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Indian festival of Holi ushers in spring with color in Holbrook

Nidhi Vankar, 7, of Bridgewater, played the flute during her dance performance at Holi, a spring festival, in Holbrook.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Nidhi Vankar, 7, of Bridgewater, played the flute during her dance performance at Holi, a spring festival, in Holbrook.

HOLBROOK — Clutching fistfuls of blaze-orange and ruby-red powdered paint, Ritesh Chandra stood on his tiptoes, peered above the crowd outside Braj Mandir, a Hindu temple in Holbrook, and spotted his family dentist.

Stealthily, Chandra crept up behind Dr. Bidhin Patel, a distinguished looking man of 50 who was about to tuck into a plate of vegetarian food. Reaching out with both hands, Chandra suddenly smeared the cheeks of the dentist. Technicolor paint dust cascaded onto Patel’s checked shirt and clouded the air. Hardly angry, Patel beamed.

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“Happy Holi!” shouted Chandra, a 37-year-old from East Bridgewater who works in technology at a local university. “Holi hai” — meaning today is Holi, the Hindu spring festival of colors. Chasing friends and even strangers to slather them with brightly hued, sandalwood-scented paint is part of the celebration.

On the asphalt outside the temple, people clapped and shimmied to music, schmoozed with friends, and sampled from a sanctified buffet known as prasadam, amid affectionate claps of color and the occasional squirt from a water gun.

Clutching a plate of curried lentils, mixed vegetables, and flatbread, the dentist — cheeks bedecked — sensed the home he left in his 20s. “You feel like you’re in your own country and culture.”

Almost. The mercury broke 100 in Patel’s native state of Gujarat on Saturday, compared with high 50s in Eastern Massachusetts. But after an unrelenting winter — snow piles lingered on the fringes of the parking lot — the clear skies and warming sun felt balmy, aiding the pulsating soundtrack and flying colors in evoking India.

With perhaps 1,000 people coming and going during the day, the Holi celebration was the largest yet organized by the Vrindavana Preservation Society, a 15-year-old Quincy-based cultural organization, and its companion religious congregation, Sri Radha Bhakti.

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The two groups partnered four years ago to convert a shuttered Friendly’s restaurant on Route 37 into Braj Mandir, giving the itinerant congregation a Hindu temple for prayer and ritual and providing a home for the cultural school, yoga classes, and cricket club offered by the Vrindavana organization.

They have opened Holi to the public in the past, but this year they expanded it by inviting Indian dance troupes from across New England to participate in a revue on stage at neighboring South Elementary School. That helped broaden the theme from celebrating the diversity of spring colors to celebrating cross-cultural harmony, said Keshav Sharan, president of both the temple and cultural society.

“The main focus here is unity and diversity,” Sharan said, taking a break from handing out sachets of powdered paint from an Express Mail package, his face a Matisse melange of vibrant color. “We are trying to give out the message that the world is one family.”

The festival included several hours of kirtan, or group chanting, at the temple, running simultaneously with a song and dance program at the elementary school. There, colorful tapestries hung in front of the usual bulletin boards, and the cafetorium resounded with South Indian music.

On stage, a mix of traditional and Bollywood-type groups took turns — girls in silks and elaborate makeup, boys in gangster fedoras and neckties.

In between, celebrants offered devotional poetry and music, culminating in the costumed dramatization of the story of Holi, in which a demonic king tries to kill his pious son but instead gets his comeuppance from Lord Vishnu, a triumph of good over evil.

All of that was prelude to the 90-minute color celebration-dance party in the sun-soaked parking lot, a big draw for the crowd.

Amie Speroni, a 29-year-old from Providence, discovered Holi online and was captivated by the exuberance. “I just wanted to get as close to that as possible, minus the thousand-dollar plane flight,” said Speroni, who works in a group home for children with autism.

She came to the right place. Satya Vissapragada, who grew up in India, Europe, and Africa, said this was the biggest Holi celebration he had seen beyond the subcontinent.

Vissapragada, who lives in Quincy and works at a hedge fund, played the villain in the on-stage reenactment, with dastardly mustache and bejeweled crown before shedding that costume for a Red Sox hoodie. Now he was taking a breather just beyond the raucous outdoor crowd, his hoodie dusted Smurf blue with hints of green and orange.

“It’s as good as we do in India,” he said.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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