The many hues of Holi

Holi, The Festival of Colors, IndiaHoli, perhaps the most important festival after Deepevali in many parts of India, though not in the southern region except its big cities, has just come and gone. Streets and lanes turned into large playgrounds, not just for adults, but children who could sprinkle water and colour on anyone without being scolded. The disarming buzzword was “boora na maano, Holi hai.”   Being covered in colour brings relative anonymity, and in this largely conservative nation, it also means Holi is a time when men and women and boys and girls can mingle with relative freedom.

Mainly the young and the brave venture out to play it with water colours, a sign of growing urbanisation and putting health and wellbeing before letting the hair down. Cold winds caused by snowfall in Kashmir and rains in Punjab this year kept most Delhites indoors. Those who could afford escaped to short vacations on long weekends.  There were no such predilections and precautions in celebrating the Valentine’s Day that came earlier. It is a cosy festival of gifts and cards, triggered by West-influenced commecialisation, when even the mobile companies charge a no-concession tariff to make a quick buck. It is “metroculture” at its indulgent best.

Have we lost our ability to enjoy unbridled outdoor fun? Holi and Basant, the spring festival, are a part of our ancient cultural heritage. They allow for man-woman mingling long before Valentine’s Day came into vogue. Perhaps, the mode of enjoyment has changed along with the values. The fun and frolic that were considered done earlier are considered vulgar today. But it is difficult generalize on a vast and diverse country like ours.  

One good thing about Holi’s joyful and colourful celebration of the arrival of spring is that although combined with several religious legends, it has long ceased to be only a Hindu festival. Indeed, it is celebrated across the world wherever people of Indian origin, and not just Hindus, reside. The festival has, in recent times, spread to parts of Europe and North America as a spring celebration of love, frolic, and colours.

It has no China connection, but a commercial one has developed in the recent years with the Chinese exporting to India sprinklers (pichkari) and colour with natural dyes that, unlike the chemical ones, does not harm the skin.

The principal legend behind Holi is about Vishnu devotee Prahlad, the son of King Hiranyakashipu, the king of the present-day Multan, now in Pakistan. But Basant and the kite-flying that goes with it, have become a subdued festival in neighbouring Pakistan. The governments in the recent years have tended to ban revelry under the influence of conservatives in the religious establishment and kite-flying, because of its laws and order hazards and accidents.  

Holi is not celebrated in Pakistan, except the tiny Hindu minority. This year’s celebrations saw the revelers receiving protection from young Muslims belonging to the National Students Federation. A body formed in the 1960s, NSF has braved troubles from successive regimes but has held on to its liberal values and works to support the minorities. The majority Muslim community does not celebrate Holi.

A question has been raised: Should Muslims be celebrating Holi? Madan Gopal Singh, renowned Indian composer, singer, lyricist, actor, screenwriter, film theorist and editor, currently Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, has a take on it. It reflects the Sufi stream and does not necessarily have the nod from organised Islam. 

Singh approvingly quotes Bulleh Shah, the 17th century Punjabi poet and humanist. Shah lived in Kasur, present-day Pakistan, during that golden period of Sufism that had the Rahman Baba composing Sufi poetry in Pashto and Sindhi Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhatai. His lifespan also overlapped with other Punjabi poet Waris Shah of Heer Ranjha fame, and another Sindhi Sufi poet Abdul Wahab, better known by his pen name Sachal Sarmast. Living a long distance away, but at the same time in Agra, was Urdu poet, Mir Taqi Mir. 

In easy-to-understand Punjabi, Bulleh Shah said: 

    “Hori (Holi) Khelungi, Keh Bismillah.
    Nam Nabi ki ratn chadi, boond padi allah allah.    
    Rang rangeeli ohi khilave, Jis seekhi ho Fanaa fi Allah.
    “Alastu bi rabbikum” Pritam bole, Sab sakhiyan ne ghunghat khole.
    Qaloo Bala, yun hi kar bole, “la ilaha illallah”
    Hori khelungi, Keh Bismillah.”

Madan Gopal Singh says the reference to “Alastu bi rabbikum” is from an Ayat of Quoran-e-Sharif. Celebrated at the approach of vernal equinox, between end-February and mid-March, Holi is clearly a festival that has takers beyond India and South Asia.  

According to Iranian scholar Dr Aziz Mahdi, Holi and Nowruz (Nowrouz) in Iran coincide except that while Holi’s date changes as per full moon, Nowruz comes every year on March 21, which is the March equinox or the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere and the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere.

Dr Mahdi explains that the words ‘Basant’ and ‘Bahār’ are two Indian and Iranian words with common roots in the so-called theoretical language called the Indo-Iranian language.  Basant means the spring season which starts from mid-March and lasts until the month of May. It also has other meanings attached to it in Indian subcontinent; it is also the name of a Rāga or a musical mode or a type of Indian music which is recited particularly in the spring season and lastly it is also a type of garland made of yellow flowers.

The word Bahār also carries different meanings in Iran; it is the first season of the year, the spring. The blossoming of flowers is called by this name; it is also a mixture of few flowers which are yellow in color and are found in mountainous region of central and southern Europe and west and central Asia; it is also one of the types of soft archaic music.

Jawaharlal Nehru quotes an Iranian scholar of the time speaking in Allahabad in his book ‘The Discovery of India’: “the Iranians and Indians are like two brothers who according to Persian legends had got separated from each other, one going to the east and other to the west. Their families had forgotten all about each other and the only thing that remained in common between them were the snatches of few old tunes which they still played on their flutes. It was through these tunes that after a lapse of centuries, the two families recognized each other and reunited.” 

By: Mahendra Ved