[ Daily News and Analysis, 19 Mar 2014 ]
There is a high possibility that some of the readers of this column still have colour-stains on their faces and bodies from the festival of colours. Monday, March 17, was Holi. All parts of the Indian Union had a riot with colours – one would have been led to believe. The multi-colour motif of Holi comes in handy as a living manifestation of the much-touted ‘unity in diversity’ trademark of this nation-state. People sprinkled colours on each other. Unsuspecting people who were out and about wearing normal dress regretted that they did so. A lot of bhang-laden Thandai was drunk. A lot of women were taken advantage of. Some desi and many firangi photographers were shooting away to capture the colourful ‘soul of India’ that was on public display on its streets and on private display in the farmhouses of the powerful. That was the day. Or was it?
Sunday, March 16, was Dol-Jatra for tens of millions of inhabitants of Odisha, Assam and Bengal, and yes that too was a riot of colours. ‘Dol’ means a swing and Jatra means journey. Of course, Lord Krishna and Radha are the ones of the swing and the devotees take them around. Phakuwa happened in Assam around the same time. All this is accompanied with much merriment with colours. There is no thandai involved. Not all ‘festivals of colour’ are the same. When someone says, Dol Jatra is Bengal’s version of Holi, it does not sound objectionable. However, if I say, Holi is Delhi’s or Uttar Pradesh’s version of Dol Jatra, it sounds odd. At that, some will say, I am being ‘parochial’. I will be advised not to mix-up up the mainstream with the variant, the standard language with the marginal dialect. I will be shown my place. I will be forced to play along in the ‘national’ festival of colours. Some will say, how does the name matter – it’s a fun occasion after all. It is easy for people to ‘look past’ variations, when the hierarchy of variations favours their cultural world. Others ‘look past’ to be accepted by the ‘mainstream’.
The problem with this idea of a cultural ‘mainstream’ with ‘regional’ variants is that it is a sophisticated name for good old crude majoritarianism. So much for the half-hearted paeans to ‘unity in diversity’. If you thought that the state does not endorse one view over another, think again. In West Bengal, the governor notified that the day after Dol Jatra will also be a holiday in all offices under the Government of West Bengal. In the Central governments list of holidays, there is only mention of Holika Dahan. There is no mention of the name Dol Jatra. The deep ideology of a state is given by these ‘innocuous’ choices, of font-size variations of different languages in Gandhi-chhap currency notes, the automatic language of CRPF or BSF irrespective of their posting in West Bengal or Tamil Nadu and many other instances. Look for such signs. They are everywhere.
There are soft-exports too. The marriage-associated events from the Punjab and the Hindi-heartland are now increasingly part of marriage ceremonies of Bengalis and Kannadigas. The most sublime form of this cultural hierarchy is seen is diasporic communities whose marriages invariably have ‘Sangeet’ and the colour festival is always called ‘Holi’. They are nothing but Indians. The next group who embody this sublime ideology are the upwardly mobile, well-off yuppies who have voluntarily moved to subcontinental cities located outside the province they were born in. Such ethno-cultural flattening does no service to the Hindi-heartland where many cultures are in a state of decay, thanks to metro-centrism Hindianism.
Whose ‘local’ becomes ‘national’ and whose ‘local’ disappears when ideas like ‘all India’ and ‘mainstream’ are evoked? Why is the direction of traffic in this supposedly two-way street so predictable? When was the last time a Tamil marriage/religious/cultural custom went ‘mainstream’ and was picked up in Delhi? Why does the leading contender for prime-ministership focus most in areas where Holi is the uncontested name for the festival of colours. Whether that kind of politics expands the palette in this diverse subcontinent is a different matter.