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Festivities in a Pandemic
Digital Holi

Digital Holi
Before the pandemic: Holi, the festival of colors, being a social celebration. | © Deepak Acharya

Holi is celebrated with much fervour and enthusiasm in the Indian subcontinent. Yet what has always been a colourful and, in many places, loud festival will probably be more subdued in 2021. What does it mean for Indians to celebrate festivals like Holi amid so many restrictions? What are the digital options – and will they even be used?

By Oliver Schulz

'In 2020, when there were only the first few Covid-19 cases, Holi was celebrated much as it always has been,’ recalls Dr Deepak Acharya from Ahmedabad. And it’s basically the same in the village and in the city: ‘People meet at home, come out onto the streets and threw colour on each other. In the evening, they eat together, share meals with families who are neighbours.’

But this year is likely to be different, says the 43-year-old scientist and naturopath from Chindwara, Madhya Pradesh: ‘In rural areas, people are more likely to celebrate as they usually do, even if the celebrations don’t extend beyond the boundaries of their villages. But not in the cities.’ In the case of his family, for instance: ‘We’ll stay at home for the most part. The evening before Holi we’ll light a fire, Holika Dahan. But in our garden, not on the street. On the day itself, we’ll dance and throw colour on family members, but this will also not be on the streets. Just with one more family, at most.’

Acharya considers himself lucky, most of his family lives with him. ‘Only my brother still lives in the village, in Madhya Pradesh.’ He certainly won't be coming this year, says Acharya – and the distance involved, that hurts. ‘It’s a big festival for Hindus, we start preparations well in advance, think about the decorations, the food we will eat. If then families are hundreds of kilometres apart, it’s difficult. My mother who lives with me broke down and cried during Diwali in November because she could not see my brother.’

Waiting for next year

Even Vinay Rahure, who lives with his family in Mumbai, says that the situation is completely different this year. ‘The way in which the festival is celebrated here, you cannot avoid physical contact. Hundreds come and throw colour on you, you do the same on hundreds of others.’ He was somewhat more careful even in 2020. But now considerable restraint is called for, says the 31-year-old, particularly since he knows what Covid-19 can lead to. ‘I myself was ill a few weeks ago and was isolating at home.’ This year he will definitely avoid all physical contact, will not throw colour. ‘Then we can go full steam ahead in the coming years, when the danger has passed.’ In the meantime, Rahure will also rely on digital solutions: ‘I’m sure that there will be cool, creative filters or features on social media that will keep the festive spirit alive this year.’

But are these really solutions?

Psychologists are warning not just of the consequences of avoiding close contact because of the pandemic. They are also drawing attention to the psychosocial dimension of festivals like Holi. ‘Our Hindu festivals are important for organizing and reorganizing our memories and thoughts,’ says Dr Vasuki Mathivanan, coach and psychologist from Chennai. ‘People are now anxious and overcautious when it comes to celebrations and festivities. That can be very stressful.’ Especially because festivals like Holi, besides teaching us moral values, also gave us a sense of togetherness, says the 52-year-old: ‘They give us hope in life and the feeling of having a support system.’ In preventing people from having contact, the pandemic created a vacuum. Many young people were particularly affected. However, ‘people of all ages have been affected.’

Search for digital solutions

Nandini Raman is of the same opinion: ‘Holi is a wonderful festival of colours that is ‘played’ physically with friends and family, in large and small family and community gatherings, with dry and wet colours, water, fun, dancing and music and with bhang being consumed – virtual or digital can never be the same.’ The 45-year-old is also a coach in Chennai besides being a columnist. Nevertheless, Raman is positive: ‘I believe that in situations like this, we need to find meaning and purpose in our digital solutions in all areas, in order to celebrate and to come together for things that bring happiness and joy to our hearts and minds.’
 
What this will look like in reality during Holi 2021 is described by Deepak Acharya from Ahmedabad: ‘Of course we won’t just celebrate physically but also online. Family members will call each other on the phone and will make group calls. We’ll send photographs and set up video chats, show the others how we are lighting the fire, how we are sprinkling colour on ourselves. This is how we’ll tell others that we miss them, we’re hugging each other virtually, so to speak.' He admits that it’s not the same. ‘But then we are living in a pandemic.’

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