estates. It was celebrated in Guyana and Trinidad last week.

Sacred to Hinduism, it is typical of those religious festivals that are multi-faceted, having close participation in sacred rituals and worship by devotees and believers, but also exhibiting a larger public outreach. This takes the festival to a wider audience and participation in the public arena outside the religion and the circle of those who believe. But it is germane to the religious belief since the nature of the public exhibition helps to spread the principles and teachings of that belief. The outreach is part of the celebration while instructing both Hindus and non-believers alike.

However, like other religious festivals of this type, the public exhibitions will involve many for whom they have no meaning, who may be attracted to them for entertainment or because they know them as a tradition. These practices have also been subject to cultural change, some elements of which are benign, but including others which depart from the original religious intention. These factors may place the practice as well, in the realm of a secular activity for some.

Phagwah celebrations at the Indian Cultural Centre in 2010 (Stabroek News file Photo)

Phagwah is a traditional festival because it is based on traditions within the culture of the people. The name Holi seems to be used more by those well steeped in the religion. It is part of Hindu worship and is used to deepen spiritual understanding. It articulates teachings, principles and messages, is important to the Hindu calendar, and is also central to Hindu mythology. The festival is national because of its cultural outreach, its extension beyond its circle of celebrants and the fact that it has been adopted by the nation and celebrated as a public holiday. It is a calendar festival because its timing is fixed by annual events which take place at a fixed time and it marks specific observances in the Hindu calendar. Although originally imported from India where it is still celebrated, it has become indigenised over a period of more than 100 years of its existence in the Caribbean and has rooted itself as a local tradition throughout that history.

Commensurate with its origins in North India, Phagwah is a spring festival celebrating the change of season, renewal and rebirth in nature as well as in the human spirit. That helps to explain its joy and exuberance, fun and frolic.  Added to that, it ushers in the Hindu new year, and is additionally linked to agriculture and the climate, thus accounting for the name Holi, which means “grain” and is linked to one of the origins of the festival among farmers (Reepu Daman Persaud). The way the celebrants splash water, powder and coloured dyes on each other is also the pronounced use of symbolism, image, spectacle, oral literature, mythology and drama. What is of great significance for Guyanese culture is the way Phagwah is a demonstration of the carnivalesque in its uses of street theatre, colour and spectacle. This directly resembles the abandon of carnival masqueraders such as Grenada’s and Trinidad’s jab-jab and jab molassi, including the j’ouvert practice of covering each other and spectators with mud, including coloured mud and dye. Writers of letters to the editor are in the habit of describing this practice as African and non-Indian (most recently, see Vishnu Bisram).

These practices are characteristic of the public outreach of religious festivals and in the case of Phagwah are ways of publicly articulating the beliefs and principles of the religion. Myth, oral literature and belief are symbolised and dramatised in the spectacle and theatre. Take the story of Prahalad for example. It is associated with the festival and is actually dramatised in some of the practices while its main theme is faith and devotion to God as well as the triumph of good over evil which are religious principles and messages that Hinduism wants to articulate. It is probably very well known, but will bear repetition here because of the analysis which references its significance to Phagwah.

King Hiranyakashyapu was granted a boon by the gods which destined that he could not be killed by night or by day, not by man or beast, neither in the air nor on the ground, neither inside nor outside his house. This made him virtually invincible. It also made him proud and aggrandised his despotic tendencies, causing him to believe he was a god, and he ordered everyone to worship him. He met resistance from his own son Prince Prahalad who persistently refused, declaring that he could only acknowledge the true God.  He kept this up despite the chagrin and punishments from his father. The king eventually had a huge bonfire built in which the boy was to be burnt to make an example of him. The boy’s aunt Holika also had a boon; she could not be burnt by fire. With this immunity she took hold of Prahalad and put him to sit on her lap inside the pyre. However, for her connivance with her tyrannical brother the king, her boon was immediately revoked and she was burnt to cinders. At the same time, through a miracle to reward him for his faith in God and defiance to the despot, Prahalad came out of the fire unscathed.

The story holds obvious lessons that Hindus want to teach and which are dramatised in Phagwah through the myth and the symbolic activities of the festival. To complete the message of good triumphing over evil, the boon given to Haranyakashyapu which appeared to assure him that he could not be killed proved to be a false sense of security. Lord Vishnu appeared to him at twilight when it was neither night nor day, in the form of half man and half lion, took him up on a balcony (neither in the air nor on the ground) and killed him in the doorway when they were neither inside nor outside of the house. This destruction of the king without at all violating the terms and conditions of the boon puts his powers into context. It showed the tyrant that he was not a god and that there were powers above him to which he had to submit.

The myth also gives further meaning to the festival and its public symbols. The ritual of “the burning of Holika” takes place on the eve of Phagwah to signify the fall of the evil aunt. The sprinkling of water, abeer, coloured dyes and powder have significance in the agricultural roots of the festival, but it is also symbolic of sprinkling the ashes of the burnt Holika. It is a celebration of the victory over evil in addition to the images of the bright colours of nature, natural renewal and spiritual rebirth. The story thus adds meaning to the way the religious beliefs are dramatised through theatrical public spectacle.

Theatre is of even further importance to the festival. In Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago Hinduism has been responsible for sustaining Indian performing arts. Indian dance has been popularised across the countries because of the part it plays in these festivals of Phagwah and Diwali. In the days leading up to the Phagwah Day there are several Chowtals performed around the country which keep the tradition of the music vibrant, as well as the dances that are always performed.

But while such performances help to keep traditions strong, there are many forms of cultural change that take place. The very use of abeer and perfumes that are common today are elements of the modern and sophisticated developments as against the simpler and rougher practices of 100 years ago.  At one time it was actually ashes from the burning of Holika that were used on the estates (Reepu Daman Persaud).

Even the technology claims its share as spray guns or squirt guns are now popular for distributing water and other coloured substances. The grand blue dye competition staged at the stadium by GT&T is a signal of cultural change because of the increasing party mood and atmosphere into which the festival is transforming itself. Fun and frolic have always been there, but it was a different kind of street bash. In fact, “playing phagwah” with buckets of water on the streets and in yards seems to have waned and was very little in evidence around Georgetown in 2012.

And then, what certainly departs from the intended script is the defined development in Trinidad. In communities, in open fields and at street corners, revelers with their faces and clothes still covered in the brightly coloured patchwork of the powders and abeer of Phagwah may be seen feting and drinking beer, rum and whatever else in the late afternoon in the popular “limes” and open air parties that take over to bring a merry and spirituous carnival end to Phagwah Day.

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