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RANG, GULAL AUR PICHKAARI and Widows in India!!

Shilpi Singh
Holi is a festival eagerly awaited by a lot of Indians who look forward to the wide variety of food and bhang, a range of bright colors all over and the immense fun that this festival brings. However there are others who find holi- the festival of colors, as the most barbaric festival in Indian culture because of its practices and norms for widows. This feeling is intense if you are a woman who has or is staying in Delhi, not blessed enough to own a car and who has to use public transport or walk. The aversion specifically arises because of the shower of water balloons which begins almost a fortnight before holi. Belonging to the latter group and more importantly for political and social stigmas attached to holi I thought of it as a barbaric festival and never felt like celebrating until this year when we see widows taking up a revolutionary step defying all social taboos.
About 1000 long- ostracized widows of Vrindavan, shunning the shackles of social stigma, on Friday, 14th of March, 2014 played holi with colors and gulal (colored powder) at Meera Sahabhagini Ashram in Vrindavan. It was for the first time that the widows gathered in such a large number to play holi with gulal (colored power) and buckets of water color at the 200-year-old Ashram. This happened at the cathartic celebration that snubbed tradition which bids them to stay away from festivities. It was last year that these women took the first step to reclaim their place, identity and life in the so called mainstream. They played holi with flowers and songs in a much applauded event that obviously drew criticism by certain conservation and patriarchal quarters who feared a change of the status- quo that exists. This sign of protest wanting to break from the traditional, conservative practices of the past is what made me want to celebrate this festival this year. It is a sign of marked transformation in the history of widows in India.
On Friday, the widows took a bold step ahead and played holi with colors and not just flowers. Pichkaaris (water guns) and gulal (colored powder) were out in force at the Ras Behari Sadan and Leela Kunj. These are two adjacent widow homes in the heart of the temple town, Vrindavan. The women defiantly wearing colorful sarees were in no mood to hold back. Unlike earlier years, when these women who are generally addressed as ‘mayyas’ or‘matas’ — played holi only with ‘Thakurji’ (Lord Krishna), this time it was a riot of colors, flowers and lots of people to celebrate with rather than idols. They smeared each other and the guests with gulal, threw buckets of water color and danced in the ashram courtyard reclaiming their right to fun, enjoyment, festivity and life.
Vrindavan is considered to be the hometown of two Hindu deities, Radha and Krishna, the festival of holi has stories that relate to Radha and Krishna. The blue-skinned Krishna was upset that Radha was fair-skinned. Finding Krishna upset Mother Yashoda tells him to color her face, he applies color to her face and it is with this that their love initiates. Since then holi came to be celebrated across India to honor and praise the immortal love of Radha and Krishna by recreating this incident on a massive scale. The irony of celebrating this festival however is that though it honors the love of one of the most open-minded and accepting Hindu deities, it has carried with it an oppressive tradition of not allowing widows to engage in the festivities so that they can honor the love for themselves and their lives.
In many sections of the conservative Hindu society the Hindu widows are traditionally expected to renounce materialistic pleasure – they are barred from marrying again and taking part in many colorful celebrations or festivities like marriages, holi and many more. It is because of such practices prevalent in India that the plight of widows is deplorable. Even after years of social reformation and a drive towards modernity the opinion about widows being inauspicious in India is resolute. Hindu Texts have described widows as “more inauspicious than all other inauspicious things.” And it is because of this that in many parts of India, after their husbands’ death, Hindu women remains virtual pariahs. Widows in India are socially dead and are considered to be bearers of bad luck. In a lot of places they are not even allowed to live with their families, and are barred from attending any auspicious occasion. They are forced to give up all types of joy or pleasure, abandon jewelry, colorful clothing, and some are even forced to shave their heads. Even the young age of the widow is not able to convince the so- called bearers of our tradition and customs to spare them of this punishment. Irrespective of everything they are expected to devote their life to spiritual endeavors. This makes a holy site like Vrindavan a popular place for widows to spend the rest of their lives in devotion to Krishna.
The lives of many widows started to change for the better after NGO Sulabh International was asked by the Supreme Court in August 2012 to look after the needs of these women so they do not have to beg. The founder of Sulabh, Bindeshwari Pathak said, “Playing Holi is a form of protest for these women. They want to be treated as human beings and allowed to live their lives the way they want.” They say that it is a symbolic beginning of the end to an ingrained form of prejudice. It is this per
This might seem like a minor improvement, but in a country plagued with oppressive attitudes towards widows, this is a large step towards increasing the quality of life and public perspective of the widowed women. However, one should not assume that women have recently begun to struggle against their suppression and exploitation. Women have fought in a million ways in their daily, private lives to survive and to overcome existing conditions of oppression and dominance. Revolution clearly is on its road but we have to ensure that this revolution brings about a change in all spheres of one’s life. It is thus that Dorothy Day argues that the greatest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart. This revolution has to start with each one of us and this precisely is the challenge we are faced with – to give up unjustified conservative practices so that women can be treated equally. Widows should be allowed to play holi with rang, gulal and pichkari because only this can be called “holy”. The widows of Vrindavan have shown that it is better to die fighting for freedom then be a prisoner all lifelong.

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