Friday, March 02, 2007
The Colours of Joy
By Ratna Rajaiah
Or then, simply Holi.
Tomorrow, much of India is going to be drenched in riotous colour and music and dance as we celebrate what is popularly known as the festival of colours. And no, I am not going to talk about the health hazards of coloured powders that are used these days to play Holi.
Nor rave and rant about the rude, impolite, often nasty practices that have crept in like using mud and cow dung and oil paint, even sewage. Nor hold forth about celebrating Holi the organic way. Though being a die-hard New Age type, I will touch upon the subject!
Instead, I ask you to walk with me and discover the many wonderful and little known aspects of Holi, in the hope that we will thus capture the magic of one of the happiest, most joyous and glorious festivals that dot our calendar.
Phagun aayo re!
“ketaki gulab juhi champaka….”
Phalguna. One of Arjuna’s many names because he was born in this month - Phalguna or Phagun.
And what a month! When the earth, getting ready for summer, shrugs off the last remaining sluggishness of winter and sidles up to the sun. Who, rather pleased by this attention, warms and coaxes everything to lustily, merrily sprout and bud and flower and hatch and breed and turn from withered ol’ brown to lush new green. A heady, rapturous, enchanting month, where mango blossoms burst forth like torches of lace, kissed here and there by tiny green baby mangoes.
So Phagun marks the beginning of what they call spring. But we have a much better name for this season in India – Vasant or Basant, a season so heady that we even have a couple of ragas dedicated to it! And Phagun is also the month when we celebrate Holi because of which it is also called Phagwa or Phalgunotsava. Or then, more appropriately, Vasantotsav - the festival of spring.
Colour me Red!
Think about it. Holi is the only festival which we “play”. And so, how can we speak of Holi and not talk about colour? Colours that we steal from Mother Nature, decking herself up in her spring finery, to joyously splash each other with.
Scarlet from the hibiscus, purple from the jamun fruit, yellow from the lemon and the sun, blue from a hot summer sky, and green from the parrot’s wing and the cheeky green chili. And saffron from…..
Actualy, Nature was the source of the colours with which Holi was played in ancient times. “Gulal”, the Hindi word which today refers to all the Holi coloured powders, was originally the kesar (saffron-colour)coloured powder made from the dried flowers of a tree.
A tree appropriately called the “Flame of the Forest”, because its velvety flowers (shaped like a parrot’s beak which is why it is also called the parrot tree) are a breathtaking, blazing orange that virtually “set light” the place where they grow. And with Nature’s impeccable timing, the trees burst into flame…er, I mean burst bloom flowers, in February, staying on nearly to the end of April!It is said that Lord Krishna played Holi with this very same "gulal".
But the Palasha tree (as it is called in Sanskrit and Hindi) is not just a pretty face.
First let me tell you the rather charming legend about it. Considered sacred to the moon, it is said to have come to life when the feather of a falcon was dipped into soma, the nectar of the Gods. And so, it came to be considered is a sacred tree, an integral part of many Hindu religious ceremonies, the trifoliate formation of the leaves said to represent the Holy Triumvirate, Vishnu in the middle, Brahma on the left and Shiva on the right.
But legend apart, this tree (botanical name : Butea Monosperma and Butea Frondosa is the rare Indian variety with yellow flowers), also called the Dhak or Bastard Teak, has many uses. The tree acts as a host for the lac insect which produces lac, the base ingredient for shellac and varnish. All parts of it are used in Ayurveda for panchakarma therapies and in Unani medicine. The dried leaves are used to make plates and cups and for wrapping tobacco to make biddies.
And of course, come the month of Phagun, thousands of the flowers are dried and then ground to produce the gorgeous Holi powder called ‘gulal’…..
A spring festival has to be as old as…well, as old as spring itself, but Holi is celebrated for other reasons as well. Here are two of the most popular ones:
The demon king Hiranyakasipu’s hatred Lord Vishnu for killing elder his brother Hiranyaksa was so great that he wanted to destroy his own son Prahlad. Because despite his father’s best efforts, he had turned out to be Lord Vishnu’s most ardent devotee and continued to be so despite the most terrible tortures heaped upon him by his father. Hiranyakasipu’s sister Holika had been given the boon that fire could not destroy her. So, Hiranyakasipu ordered that Holika sit with the child Prahlad in a huge bonfire. When she did, the fire destroyed Holika and the child was unharmed. And so Holi is celebrated – like so many other festivals– as the triumph of good over evil.
One of Holi’s lesser known names is Anangotsava. Ananga means “without a body”. When Kamadeva, spurred by Lord Indra to make Lord Shiva fall in love with Parvati, shot an arrow in Siva's heart as he sat deep in meditation, the enraged Maheshwara opened his third eye and reduced poor Kamadeva to ashes. And so, Kamadeva got another name - “Ananga”, and the occasion is celebrated as Kamavilas, Kaman Pandigai or Kama-dahanam (or Madanamahotsava meaning the Festival of Kama), especially in many parts of South India.
I know. We’re all thinking - is being reduced to ashes is a reason to celebrate or a reason to mourn? Well, it is said the festiva honours Kamadeva’s selfless sacrifice for the cause of true love! And the traditional offerings to this God of Love are sandalwood paste to soothe the agony of his burns and mango blossoms which apparently are his favorite flower.
Incidentally, the story also has a happy ending because after he was so devastatingly incinerated, Kamadeva’s wife Rati, prayed to Lord Siva to restore her husband to life. Siva was placated by Rati’s prayers and arranged so that Kamadeva be reborn as Lord Krishna’s son by his wife Rukmini.
No discussion on Holi can be complete without talking about Lord Krishna. Because, the most evocative, sensuous, rapturous, enchanting images of Holi are that of Lord Krishna playing Holi with his beloved Radha and the gopis. In Mathura, Holi festivities, even to this day, extend over 16 days and are centred around Lord Krishna’s birthplace, Nandgaon and Radha’s birthplace, Barsana.
There is even a beautiful lake called Gulal Kund!
These images have been repeatedly captured and celebrated in art and poetry and theatre and dance. And been the inspiration for the genesis of a very beautiful genre of Hindustani classical music called hori or compositions about Holi, sung in a very ancient style of singing called dhamar, dating back to the 13th century. When the great musical geniuses of Swami Haridas, Baba Gopal Das, Tansen and Baiju Bawra were taking dhrupad singing to its finest glory, the hori was also coming into its own.
In fact, hori songs were performed with great gusto in the court of that famed royal patron of music, Emperor Akbar. And typically, all hori compositions are about the mischievous, irresistible Krishna, cavorting with his Radha, among the gopis, drenching them not just with his favourite colour, kesari, but also with love!
“Khele shyam sangh hori aaj, bhar pichakari rang bhar kesar ke” .
And so, befittingly, the last words on this festival of colour must be those of that other ardent devotee of Lord Krishna, Meera Bai. This is one of her compositions and depending on how you want to look at it, it’s a bhajan or a hori geet, or a romantic song or then an impassioned cry of a beloved’s heart describing the colours of love.
Because, at the end of it, that is what Holi is – a celebration of love. Happy Holi!
Syama piya more rangade chunariya
Aisi rangade ke ranga nahi chhute
Dhobiya dhoye chahe yeh sari umaria
Lal na rangaun main, hari na rangaun
Apne hi ranga mein rangade chunariya
Bina rangaye main to ghar nahi jaungi
Beet hi jaye chahe yeh sari umariya
My beloved Shyam, color my dupatta
Colour it so the colours will never leave
Even if the dhobi washes it a lifetime
But I won’t be coloured red
Colour me in only shades of you
Without being thus suffused by you, I will not leave
Even if I lose a lifetime….
Hori or Holi?
The musicologists say that the word “holi” got corrupted to “hori” because it is easier to pronounce while singing. Lord Krishna’s bhakts say it was originally “hori” or happiness in Brajbhasha, a dialect of Hindi.
In Bengal and Orissa, Holi is celebrated as Dol Jatra or Dol Purnima to mark the birth of the great singing saint, Mahaprabhu Chaitanya