September 26, 2016

Holi, Easter and Unity

In his remarks to the “Hindus for Selfless Service” (Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh) Chowtal group on the lawns of State House the night of the burning of the Holika, President David Granger pointed out like Holi/Phagwah, Easter is also a Spring festival and both insist on stressing the regenerative symbolism of Spring. This is a fact that is often overlooked – that Easter, like Christmas, predated the advent of Jesus and the festivities that surround the commemoration in the present hark back to the original impetus acknowledging the significance of the seasonal changes on society.
While Holi is also associated with “religious” personages from Hinduism, the original primal, unbridled joy at the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring still predominates. While Guyanese might not have a personal annual experience of the grimness of Winter, the ubiquity of television, movies and magazines from the temperate zones ensure the symbolism of Spring versus Winter reverberates in all. Rebirth, regeneration, renewal are themes that are inspirationally universal and events that commemorate or celebrate them never fail to garner mass participation.
Yesterday, we witnessed Guyanese from all backgrounds enjoying the dousing of water on each other in the morning and the smearing of coloured powders and spraying of red “abeer” in the afternoon. Then it was all wrapped up with the sharing of sweetmeats between friends and neighbours. On Easter Monday, Guyanese in the thousands will prepare their kites and snacks and retire to parks and open spaces to send their kites into the sky. The kites may get intertwined, but the togetherness of families will inevitably be intertwined.
Festivals such as Holi and Easter, as they are celebrated in Guyana, can and do play a major role in fostering national unity: people that play together will have a greater chance to stay together. In his remarks, President Granger took time to reminisce on colonial times when he was young and it would have been unthinkable for a Chowtal group to perform on the lawns of what was then the Governor’s mansion. Easter events would have been common. He noted now, after Independence, when the mansion was renamed “State House”, local Presidents had opened up the previously forbidden space to all Guyanese, including Hindus.
This occupation of the public space is an important factor in the creation of national unity as much of the direct common participation of Guyanese from different backgrounds. When some cultural practices are hidden away in private ethnic enclaves, there is always the possibility of fears of the unknown aroused in other groups. These fears can be dissipated when the practices are not only out in the open but the “others” are invited to participate. Citizens can move from “them” and “us” to “we”.
But public spaces are not all equivalent. “State House” to a large extent imparts the imprimatur of the authority of the Executive Head of the State on activities held within its space. And when this authority is bestowed on cultural practices that were formerly excluded from the mainstream –- especially by a President not from within the tradition – this can go a long way in making the activity “national”. If the President can acknowledge Chowtal as “his” tradition, it becomes so much more difficult for the average to reject.
Easter has already become a festival for all Guyanese because of the Christian nature of the colonial state. But this does not in any way mar Easter’s value towards national unity. While the colonial impositions must be interrogated, they should not be rejected in toto. As mentioned above, like Holi, Easter has several “non-religious” elements that can be appreciated by all sections of the society as “cultural”. In addition to the kite flying mentioned above, Guyana has its Bartica Regatta and Easter Hat Shows.
President Granger also mentioned the Easter Bunnies that became associated with the festival because of their legendary reputation to procreate.

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