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Holi: Poetry, syncretism, and dilemmas

While many people (including the Prime Minister) are declaring that they would not celebrate Holi this year due to COVID-19; the good, bad, and ugly that colour Holi celebrations in India still mandate discussion.

Ishmeet Nagpal 10 Mar 2020

holi

Aaj rang hai, hey Maa rang hai ri
Moray mehboob ke ghar rang hai ri

(“There’s colour today, O mother, there’s a glow today,
In my beloved’s home there’s new colour today.”)

Amir Khusrau’s qawwali blasts through the speakers downstairs as residents loudly discuss and justify not letting their kids play Holi in the street on March 10, 2020. The children had already bought balloons which they were planning to fill with coloured water for Holi. They have been told very strictly that they will all stay inside their houses to avoid risk. As the adults read Whatsapp messages to each other (some of them factually inaccurate), I ask the kids who they were planning to throw the balloons at. As the music player switches to, “Aaj na chhodenge bas hamjoli, khelenge hum Holi, Chaahe bheege re teri chunariya, chaahe bheege rey choli” (“Today we will not let you go, o playmate, we will play Holi, even if your scarf is drenched, even if your blouse is drenched”), the children giggle and tell me they threw balloons at passersby on the road last year. 

This is nothing new. I have myself been the target of many such balloons over the years. Men and boys would roam the roads on their bikes, shouting profanities and throwing colour and balloons filled with water (and other things) at unsuspecting girls. Holi in Haryana had taught me to never (EVER) step outside on the day, and one day after- because of leftover supplies of colour and leftover effects of liquor. Drinking bhaang (traditionally prepared as a milky concoction with marijuana leaves) and general hooliganism that have come to define the festival for most people, have obscured the beauty and abandon we expect from a festival that is literally the celebration of love, heralding the spring season, and the victory of good over evil.

The festival itself, has been celebrated for centuries, not just by Hindus, but also by Jains and Newar Buddhists of Nepal. Sikhs are also linked to this festival. Guru Gobind Singh Ji – the tenth and last human guru of the Sikhs – modified Holi into a three-day extended festival called Hola Mohalla that celebrates martial arts. The festival was started the day after Holi in Anandpur Sahib, where Sikh soldiers would train in mock battles, compete in horsemanship, athletics, archery and military exercises. People from all corners of Punjab visit Anandpur Sahib in large numbers every year for the festivities.

In Mughal India, Holi was celebrated as Eid-e-Gulabi during the reigns of Emperors Akbar and Shahjahan. The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar even wrote a song about Holi, albeit referencing an eve-teasing scenario which is also a common template for Bollywood’s Holi themed songs. While there may be subtlety in the lyrics, it is the overall treatment and choreography of such Bollywood songs that sometimes endorses outright harassment of women.

On the other hand, Holi has inspired deeply mystic and spritual poetry as well. Amir Khusrau wrote,

Kheluungii Holi, Khaaja ghar aaye,
Dhan dhan bhaag hamare sajni,
Khaaja aaye aangan mere”

 
(I shall play Holi as Khaaja has come home, blessed is my fortune, o friend, as Khaaja has come to my courtyard).

Famous Sufi saint Bulleh Shah illustrated the syncretic nature of the festival beautifully in his poetry,

Hori 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’
.”
 
(I will play Holi beginning in the name of the Lord, saying Bismillah.
Cast like a gem in the name of the Prophet,
Each drop falls with the beat of Allah, Allah,
Only He may play with these colourful dyes,
Who has learnt to lose himself in Allah.
‘Am I not your lord?’ asked the Lover,
And all maidens lifted their veils,
Everyone said, ‘Yes!’ and repeated “There is only one God’)

Even in contemporary times, the syncretism emerges in beautiful pockets around the country. 63-year-old Mohammad Gyassuddin of Varanasi is the fifth generation artisan who crafts the Shahi Pagdi (also known as Akbari Pagdi) for the Baba Bholenath idol in Kashi Vishwanath temple. The Bholenaath (Shiva) idol is worshipped by a huge number of devotees on Holi, and Gyassuddin feels honoured that his family has been entrusted with the job of decorating and crafting the Pagdi (turban) for so many years. He is a firm believer of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb and says, “कोई भी हिन्दू-मुस्लिम नहीं चाहता है, सब लोग दो वक्त की रोज़ी-रोटी चाहते हैं और कुछ नहीं कुछ राजनीतिक लोग हैं जो अपनी रोटी सेंकना चाहते हैं, वही लोग लड़ाई लगाते हैं” (“Nobody wants Hindu-Muslim conflict, we just want two meals a day and a way to earn it, Some political forces have vested interests, so they create conflicts.”)

Delhi is still reeling from the devastation brought by Delhi Pogrom 2020. COVID-19 is leading to cancellations of public events and gatherings, even as the people rendered homeless struggle in relief camps. Here in Mumbai, parents want to cancel Holi celebrations because of the health risk to their children, the same parents who did not bat an eye when their children endangered strangers on the roads by throwing water balloons in previous years. Hordes of men will harrass women and girls in the name of, “Bura na mano, Holi hai” (“Don’t mind, it’s Holi”), this year too, despite COVID-19 scares. Viruses, after all, cannot teach the value of consent. Women like me who have had past experiences of sexual harassment during Holi will be cloistered safely inside a house that was not the target of a Pogrom. Holi is inherently supposed to be messy and chaotic, while inspiring joy and freedom. This year, the mess has another colour- the red of the spilt blood of our citizens. This Holi, let us hold on to it’s inherent beauty, or whatever is left of it, and hope to see the day when we can all celebrate the colours of harmony and mutual respect again.

 

Related articles:

1. The colourful history of Holi and Islam

2. Is the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, so intrinsic to Delhi, being made irrelevant?

3. Video asking to harass Muslim women on Holi surfaces on social media

 

 

Holi: Poetry, syncretism, and dilemmas

While many people (including the Prime Minister) are declaring that they would not celebrate Holi this year due to COVID-19; the good, bad, and ugly that colour Holi celebrations in India still mandate discussion.

holi

Aaj rang hai, hey Maa rang hai ri
Moray mehboob ke ghar rang hai ri

(“There’s colour today, O mother, there’s a glow today,
In my beloved’s home there’s new colour today.”)

Amir Khusrau’s qawwali blasts through the speakers downstairs as residents loudly discuss and justify not letting their kids play Holi in the street on March 10, 2020. The children had already bought balloons which they were planning to fill with coloured water for Holi. They have been told very strictly that they will all stay inside their houses to avoid risk. As the adults read Whatsapp messages to each other (some of them factually inaccurate), I ask the kids who they were planning to throw the balloons at. As the music player switches to, “Aaj na chhodenge bas hamjoli, khelenge hum Holi, Chaahe bheege re teri chunariya, chaahe bheege rey choli” (“Today we will not let you go, o playmate, we will play Holi, even if your scarf is drenched, even if your blouse is drenched”), the children giggle and tell me they threw balloons at passersby on the road last year. 

This is nothing new. I have myself been the target of many such balloons over the years. Men and boys would roam the roads on their bikes, shouting profanities and throwing colour and balloons filled with water (and other things) at unsuspecting girls. Holi in Haryana had taught me to never (EVER) step outside on the day, and one day after- because of leftover supplies of colour and leftover effects of liquor. Drinking bhaang (traditionally prepared as a milky concoction with marijuana leaves) and general hooliganism that have come to define the festival for most people, have obscured the beauty and abandon we expect from a festival that is literally the celebration of love, heralding the spring season, and the victory of good over evil.

The festival itself, has been celebrated for centuries, not just by Hindus, but also by Jains and Newar Buddhists of Nepal. Sikhs are also linked to this festival. Guru Gobind Singh Ji – the tenth and last human guru of the Sikhs – modified Holi into a three-day extended festival called Hola Mohalla that celebrates martial arts. The festival was started the day after Holi in Anandpur Sahib, where Sikh soldiers would train in mock battles, compete in horsemanship, athletics, archery and military exercises. People from all corners of Punjab visit Anandpur Sahib in large numbers every year for the festivities.

In Mughal India, Holi was celebrated as Eid-e-Gulabi during the reigns of Emperors Akbar and Shahjahan. The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar even wrote a song about Holi, albeit referencing an eve-teasing scenario which is also a common template for Bollywood’s Holi themed songs. While there may be subtlety in the lyrics, it is the overall treatment and choreography of such Bollywood songs that sometimes endorses outright harassment of women.

On the other hand, Holi has inspired deeply mystic and spritual poetry as well. Amir Khusrau wrote,

Kheluungii Holi, Khaaja ghar aaye,
Dhan dhan bhaag hamare sajni,
Khaaja aaye aangan mere”

 
(I shall play Holi as Khaaja has come home, blessed is my fortune, o friend, as Khaaja has come to my courtyard).

Famous Sufi saint Bulleh Shah illustrated the syncretic nature of the festival beautifully in his poetry,

Hori 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’
.”
 
(I will play Holi beginning in the name of the Lord, saying Bismillah.
Cast like a gem in the name of the Prophet,
Each drop falls with the beat of Allah, Allah,
Only He may play with these colourful dyes,
Who has learnt to lose himself in Allah.
‘Am I not your lord?’ asked the Lover,
And all maidens lifted their veils,
Everyone said, ‘Yes!’ and repeated “There is only one God’)

Even in contemporary times, the syncretism emerges in beautiful pockets around the country. 63-year-old Mohammad Gyassuddin of Varanasi is the fifth generation artisan who crafts the Shahi Pagdi (also known as Akbari Pagdi) for the Baba Bholenath idol in Kashi Vishwanath temple. The Bholenaath (Shiva) idol is worshipped by a huge number of devotees on Holi, and Gyassuddin feels honoured that his family has been entrusted with the job of decorating and crafting the Pagdi (turban) for so many years. He is a firm believer of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb and says, “कोई भी हिन्दू-मुस्लिम नहीं चाहता है, सब लोग दो वक्त की रोज़ी-रोटी चाहते हैं और कुछ नहीं कुछ राजनीतिक लोग हैं जो अपनी रोटी सेंकना चाहते हैं, वही लोग लड़ाई लगाते हैं” (“Nobody wants Hindu-Muslim conflict, we just want two meals a day and a way to earn it, Some political forces have vested interests, so they create conflicts.”)

Delhi is still reeling from the devastation brought by Delhi Pogrom 2020. COVID-19 is leading to cancellations of public events and gatherings, even as the people rendered homeless struggle in relief camps. Here in Mumbai, parents want to cancel Holi celebrations because of the health risk to their children, the same parents who did not bat an eye when their children endangered strangers on the roads by throwing water balloons in previous years. Hordes of men will harrass women and girls in the name of, “Bura na mano, Holi hai” (“Don’t mind, it’s Holi”), this year too, despite COVID-19 scares. Viruses, after all, cannot teach the value of consent. Women like me who have had past experiences of sexual harassment during Holi will be cloistered safely inside a house that was not the target of a Pogrom. Holi is inherently supposed to be messy and chaotic, while inspiring joy and freedom. This year, the mess has another colour- the red of the spilt blood of our citizens. This Holi, let us hold on to it’s inherent beauty, or whatever is left of it, and hope to see the day when we can all celebrate the colours of harmony and mutual respect again.

 

Related articles:

1. The colourful history of Holi and Islam

2. Is the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, so intrinsic to Delhi, being made irrelevant?

3. Video asking to harass Muslim women on Holi surfaces on social media

 

 

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