Conversations Across Borders: Holi, Mental Health, and Feminism in India


    Assistant Professor Anandavalli discusses many topics, including feminism in both India and the United States in her episode of Conversations Across Borders. Image/UNCP Global Engagement.

    By Lakia McLeod

    Published April 12, 2021

    Conversations Across Borders is a virtual web series created by UNC Pembroke’s Office of Global Engagement and Office of Campus Engagement and Leadership, hosted by Associate Vice Chancellor of Global Engagement, Dr. Cathy Lee T. Arcuino.

    “During this time, when travel is restricted, it is important to provide opportunities for our UNCP community to learn more about other parts of the world,” Arcuino said.

    “Conversations Across Borders is a unique platform to increase ones global awareness from wherever you are,” Arcuino added in regards to the goals of the series.

    The web series is all about fostering conversations with people from across the globe on leadership, culture, and the various ways they and others can make a change in their community. Videos are posted on the UNCPs YouTube channel every other Thursday and feature a different speaker representing a different country each time. The speaker for the March 25 video was Valli Anandavalli, an Assistant Professor at Southern Oregon University who moved to the United States from New Delhi six years ago.

    Anandavalli’s decision to move across the globe to a foreign country was due, in large part, to her passion for mental health work and counseling. She worked as a counselor with a focus on researching mental health disparities, mental illness, and feminist issues. Anandavalli realized early on in her life that she wanted to pursue a career in mental health work due to her own experiences with struggling with her mental health as a youth in the 1990’s and feeling like she did not have the support system that she would have liked to have had.

    “I started to think about mental health from a relatively young age,” Anandavalli explained. “Eventually, I got so passionate that I wanted to make a career out of it. And where else to go to make a career in mental health and professional counselling than the United States,” added Anandavlli.

    America’s innovation, advancement, and research were deciding factors in Anandavalli’s choice to attend Pittsburg State University to receive her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She then went on to receive a Ph.D. in counseling and counselor education from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

    As with many students who travel to foreign countries to study abroad, Anandavalli had her share of a culture shock when she first arrived in America. One thing that surprised her was Americans’ frequent habit of saying ‘thank you’. According to her, collectivism, a cultural emphasis on the group as a whole and personal relationships, is deeply embedded in Indian culture. It was common for neighbors to cook meals for one another or purchase medicine from the store when someone was sick. Because they operated as and treated each other as one really big extended family, kind acts that would seem above and beyond neighborly affinity to a Westerner was only natural in Anandavalli’s community.

    Anandavalli stressed that not saying thank you did not mean that someone was not grateful for the favor that was being performed for them.

    “By not saying thank you I’m communicating to them that you are part of my family. You are such an inner circle, but of course you would do this. So, I struggled, changing my mindset coming here saying thank you for everything,” said Anandavalli.

    This sense of collectivism is grounded in the Holi festival, a spring festival that occurs in March. It is all about celebrating the changing of the seasons and the new life, energy and colors that are brought about by Spring.

    Holi follows the lunar calendar, so it occurs on a different day each year and takes place over two days. The first day is for indulging in energy-giving snacks. The second day is the main day of Holi, where the community goes out to sing, dance, and smear powder-based dye on each other. That is where the tradition gets its nickname, the ‘festival of the colors’.

    Feminism in India is on the rise, but it also looks different from feminism in the west. Indian feminism includes advocating for things as simple as clean, accessible feminine hygiene products for women, to protesting the rampant and excessive rape culture present in certain parts of India. Caste and privilege also play a role in feminist movements.

    Women of a lower caste or socioeconomic standing in India are more likely to, compared to their upper-caste counterparts, experience rape or sexual harassment. They are also the least protected should they choose to speak out about their experiences. Ultimately, as Anandavalli reminds us, oppression is oppression in whatever country or form it may take.

    “The specifics may look different but patriarchy in its essence, oppression in its essence looks very similar. Which is, let’s not give agency to the people to regulate their own lived experience, to regulate their own bodies,” said Anandavalli.

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