Campus celebrates spring festival of colors

The soccer fields behind Florida Avenue Residence Halls and Pennsylvania Avenue Residence Halls exploded with color Saturday afternoon. A throng of students, children and parents threw colored powders and water back and forth, pockets of people danced to the loud rhythmic drumming and the hybridized remixes of Indian tunes and pop culture hits.

Holi is the Hindu festival of colors, also known as the festival of love, and is meant to welcome the spring each year in India and throughout the world with festivities during the spring Equinox. The University campus had its own celebration Saturday from noon to 5 p.m.

But when the multicolor haze fades out and the people have had their fun, there is more to the festival than the colors that swarm the sky.

Among several organizations sponsoring the event, Asha has been instrumental in introducing the festival to the University campus. Asha is a volunteer-run non-profit that raises money with the goal of providing underprivileged children in India with a basic education. The University’s chapter sponsors four schools in India: one school in an underdeveloped portion of the country, a special needs school, a school for children with hearing and speech disabilities and a school for children of sex workers that helps prevent second-generation sex trafficking.

“100 percent of the money we make goes to educational projects for the underprivileged children in India,” said Amandeep Gargi, 2010 to 2011 Asha chapter coordinator. “Today in and of itself will impact the lives of a few hundred students for one year.”

According to Gargi, the festival’s popularity has only grown since its inception.

“The number (of participants) is increasing every year, from 300 to 600 to 900. This year we expect 1,200 to 1,500,” Gargi said.

The festival’s popularity has not only spread in Champaign-Urbana, but also worldwide, with many large cities across the world set to host Holi festivals this year, from Hamburg to Cape Town.

“We try to raise around $40,000 throughout the year,” said Chinmay Soman, treasurer of Asha. “Holi is one of the biggest fundraisers of the year. We raise about $10,000 or so.”

Somashekar Viswanath, a coordinator for Asha, said the organization’s efforts go well beyond the scheduled fundraisers.

“In 2013, we supported deaf and mute kids, and we realized that the current existing hearing aids were getting used up. … So we made a campaign and raised $5,000 for the campaign and sent 150 new hearing aids there,” Viswanath said.

To Krishna Yarramasu, board member for the Dharma Hindu Organization and junior in Engineering, bringing people together is what the Holi festival is about.

“The whole point of this festival is to bring together all different kinds of different people,” Yarramasu said. “In India, there used to be this strict caste system where people used to be separated by social and economic barriers and people would be like, ‘Oh, you’re this caste, you’re this caste,’ and they wouldn’t interact with each other. But Holi is the one time of the year where everyone comes out to the streets. … It’s kind of like a good equalizer of sorts.”

Despite his Indian background, Yarramasu is somewhat new to the holiday and only started celebrating Holi once he arrived at the University in the fall of 2011.

“I’m from the suburbs, and there is an Indian population, but there isn’t enough of a concentration to create an event like this,” Yarramasu said. “I think that back in the suburbs, it is a tight-knit Indian community, but it’s so tight-knit that I don’t think it does its job in raising awareness of the culture and the religion.”

Nainika Roy, freshman in LAS, is a Calcutta native and feels the festivities are more about having fun than anything else.

“In North India, (Holi) is kind of just like a haze of color everywhere. … You spend most of the day partaking in activities; lots of color, lots of music,” Roy said. “In India … people throw eggs at each other. There’s a lot more water; water guns, water balloons,” Roy said. “In India, the color that they use is permanent. They do not wash out — they go to school and for the next week with reddish hair and color everywhere. You’ll be showering colors off for the next week or so.”

Despite being a religious-affiliated festival, religion does not play a big role in the festivities for Soman, who feels the festival is more of a secular event.

“There are a lot of Indian people who are super religious and look at Holi and any other festival as a strong important religious thing going on,” Soman said. “But it’s mostly just for fun, it’s mostly just a cultural event rather than a religious event. I didn’t really pay any attention to that stuff.”

As the scenes died down on the fields Saturday, the reverberations of what the holiday means to the various people remained.

“Many of us have seen these festivals, we know what the significance is and we know what the fun is, but many of the kids here, they don’t have an opportunity to enjoy them,” Soman said. “Until four years ago, people had never seen Holi here, and now people enjoy it; they look forward to the festival.”

Eliseo can be reached at [email protected]