By Susan Gosine
Amid the rattle of the A Train, the drone of car engines, the flight of hurrying feet, the clatter of high-heel shoes and the buzz of polite conversations, a recognisable melody catches my attention. It is distant but distinct, a vestige of my past that warms my heart under a deceitful sun on this cold New York morning.
Chowtal, a captivating rhythm, which symbolises the Hindu festival of colours, Holi, also called Phagwa, blasts from massive speakers mounted on a decorated truck, in the middle of a procession on Liberty Avenue, Queens.
It is just after 10:30 a.m. on Sunday March 16, 2014, Phagwa Day. It marks 15 years since I last heard Chowtal. The joyous chants are sung in a series of repetitions, ranging from six to eight times, in a chorus.
Traditionally, a Bhojpuri musical genre, Chowtal is sung by two rows of singers who face-off in cordial competition while beating the dholak and majeera. This artificial staging of acoustic outpourings from the boom boxes seems oddly misplaced in the midst of Liberty Avenue’s commercial hubbub.
Ahead of the truck, a group of men, among them, founders of the Phagwa Parade Committee, clad in traditional white dhotis and kurtas, leads the 26th Annual Phagwa Parade, in Richmond Hill, Queens. The procession hastens on, growing rapidly as pedestrians join in. Swaddled in heavy coats, wind breakers, hats, gloves and thick sweaters they brace the unsympathetic cold and proceed harmoniously, under the watchful eyes of police, to Smokey Oval Park. They have come from many areas to celebrate Phagwa in Queens, the only place in New York State where the celebration is held.
Colourful floats bear doe-eyed beauty pageant queens, tassa drummers, businessmen and religious and political leaders to the park where the festival continues with a cultural show of music, song and dance. Alcohol, powder smearing or spraying of abeer, coloured water, are not permitted during the parade.
Within minutes the parade veers off Liberty Avenue and down 125th Street to the park. In a blur it disappears from sight. Street sounds resume, and those, who minutes before had thronged the sidewalk to witness the spectacle, return to their Sunday practices.
This, however, is not just a typical community parade. “It is a parade of pride,” says Simran Kotra, an immigrant from India, who travels with her family of six by train from Jackson Heights, to celebrate with the Trinidadian and Guyanese immigrants. It is their fifth year in the parade.
“Holi is our festival. We are proud to be a part of this celebration and we must support it. If not here, we will have to go to New Jersey to celebrate. Holi brings a part of India to us. The cold cannot keep me away from this riot of colours. The weather will get better, it is still early, wait until later, you will see,” she says, and runs off to catch up with the parade.
Once inside the park restrictions are more relaxed. Participants peel of coats and windbreakers and immediately engage in a spirited celebration of Phagwa. A cloud of purple, green, blue and yellow waft into the air as they toss handfuls after handfuls of the colored powders at each other. And pichakaarees, home made syringe-like hand pumps, hiss sharply when they squirt abeer on each other.
In spite of the cold and although confined to the concrete walks in the park, the celebration develops enormously locking colorful memories into the minds of those fortunate to witness its splendor.
The Phagwa Parade is a boisterous festival of propitious significance to the Hindu community in New York. It displays a celebration of togetherness, joy, mirth, music, dance and the beginning of the season of spring. Since its first staging in 1990, it has become one of the largest parades in Queens.
Traditionally, Phagwa, the oldest among Hindu festivals, falls in the month of Phalgun. Every year it is celebrated in early March on the day after the full moon. According to Hindu mythology, Phagwa also commemorates Prahalad’s devotion to Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva’s killing of Kamadeva, and the divine love of Radha and Krishna. Most significant, however, is its ushering in of spring. But on this cold day, the only spring that manifests itself in New York is the colours of Phagwa and the laughter and gaiety of those celebrating it.