Thousands of men, women and children, crowded into Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in mid-town Manhattan April 30, to enjoy the festival of colors in what organizers see as a trend toward globalization of the ancient Hindu festival celebrating the onset of Spring. A week before, thousands came to celebrate Holi in Brooklyn that featured a local talent in a music and art festival.
The April 30 Holi was held at 47th Street between 1st and 2nd Ave. near the United Nations, and attracted a multicultural, international crowd that enjoyed throwing colors and dancing to Indian and fusion music played by live bands, as well as watch groups of dancers perform.
Organized by NYC Bhangra Dance Company & School, the event attracted more than 10,000 people, whose numbers were tracked by the wristbands issued, organizers told Desi Talk. It was the largest of the seven “Holi Hai” events held so far by NYC Bhangra, Megha Kalia, founder of the school said.
“The concept of Holi is catching up all over the world. But it’s also about how you package it,” Kalia said. This was a free, family-friendly, no-alcohol event, the only one of its kind in the city, she said. The event was completely funded by NYC Bhangra, and cost more than $60,000 in total costs, with permits, insurance, etc. making up 30 percent, besides execution, production and cleaning, Kalia said.
Finding a place for any event in high-priced real estate like Manhattan, was exorbitant, let alone one that required a lot of cleaning when over. Dag Hammarskjold Plaza was ideal because the ground could be washed and cleaned of the colors, a labor of love carried out by the 130 volunteers well after the event which went from 11 am to 6 pm. “It was also an event where everyone looked after everyone else. A few people lost their wallets but found them. Two children were “lost” but parents found them. That’s what makes it extraordinary,” Kalia said. “We include everybody. Children come and enjoy as well,” said Kalia.
Chua Yun Chun, a Bhangra dancer originally from Singapore, and a teacher at Bhangra NYC, was effusive in her praise of the event. “This was the second one I helped with and while last year’s was phenomenal, this year’s was crazy!” she exclaimed.
A more selective group of artists than last year meant their music and dance could be better showcased. And New York’s diversity was evident. “There were people from all walks of life, there was great energy. You really saw the magic unfold before you,” she said describing her experience of merging with the crowds in her Bhangra costume and encouraging groups of attendees, including some very shy kids, take to the floor to dance to the beat. That’s because Bhangra is more “accessible,” as an art form, Yun Chun said.
Religion did not play a part in the festival of colors which is observed by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and other religions. “We stay away from religion when its “Holi Hai,” because if you limit it to religion, it would restrict the attendance to the diaspora,” Kalia said. “Even the NYPD Social Affairs Department officer Jeffrey Arlotta was very surprised and commented at how much diversity there was even though it was an Indian festival,” Kalia said.
The music groups that performed at the event included the Latin Fusion Dance Project which featured Ashley Dawson of the reality TV show “So You Think You Can Dance” fame; Shruti Sen (Bollywood Fusion), and Rhythm Tolee (Punjabi Folk) among others. More than 150 artists came on stage during the 7 hours.
Kalia, who came to the U.S. 16 years ago, graduated from Purdue University, Indiana in Hospitality and Tourism, started NYC Bhangra 7 years ago, to follow her passion, giving up the tourism company which suffered from the 2008 recession. “What’s great is we are creating Bhangra artists from around the world,” Kalia enthused.
“People see me and ask- ‘Oh, but your are not Indian so how come?'” Yun Chun says. “Even in New York City, some people can be close-minded. But we really represent the diversity of New York City,” she added. “At Holi Hai! it was like touching the lives of so many different people, making so many people happy.”
A somewhat different Holi celebration, more international and with lesser Indian ethnic content, capturing the spirit of the festival, was held April 23rd weekend in Brooklyn on a Johnson Avenue lot. Tickets had to be purchased and alcohol was sold. According to news reports, more than 2,000 people attended and local bands rocked the crowd at the 5th annual event. Described by organizers as the “Festival of Colors: Holi NYC” it was billed as a “Spring arts and music festival,” according to the website, which also describes the Indian religious roots of the festival.
“There are no words to describe how we feel right now. You all made the day so amazing and we love you to pieces!!!” organizers said after the festival on Facebook. The Village Voice carried a picture spread and noted, “Thousands of people came together to praise the coming of spring, harvests, unity, joy…and to douse each other in colorful powder.”
One of the attendees, Yaitza Cruz, said, “We had such a great time. can’t wait for the next one.”
Mia Carla, who has attended past Brooklyn Holi celebrations posted her photo from a past Holi and said, “missed it this year but this was me during the inaugural holi. So sad I missed it but I will always have the best memories and i guess im amazingly happy everyone else getsto experience this too.”
“Nothing says “Hello spring” more than handfuls of beautiful pastels flying through the air to the upbeat sounds of an enthusiastic brass section,” declared the news website nofearofmissingout.com.
Among the queries in the “Frequently Asked Questions,” on the festival website, were “What’s the deal with this powder stuff?” and “Won’t I get messy though?” Those wanting to attend were told “You throw it (color) at people, and (with their permission) rub it on their faces. It is organic and safe. It’s made from cornstarch and food dye.” And for sure “YOU WILL GET MESSY” organizers warned in capital letters.
Unlike the Dag Hammarskjold event, there was a cash bar and a number of food trucks at the Brooklyn event. “The most important thing to know before coming is to keep an open mind and heart,” said organizers who invited talent and sponsors throughout the year dedicated to this one event. “While this is a great experience to share with friends, we encourage you to break out of your comfort zone and embrase (sic) new people!”
This year performers included among others, DJ Vic, a Sikh performer playing ‘Indian pop’ with live dhol, Lucky Chops, a jazz band, M.A.K.U. Sound System, a ‘tropical’ music band, Scienze, Zuli, Charcole Federation, a fusion Indian-Western band, Quincy Vidal, and The Skins.
“If it only takes some pigmented powder to bring us together and make the harsh city landscape look like a dream, I couldn’t help but imagine helicopters dumping Holi across Manhattan so that everyone could stop for a minute and get a taste of the beauty that’s going down in Brooklyn,” said one writer, in nofearofmissingout.com