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Colours for Holi on sale at a market
Gulal (गुलाल), also known as Abeer (अबीर), is the traditional name given to the coloured powders used for the typical Hindu rituals, in particular for the Holi festival (though commonly associated with the pink color used in the festival). During this festival, which celebrates love and equality, people throw these powder solutions at each other while singing and dancing.
A legend narrates that Lord Krishna complained to his mother about the darkness of his skin compared to that of his consort Radha. As a result, Krishna’s mother smeared colours onto Radha’s face. This explains why today Holi is celebrated by throwing colours on people.
From natural to chemical
In earlier times, Gulal powders were prepared from flowers coming from trees, such as the Indian Coral Tree and the Flame of the Forest, that had medicinal properties, beneficial to the skin. After the advent of synthetic dyes in the middle of 19th century, the disappearance of trees in urban areas and the pursuit of higher profits led to the abandonment of natural colours. The new industrial dyes have been manufactured through chemical processes with non-standard parameters and hence the resulting colours are sometimes toxic for face and skin, causing problems such as eye irritation, allergies, skin infection and asthma. Unsafe products have often been sold on the road by small traders, in boxes with labels saying "for industrial use only".
Recent production from natural sources
Recently, the various harmful effects and concerns for the environment (synthetic powders caused temporary wastewater pollution too) generated awareness and encouraged people to celebrate an eco-friendly Holi. For the preparation of Herbal Gulal, lots of safe dyes can be used, such as Turmeric (Curcuma Longa), Indigo (Indigofera) or Annatto (Bixa Orellana), which are all ingredients easily available on the market at moderate prices. For these reasons, it is also possible to prepare Gulal at home, as suggested by many websites on the Internet.
In the new natural processes to make Herbal Gulal, no salts of any heavy metal have been used and the combination of ingredients provides a powder having soft and supple touch with good sticking capacities to skin. The production profile of dry colour composition is eco-friendly as no toxic ingredients are released under the preparation. In this way, it has been possible to replace synthetic colours with natural ones. Herbal Gulal can be manufactured at higher scale and people who were scared about synthetic powders can now enjoy rituals with no restrictions.
Religious and cultural uses
Gulal powder has always had an important role in Hindu culture and has always been used for religious purposes. Besides Holi festival, the use of coloured powders appears in other ceremonies, such as funerals. In this case, in some populations, a particular ritual occurs when the deceased is a married man. The widow puts on all the ornaments she possesses and takes leave of her husband adorning him with all her jewels. Holding a small brass plate with coloured powders, she lets the men participating at the ceremony paint the face of the deceased. This ritual is associated with the one of marriage, in which the bridegroom and the bride anoint themselves with coloured powders for four days before the wedding. This ointment, indeed, is meant to prepare their bodies for conjugal life.  Beyond the religious sphere, the consumption of Gulal powder is spread for different uses.
One interesting use of this powder has been developed in the field of latent fingerprints. A study by Punjabi University of Patiala shows that the application of Gulal or food colours to latent fingerprints can give clear results. During this study, few grams of dry colours were taken and sprinkled over different surfaces, such as normal paper, top of CDs, aluminium foil, and aluminium sheet. It has been concluded that commonly and easily available agents are a useful substitute for the decipherment of latent prints.
Other uses and westernization
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Gulal consumption related to Holi festival has been taken out from the Hindu context and desacralized. The desacralization consists in a distortion of the original meaning of the cultural elements at the base of the Holi ceremony, which has often suffered from a disrespectful treatment. Indeed, in the contemporary Western society, Holi festival has become a phenomenon of consumerism, with no longer religious aspects. Throwing Gulal powder has become something cool and fashionable: everybody can buy this powder online and use it to give to its own party an extra point.
The main reason why Holi is now so well known outside the Asian continent is the birth of many Holi remakes for commercial purposes. From the beginning of the 2000s, Europeans, Americans, and Australians started to follow the trend of going to parties that involved throwing coloured powders at each other, in a relaxed and peaceful atmosphere. Best examples of these remakes are ‘Festival of colors’ and ‘The Color Run’. The latter one, also known as “The Happiest 5K on the Planet” and born in 2012, is a further alteration of the original festival, since it consists in a five kilometre paint race.
This desacralization led to criticisms by natives, because of the over-simplification of one of their most meaningful religious rituals. Moreover, they bemoan the misuse of Holi, the fact that their culture has been profited off, the sexualisation coming from a very inappropriate outfit and the devaluation on social networks. Participants to Holi festival remakes, indeed, generally share their coloured pictures on Facebook or Twitter, using hashtags which can remind of the original meaning of the celebration, but that paradoxically blurs it more and more.
Indian manufacturers of Holi colours are facing huge losses as Chinese alternatives are selling a lot. A survey reported that Chinese products are more innovative and cheaper by up to 55%, comparing to powders manufactured locally in regions like Uttar Pradesh, Rajastan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. The invasion of innovative and fancy Chinese products, despite the central government effort to promote ‘Made in India’, is making survival difficult for small manufacturer, most of whom have been engaged in this business for decades . Coldplay’s video ‘Hymn for the weekend’ has been filmed in Mumbai during the Holi festival, using Gulal powder as a central feature. The band has been accused of cultural appropriation.
- Ayygari, S., “Audio recording review”, in University of Texas Press, Summer - Autumn, 2007
- Chaudhary H.H, Patel A.K., Patel K.S., Sen D.J., "Colour of ecofriendly dyes used in Holi rather than triphenyl methane dyes", in World Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Vol. 3, Issue 9, 2014
- Kapoor, V.P. and Pushpangadan, P., "Natural dye-based Herbal Gulal", in Natural Product Radiance, 2002 pp. 8-14,
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- Garg R.K., Kaur R., Kumari H., “New visualizing agents for latent fingerprints: Synthetic food and festival colors” , in Egyptian Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2011, Vol. 1, Issues 3-4, pp. 133-139
- Agrawal, N., "Dye-ing Culture: Color Run, White-washing Holi Since 2012", 2013
- “This Holi, no takers for local gulal as Chinese products flood market”, in The Times of India, 2016