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Holi goes mainstream at New Jersey color runs

The races are a nod to the growing influence of Desi culture.

Students play with colors at the Hopewell Elementary School Color Run. (Photo courtesy of Ambreen Ali)

Earlier this spring, my children’s school held a 1-mile race to raise money for their outdoor program. Hopewell Elementary staff passed out white T-shirts to students and sent parents an FAQ about color powder, which was thrown at the runners as they passed through color stations on the race route. 

Clearly an homage to Holi — the Hindu festival celebrating spring, renewal and forgiveness — the color run has become a popular spring activity throughout New Jersey. Color runs were organized by schools, communities and race groups in Montclair, Jersey City, West Windsor, Haledon and numerous other towns.  

Although not all color runs acknowledge the connection to Holi, the race at my children’s school started with a staff member, Sujata Gangopadhyay, sharing that Holi marks the triumph of good over evil.

“I love the way they organized it. It’s inspired by the Indian culture,” Gangopadhyay said in an interview. She lives in West Windsor Township, which is majority Asian. She says the large Indian population there makes the culture more prevalent than it is in Hopewell, where she is just one of three Desi staff members at her school.

Although just 15 miles from West Windsor, Hopewell is 72% white with a growing Asian population, and the color run served as an opportunity to share a bit of Hindu culture with those who are less familiar with it. 

After the race, Gangopadhyay said several families came up to her and thanked her for sharing the background of Holi and what it signifies. 

“I feel very glad that they gave me that opportunity to let people know about it. People should know that India has great culture,” she said.

The AAPI Color Run on April 28 in Montclair (Photo courtesy of AAPI Montclair)

‘Mainstreaming Desi culture’

In North Jersey, the grassroots organization AAPI Montclair organized a color run in April. More than 1,400 participants took part, including run groups, Girl Scout troops, corporate sponsors and schools. The race celebrated Holi as well as Songkran, a Thai spring festival with similar significance where people play with water. 

“I have always felt this event is the most successful example of mainstreaming Desi culture,” said Lavanya Raghavan, an AAPI Montclair board member. She noted that the AAPI Color Run brings together a wide swath of the Montclair community and engages both South Asians and East Asians.

Before the race, participants had a chance to warm up with yoga and Bollywood dance. Afterwards, people threw color powder on each other as Thai drummers played music.

“It’s more the non-Desis who really get into it,” Raghavan said. 

Although Holi is based on the Hindu story of an evil king who is defeated in a good-over-evil theme, Raghavan said what is more special about the holiday to her is the significance of a fresh start—a moment to reset and forgive.

Dancing lessons preceded the Montclair color run (Photo courtesy of AAPI Montclair)

To run or not to run

Even as color runs gain in popularity, many Desis in New Jersey still prefer traditional Holi festivals. 

Dhaarna Kumar, whose son attends Hopewell Elementary School, said her kids opted not to go to the color run and enjoyed a Holi gathering organized by a local Indian restaurant more. 

“I would prefer to go the traditional way where we are putting colors, eating, dancing, and you know, doing more of that fun stuff and not just a run,” she said. 

Still, Kumar is glad that color runs are offering non-Desis in New Jersey a chance to experience Indian culture. 

“If people are accepting our culture and ready to learn about it, that’s nice,” Kumar said. “It definitely brings people closer.”

Akshatha Gopal Shetty helped organize a Holi festival in Maplewood earlier this month—with no running involved. In addition to the color party, the festival featured food from local Desi vendors, including rose cardamom cake, mango lassi and thandai — a special drink served during Holi with milk, fennel seeds, saffron, rose, cardamom and nuts.

When Shetty moved to New Jersey from India 10 years ago, she said she missed Holi “tremendously.” Growing up in Mumbai, Holi was a weeks-long celebration. Neighbors would throw water balloons at each other until a bonfire the night before the big day, when the color party would begin.

These days, she still misses being with friends and family but enjoys the festivals around New Jersey. In Maplewood, she said the crowd was a mix of Desis and non-Desis, and she loved the opportunity show off Indian culture. 

“I’m doing it for the future generation,” she said. “I want my daughter to know a lot about our culture and have good memories of her childhood.”

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