Hodgkin and Holi: An Unmistakable Connection

This work from the collection of the Freer Sackler Galleries illustrates the tradition of Holi. A Holi festival. 19th century. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. H: 28.9 W: 19.2 cm India. Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1907.25.

As I was giving a recent tour of Howard Hodgkin’s monumental prints As Time Goes By, a docent at the Freer Sackler Galleries pointed out the possible relationship between the prints, which are characterized by exuberant areas of intense color that appear to be thrown onto the surface, and the holiday of Holi, the festival of colors, which takes place throughout India and other South Asian countries in early spring. Holi was originally celebrated by farming communities as a ritual expression of hope for a good harvest and a collective rejoicing in the spring.

Holi is also thought to have had various mythological beginnings whose narratives usually have a moral. One originates in the boyhood of Krishna, considered one of the most human of the gods. When Krishna was playing with Radha, a girl in his village, he noticed that her skin was fair and his was dark. When he complained to his mother, she suggested that he throw color on Radha’s face so that the difference could be erased.

During Holi, participants, who dress in white, throw colored pigment and water on each other. According to the myth, people do so with the aim of erasing differences of color, creed and religion, hoping to create a truly equal society. Hodgkin has traveled extensively in India and collects Indian art.

Watch the videos below for a glimpse of the modern celebration of Holi.

Karen Schneider, Librarian