Birmingham, United Kingdom – Holi festival marks the arrival of spring in India and commemorates events from Hindu mythology involving demons and deities. But thousands of kilometres away, under the often dreary skies of Birmingham, hordes of people streamed through inflatable arches to take selfies, get pelted with coloured powder, and wear branded merchandise.
The festival, with its roots in the legend of Prahalad and Holika, sees the casting aside of traditional social barriers and people dancing, singing and throwing brightly coloured dyes and powders at each other.
In Britain, the Colour Run, a five-kilometre race, takes its inspiration from Holi, as have other mass participation events and advertising campaigns that borrow from the Hindu festival to market alcohol or mobile phones without cultural or religious dimensions.
The Holi Festival of Colours says it can “directly promote and foster equality and tolerance and bring people together”. The Holi One Colour Festival promotes “the ideas of togetherness and the colour of everyday life during a day of fun and exhilaration”. These global dance parties take place year-round, unlike their namesake, which takes place in March.
Such is the lure of a rainbow coloured coating that more than 9,000 people, dressed in white, made their way around Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre on August 16. A drone, affixed with a SLR camera, hovered above them. Coloured powder greets participants at every kilometre, as do words of encouragement bellowed through a loudspeaker. About 5.5 tonnes of coloured powder is imported – from India – for a race with 10,000 people.
When people grow up and move to another country, seeing people take an aspect of your religion is bemusing.
The Colour Run is not a charity but a charitable platform, say organisers. Last year there were four in the UK. They attracted 33,000 people and raised £300,000 ($500,000) for various causes.
“We’re taking the joy that comes with a religious festival and apply it to exercise,” says Joe Rafferty from IMG Challenger, which organises the event. “People see running as quite a boring activity. Colour zones incentivise people to keep going, you have music playing. It gives this amazing happiness. I challenge you to find someone who isn’t happy.”
When asked if the Colour Run has culturally appropriated Holi, Rafferty replies: “I’m Irish and I’m fascinated by St Patrick’s Day. You see Emiratis celebrating it in Dubai. You see South Asians on Kilburn High Road in London, and I think you’re dressed as leprechauns and you’re carrying a pot of gold. I sat there dumbstruck. There’s probably a lot of confusion from Indians. When people grow up and move to another country, seeing people take an aspect of your religion is bemusing.”
Entry costs start at £23 ($38) per person if part of a team and £25 ($41) for an individual. IMG says costs vary for every event and it is unable to disclose specific costs and profit figures. “There are significant costs that go into it,” says Rafferty. “Every event will have a break-even point. We have to create a business model, you can’t go out and organise an event for nothing. You have to sustain your business as well.”
Mamta and Jason Patel are from Bromsgrove, a West Midlands town, and are at the exhibition centre with their children Sakshi, Mili and Rashi. “Our daughters wanted to experience Holi and it’s the closest we’re going to get to it outside India,” says Mamta, who is Hindu. “I’ve done Holi in India and it’s amazing and this is like it. It’s just about having fun. Temples here celebrate Holi but not on this scale. Holi is a cultural festival, not a religious one. For me, it’s a case of the more the merrier.”
For others, such as Grace Clarke, 23, and her friends, the Colour Run is a fun day out in their hometown and a chance to do something different for the weekend. Abi Moore, 26, from Bridgend in South Wales, says the run was an opportunity to kickstart her exercise regime.
Someone has seen a marketing opportunity. This is just a fad, it has nothing to do with Hinduism.
Others worry about the commercialisation of Indian culture. Bharti Tailor, executive director of the Hindu Forum of Europe, says: “Someone has seen a marketing opportunity. This is just a fad, it has nothing to do with Hinduism. The fact that they are using the word Holi links it to the Hindu festival. How can we stop them? How can you stop people making money from Holi?”
The impact of removing religion from a religious festival or event is not lost on some faiths. A survey conducted this year by the UK-based Bible Society showed declining religious knowledge, with a quarter of the 804 children surveyed not knowing the story of Easter, and 28 percent thinking the golden goose laid Easter eggs.
About 80 million chocolate Easter eggs are sold in the UK every year, but only one brand mentions Jesus Christ. The Real Easter Egg – launched in 2010 – features the story of his crucifixion, resurrection and the symbolism of eggs for the most important date in the Christian calendar.
David Marshall, who founded the company behind it, says religious festivals have been around for thousands of years, and that marketers might try to strip them of their spiritual meaning by only promoting the visual aspects.
“However, by making the outward signs of the festival attractive, they provide an opportunity to retell the essentials of a faith to a new generation,” says Marshall.
Rise of Ramadan marketing
Ramadan has a rising public profile – Internet media company Buzzfeed ran 13 articles on Ramadan in 2014 and one about Eid during a two-month period, including one titled: “13 Of Your Favourite Movies, If They Were Made During Ramadan”. Earlier this year, fashion house DKNY launched a Ramadan collection that had no religious aspect other than the timing. Hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and television channels target Muslim consumers with Ramadan-branded campaigns, although the discounts and deals are available to non-Muslims, too.
A former US State Department official, Shahed Amanullah, wrote: “I regularly attend public iftars where nearly half the attendees are not Muslim, and any religious aspect is relegated to a small side room so as to not get in the way of networking and socialising. When you start seeing people like Wolf Blitzer at iftars, you just have to wonder what is happening to our most precious religious holiday.”
Bharti Tailor says certain Hindu festivals appeal to a wider audience, citing Raksha Bandhan and friendship bracelets as an example.
“I don’t know if I’m upset by it. I want people to know the difference between the religious festival and what is entertainment,” says Tailor. “Some festivals just catch the imagination and the ones that do have a celebratory element to them. Things like fasting are a different devotional activity.”