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One colorful celebration

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Varun Kirti could recall every detail about celebrating Holi in India.

“You probably start as early as 8 a.m., through the entire afternoon and then come back at like 6 p.m.,” he said.

It’s a day-long haunt of running through the streets hurling colored dyes at strangers and friends, visiting another friend’s house to eat before more running, and then more eating.

“The next day is just for sleeping,” he said. “Because you have eaten so much and then you worked out so much.”

When Kirti came to the United States, however, Holi was relegated to his memory. In his first three years as an expat, first in Colorado and, for the last five months, in Ashland, his sense of Indian community dramatically shrunk.

That’s why arriving at the Ashland Holi festival event Sunday on the ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum lawn brought a tear to his eye, he said.

“I cried a little bit because this is my favorite festival — just a little,” he said, ducking his head and laughing.

The spring festival, which is rooted in Hinduism but is also celebrated by other religious groups in the Indian subcontinent, is one of the largest and most easily-recognizable celebrations in the world. Its main feature, throwing vibrant pigments and water, has spread even into Western culture via music festivals and 5K runs.

Neeta Singh, a 17-year resident of Ashland and organizer of the Sunday event, said that she has been able to keep Holi traditions alive among her family and friends. But, perhaps more than any other Indian festival, Holi is not designed to be a private affair.

The size of the Indian-American community in the Rogue Valley makes it difficult to replicate the usual celebrations, so Singh adapted the festival traditions so that people of all cultural backgrounds could experience the saturation of their world.

“It excites me,” she said. “I just want people to take away a lot of fun and good memories. ... We are celebrating the coexistence, that we all live on this planet at the same time.”

See and hear the scene at Holi in the video below:

Part of that involved moving the date of the celebration itself; Holi in India takes place in March, to welcome the arrival of spring.

But in Southern Oregon, the 80-plus-degree weather and cloudless May sun meant that attendees making enthusiastic use of water guns and water balloons dried off quickly, especially if they were dancing to the beat of the dhol, a traditional double-headed drum.

Gurdeep Hira and his son Santpreet traveled up from the San Francisco Bay area to provide the dhol music. The two have been performing together for about a decade, Santpreet said.

He said that he was surprised that the region had enough of an Indian community to sustain a Holi celebration.

“But it’s still pretty good,” the 20-year-old University of California at Davis student said, looking around at the lawn already spattered with intense purple, blue, orange and green.

“At least it’s not, like, just us,” he said.

Attendees, who paid $10 for tickets, dined on chicken pakora, curry, rice and naan, donated by Taj restaurant in Ashland.

They experienced an additional Indian element — eating with their hands — after an oversight that meant no forks were available.

Singh said it took about $2,000 to put the event together, including purchasing skin-friendly pigments for participants to throw.

Singh is known in Ashland not only for teaching Bollywood dance classes, but also for her Ayurvedic beauty and wellness brand, called Neeta Naturals.

The event was partly a celebration of her products recently being accepted for sale in the Ashland Food Co-op, Singh said.

For some attendees, the reasons for attending were even more varied than cultural significance or success in business.

For Kat Kinion and Brenly Treece, it was a first date.

“I suggested we go donate plasma, but that didn’t work out,” Kinion said.

A history major, Kinion said that she jumps at the chance to experience other cultures, because “especially here in Southern Oregon, we don’t do it very often.”

Kirti, seeking refuge in the shade, said that for the afternoon, he felt a little closer to the culture he grew up with, dancing to the beat of Bollywood tunes and rubbing color from his hands.

He just wants more people to come, if Singh is able to pull it off again next year.

“It’s hard to explain it to someone,” he said. “I cannot just tell somebody how much fun I had doing this.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Shannon Harris, of Ashland, gets hits with blue powder by Heather Adams of Medford during Sunday's Hindu Festival of Color at ScienceWorks. Photo by Denise Baratta
Holi Fest participant Justin Dorham, 6, of Ashland is a palette of powdery colors. Photo by Denise Baratta