Playing Holi in Delhi

Originally posted March 22nd, 2014

Celebrated in the north of India to show joy about the coming spring, Holi is one of the oldest Hindu festivals and an incredibly distinctive one. More about fun than religion, Holi starts the evening before with bonfires and on the day is celebrated by raucous and playful behaviour; pulling pranks and, of course, the iconic throwing of coloured powder and paints – then hugs all around and wishing everyone a “Happy HOLI!”. Still, this holiday does of course have its roots in Hindu mythology. I couldn’t actually get anyone to describe what these roots were, so I looked it up.

Apparently the term Holi comes from the name Holika – the legendary sister of a power-hunger king with a very long name I can’t even begin to pronounce who wanted to be worshiped by all of his people. When his son Prahlad worshiped Vishnu instead, this king told his sister to kill the boy. She had the power to walk through fire without being burned (I can’t say I would find this a very useful power day-to-day, but I guess it’s cool) and so walked into a fire with her nephew in the hopes that he would perish. But of course he was saved by the Gods and she died instead. This is where the bonfire tradition comes from. Then when it comes to the paint-throwing, apparently this is attributed to Krishna who, as a child, threw coloured water over milkmaids as a prank. Fairly loosely related as far as I can tell, but there you go!

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I’ve read that Holi is a time where anything goes; where rules and conventions are put on hold and everyone can participate in the fun equally, regardless of age or gender. This is what some sites wrote about Holi:

“Everyone gets involved – with no distinctions between caste, class, age or gender.” BBC

“Women, especially, enjoy the freedom of relaxed rules and sometimes join in the merriment rather aggressively.” About.com

I’d say this is a pretty misleading and simplistic description when compared to how Holi actually plays out in most places around India. Based on my own experience and what I’ve heard from others, the very fact that rules are relaxed and chaos encouraged leads to incredibly apparent challenges for women. Maybe this is a holiday where men and women are allowed to leave social conventions behind and play by the same rules – or rather, lack of rules in this case – but this is India and in much of the country men and women simply aren’t equal here for 364 days of the year and this mindset doesn’t suddenly vanish on Holi. So on that one day where anything goes, obviously the effect isn’t equal for both genders.

Maybe in places like Naddi Holi is equally participated in and enjoyed by all involved, and maybe that’s what Holi is supposed to be, but what I experienced was very far from the descriptions I included above. There wasn’t one single Indian woman in sight in Delhi. And for good reason – most young Indian men used this festival as an excuse to touch women, some more innocently with lingering hugs and others more overtly. It can also just be very aggressive – water balloons are thrown from rooftops, coloured foam is sprayed in your face and powder forcefully rubbed into your hair. Often all of this is happening simultaneously and with all the anonymous hands grabbing at you at once it’s incredibly disconcerting and overwhelming. Most of the people I talked to who had been in India for Holi before stayed locked in their hotel rooms all day this time around. It’s the kind of thing that most people tend to do once to experience and then spend every other year avoiding.

In fact, I even read that in 2012 in Delhi, International Women’s Day fell on the same day as Holi and any activities planned had to be held days earlier because women were too reluctant to leave their homes.We also talked to a shop keeper the day after Holi who, when we asked him if he’d enjoyed the celebration, replied that he’d stayed inside all day. He said that young people these days use Holi as an excuse to get immensely drunk, harass people in the street and pick-pocket. He claimed that this is quite a recent change, and I’m sure that it’s far more common to manifest itself like this when celebrated in city streets among strangers than in small communities of relatives and friends – how it was traditionally celebrated.

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Still, I had a pretty great time all things considered and I feel very lucky to have had the chance to participate in such a unique holiday during my time here in India. I took an overnight bus to Delhi with some friends the night before, arriving in the city early in the morning on the day itself. We checked into a hotel, had breakfast, and as soon as I stepped outside to make a phone-call, it began. There were quite a few of us interns from Naddi, Rajol and Punjab and it was fun walking around as a big group and seeing everyone transform throughout the day.

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Fun Club

Originally posted March 22nd, 2014

Learning To Teach

One of the most educational and valuable parts of being here in Naddi for the past two months has actually come in an unexpected form: fun club.
While I came to EduCARE to work in microfinance I was asked if I could also help out with the after-school programme once a week in the community we call JDM. I’ve always enjoyed working with kids and it’s nice to have a varied schedule, so I agreed.
The first few classes were challenging. My first week I went to the ASP with another intern who had been running the programme before I got here. He was playing games mainly aimed at improving English skills – things like a counting game, Simon Says using body parts, having one child imitate an animal and the others guess what it is etc.

The next week I took over teaching fun club alone…and dragged a friend along to help. It was pretty unsuccessful. Mostly because – I believe partially due to bad weather – only 5 or 6 children showed up and of these, 2 or 3 of the boys spent most of the time playing outside. The fact that some weeks there are 15 children and some weeks there are 4 makes it difficult to plan activities. After half an hour or so the kids who did show up lost interest and decided it would be more fun to braid hair for the remainder of our time.

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My second solo week there were a lot of kids with a lot of energy. I tried to introduce a few new games using “props” (for example, I drew some simple images on cut-up paper to make cards for a memory game) in the hopes that this would be more attention-grabbing. A few of the kids refused to play the games they knew well already, though, and were incredibly disruptive to everyone else. They were running in and out of class, climbing out the window, locking us in the room and chasing each other around. The class was at least partially salvaged when, towards the end, one of the older girls started writing in my notebook and the ones who were calm and attentive all took turns writing their names and ages, which they seemed to really enjoy.

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So it became clear that something had to be done differently. The kids learn English at school and while the older ones get bored by many of the games, the youngest ones aren’t really given a chance to partake. After a few discussions about what this after-school programme was meant to accomplish I came to realise that it’s aimed at offering alternative education from school, so introducing the children to wider issues and concepts such as environmental awareness and gender equality. While these can be difficult subjects to broach with children, it’s also incredibly important that they are given this forum. Taking more of a creative and varied approach would also hold everyone’s attention better, and so while dealing with serious issues some weeks, others would be devoted to crafts or sports – the “fun” side.

First I planned an afternoon where we drew family trees. The kids spent most of the hour working on theirs and then had to present to me who each family member was and their names. It was the first time that we had done something creative since I’d been there and they all seemed to enjoy having time to work individually and got very excited when they saw the paper and markers.

The following week was by far the most interesting one I’ve taught so far. I decided to focus on geography. I bought a map in Dharamsala and then put together a powerpoint of iconic images from around the world. My plan was to have the kids look at the images – things like the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty – and guess where they were in the world. The next activity I planned was to have the kids name a country starting with every letter of the alphabet. Finally, we would end on a creative note by designing our own flags.

When we started it quickly became clear that they had no conception of any countries outside of India.

For every single image everyone would instantly yell “Delhi!”. “No, not in India”, I would say. Thoughtful frowns all around and then one of them has it – “Rajastan!”.

Then the image of Machu Picchu came up. “Naddi!!” yells one kid.

At last they seem to get the idea that none of these places are in India. Ironically they finally understand this as I get to the slide with the image of the Taj Mahal. They all look at each other, shrug, and one girl says, “well, I don’t know, but I know it isn’t in India”. Oh dear.

However, since after every slide I had the names of the monuments and the countries they were in, the kids could read the names and then try to find them on the map. They seemed to really enjoy this, actually, as they got quite competitive about finding the words.

With the second activity they didn’t know any country names from memory but could once again search the map to find words starting with each letter. By the end of this activity they seemed to be getting bored of finding things on the map and were very ready to move onto something more fun and creative.

I handed out different coloured construction paper I had cut up for all of the kids and told them to design their own flags. I showed some pictures of flags to give them examples and said they could draw whatever they wanted – if they had a country, what would the flag look like?

They all drew the Indian flag. I said that was great, but if they wanted they could turn the page over and draw whatever they wanted – as an example I drew a flag with a tree and some hearts and wrote “Lucy’s flag” underneath. They all turned their papers over and after a few minutes I realised that they were all peaking over at my paper. When I looked at their pictures they had all drawn “Lucy’s flag”… These kids are definitely not familiar with using their imagination to express themselves.

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So there have been a lot of ups and downs in fun club thus far, but it gets better every week and it’s really rewarding watching the kids engage more and more every class. It’s a great feeling to be able to give them a space to be creative and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for us interns from a variety of interest areas to interact with the next generation in this community.

Feel free to comment with any suggestions for future classes!