Holy sh**! They took our Holi and other adventures in Columbusing

Aah it’s September which means there’s a Holi-Holi feeling in the air. Come again?

It’s true. I just saw a Groupon coupon $35 for registration for one at the Holi Color Festival on September 27 in Ohio. It’s a total bargain since it normally would cost $69.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

And we are guaranteed to have a fun-fun time at this “paint party” where “(f)est-goers toss handfuls of the powder, creating a vibrant rainbow in the air and on their own hair, skin, and clothes.” Live bands rock on the stage while the “organizers squirt massive streams of paint, transforming the audience into a living Jackson Pollock painting.”

The organizers, culturally sensitive souls that they are, inform us that though the Holi Color Festival is “thoroughly modern” it is “influenced by the Hindu Holi celebration” just jazzed up with “electronic dance music, Indian food and barbecue.”

Thanks guys. That’s just so gracious of you to acknowledge the little brown people as you make our pokey messy Holi, bigger, better and whiter. Not to mention non-toxic and eco-friendly. By the way have you copyrighted the name yet? Don’t laugh, it can happen. The Times of India reported “the US Patent and Trademark office has reportedly issued 150 yoga-related copyrights, 134 trademarks on yoga accessories and 2,315 yoga trademarks.” To be fair that did include our very own Bikram Choudhary and his Bikram Yoga.

I’d call this plain old cultural appropriation but there is a much pithier name for it – Columbusing. As Brenda Salinas explains on NPR’s CodeSwitch “Columbusing is when you ‘discover’ something that’s existed forever.”

Like Holi. Or hummus. Or empanadas.

Salinas points to a Buzzfeed article by Rachel Sanders that discovers “a new kind of pie that’s all the rage lately.” Little pies that fit right in your hand, with flaky crusts and fillings that can be savoury or sweet.

In other words – Latina American empanadas, or Jewish knishes, or Indian samosas. All hand-sized baked or fried and stuffed treats that have been part of cultural traditions for aeons. But suddenly “columbused” by a wide-eyed Buzzfeed into the latest rage.

Some will say relax, it’s a big world. There’s room for everyone out there. And a multicultural word will have porous borders.The Salvadorean grandma rolling an empanada isn’t going out of business because Buzzfeed has discovered her pie. White people dancing to electronic music while having colour sprayed on them will not take the bhang out of a billion Indians’ Holi. But cultural appropriation can change the norm, not unlike how a movie version of a book quietly replaces the original in the popular imagination.

Columbusing at its most insidious can change our very palate. When coffee chains in the US started marketing “chai tea lattes” , a rather sickly concoction of steamed milk and brewed tea, I remember being a little amused at what to me sounded like “tea tea lattes.” But Mehek Naresh notes on Videshi Magazine that in 2014 Oprah Winfrey teamed up with Teavana to create her own blend of chai tea giving that “weak medley of poorly brewed misery” the Oprah boost of approval. While guys at roadside teastalls in India have been brewing masala chai forever, Oprah says she spent time with her company “teaologists” to get the correct infusion of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and cloves which can now be standardised, Indian chaiwallas be damned. “I think we got it right,” she claimed. All it needs now is for some American to come to India, drink a cup of masala chai and say “Hmmm, it’s not exactly Oprah chai.”

In the great free market everything can get commodified and culture cannot be immune from it. But it’s still my culture, not your trend. And appropriation is not just what the thin-skinned call appreciation.

What’s makes it worse is that once something is Colombused, it can be commodified and fed back to the culture where it originated. And because many of us still look west for our cultural cues, we swallow our own regurgitated traditions happily. Kate Churchill, director of the documentary Enlighten Up was mystified when she came to India to look for the "authentic roots" of yoga and found power yoga studios in Mumbai. “We saw in large cities like Mumbai, power yoga studios cropping up. And becoming popular because Madonna does it. It had nothing to do with India,” she said.

There are already HoliBuzz Electronic Dance Music festivals in India with a 2000 sq ft rain dance floor, a VIP lounge with separate cabanas and organic Holi colours to daub. Why put on old ratty clothes and douse yourself with buckets of coloured water with friends and family in your neighhbourhood when you can pay a lot of money for being in a mosh pit with hundreds of strangers, cutting-edge DJs and over-priced drinks? OMG it’s just like being at the Holi Colour Festival in Ohio! To its credit, HoliBuzz in India is still a spring event to coincide with the real Holi. But if it’s a roaring success can HoliBuzzAutumn be far behind?

By the way, for those looking for the next new trend, there is this other thing we do to greet each other in the subcontinent. We fold our hands together. It’s really neat. That way you can avoid all those nasty little germs you can get from shaking hands. Someone should “discover” it as well and make it the cool new way to meet-and-greet, the next new rage in Manhattan. I can already see the beginnings of a Buzzfeed listicle. 1. It saves on hand sanitizers. 2. Show off your recent manicure...


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Updated Date: Sep 05, 2014 18:53:10 IST

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