A play of colours

A play of colours

Few festivals have had such a cultural impact like Holi. The festival of colours was patronised by not only the kings of Vijayanagara, but also the Sultans and Mughals of Delhi and Nawabs of Lucknow, writes Madhulika Dash

Holi being celebrated in Uttar Pradesh.

Contemplate Holi... on the surface, it is a Hindu festival of colours celebrated since time immemorial. In fact, it is a festival that is a celebration of coming of spring — which our ancestors believed was the beginning of a new phase of life — a beacon of hope where good always defeats the evil (Holika Dahan and Narasimha) and of course of love (Radha-Krishna). And yet, when it comes to understanding Holi, which is commonly seen as a play of colour in sync with the floral beauty that marks the beginning of Phagun month in March, it stuns.


A pictorial description of Holi in Udaipur.

Holi, unlike its peers, has been the single festival whose purpose has changed over the years — and the only festival that has single-handedly built a culture of art, social equilibrium and brotherhood. It was Holi that enabled the forward-thinking Krishnadevraya, emperor of the Vijayanagara empire, to give the king a platform to connect with his subjects, informally.

According to Jambavati Kalyana, the two days of informal celebration turned the king into a commoner who wasn’t safe from the sudden sprinkling of saffron water while walking around his realm. Centuries later, Sufi saints like Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia used Holi as a medium to spread their message of love and botherhood to people. In fact, it was Muhammad Bin Tughluq’s fascination with Holi and his insistence of adopting it as a court festival and becoming a willing party to the celebrations — he is often credited to being the first Muslim ruler to celebrate Holi — that gave him the goodwill that survived not only his reign but also stood his successor, Firoz Shah Tughlaq, in good stead.

Social equilibrium

Reams have been written on how the Sultan would make it an elaborate festival in his court where officials, soldiers and commoners would be free to mingle. In fact, the two-day celebrations that came close to Nouroz would even see the palace women throw caution to air and mingle with relatives and friends in an informal setting replete with performances, dance and food. Fascinatingly, it wasn’t just the Tughluq dynasty that fell to the charms of the colour festival, in medieval India, Holi literally had become a mainstay across kingdom and a legacy that forthcoming dynasties readily adopted. While the benevolent Sher Shah Suri chose Holi to bring in that sense of social equilibrium in his harem and brotherhood in his court, Mughal dynasty founder Babar was so enamoured by the easy sense of happiness and colour, that it was one of the initial Indian-ness he adopted while setting court in India. It is said that Babur would often celebrate Holi by dousing in a pool full of wine.

It was in the era of Akbar and later, Jahangir, that Holi took on the form of a ‘fiesta’ rather than a simple, two-day celebration in the Vijayanagara empire. Jahangir, who in Tuzk-e-Jahangiri is shown enjoying the game of sprinkling fragrant coloured water on Nur Jahan, once explained Holi as the day of Akbar and Manmanti Bai, his mother. Old paintings and accounts penned by the likes of courtier Abul Fazal talk about the apolitical nature of Holi — and claim that as one of the primary reason as to why it became such an integral part of the culture of every ruling dynasty from the beginning of the medieval period right down to 1949, which saw the last grand style Holi celebration thrown in by the Nawab of Lahouri.

Cultural melting pot

So fond were the great Mughals of this festival, which enabled women to forsake the social norms of purdah and come out to enjoy an informal two-day cultural celebration, that they


Buland Darwaza is an iconic structure from the Mughal era.

turned it into a fiesta that was as culturally grand as the celebration of Diwali. While Akbar opened his court for mingling, Jahangir, who renamed Holi as Aab e Pashi (shower of colourful flowers), took the inclusion of artistes, dancers, singers and courtesans a step ahead and introduced the concept of Mehfil-e-Holi. This mehfil patronised poets like Khusrau to pen thoughtful couplets that showcased a new facet of this ancient seasonal festival. By the time Shanjahanabad was built, not only Holi became a large festival, complete with a fair that was organised where present day Rajghat is, the Hori culture had nurtured many a distinct poet including the daughter of Aurangzeb who would pen beautiful verses under a pen name.

Fascinatingly, Holi’s grandeur wasn’t the handiwork of the Mughals alone, but of the Nawabs of Lucknow, Agra and the Nizam as well, who would spend a generous amount in creating that idyllic platform that encouraged love, brotherhood and a culture that can be identified with Holi. In grandness of celebration, it was easily akin to modern day concerts, where artistes, dancers, singers and even saints were invited to be a part of the two-day bonanza that began with an intimate colour play at the harem between the king and his women before shifting to the court and then eventually ending with an array of mehfils organised across different parts of the city and the palace. Interestingly, though it wasn’t just the celebration that scored with each emperor or Nawab turning it into a more lavish affair —the Lucknow Nawabs were once famous for the best Holi celebration in the country — but also in informality. By the time Alam Shah and Bahadur Shah Zafar, who introduced the new concept of Urdu poetry called Hori, came to the throne, forget courtiers and ministers who had the right to smear the emperor’s forehead with gulal and sprinkle rose water on his clothes, even the poor were given that liberty during Holi.

Comrades all


Stone Chariot at Vittala Temple, Hampi
represents the Vijayanagara empire

Another aspect that also changed with the informality was the tone of the festival. While pre-1857 Holi celebrations were all about nurturing a culture, the latter were focused towards building brotherhood. Legend has it that when Rani Lakshmi Bai decided to join the war of Independence, she decided to use the festival of Holi to bring in the sense of comradeship among men and women that formed her army. Maharaja Shivaji was famous for enjoying the festival of colours, which he felt was the best way to turn ‘neighbours into friends, and friends into allies.’

Such was the common love for the festival of colours that the British often found it hard to fathom that ‘pull’ which could surpass the shackles of religion and bring people together and douse them in two days of culture and happy feelings. For most part of it, the likes of Anglo-Irish classical scholar William Ridgeway called it a ‘curious get together’. But that was till Christian missionaries too began using a form of Holi to build that sense of brotherhood, and eventually turned it into a celebratory event pre-Lent.

Beyond religions

One incident that showcased how Holi, often myopically defined as a Hindu festival, was the first to transcend the boundaries of religion. During the rule of Wajid Ali Shah, there was a year when Holi and Muharram fell on the same date. The Nawab, an ardent fan of the festival, not only decided to play Holi and was first to arrive for the celebrations, but also composed a thumri paying ode to the essence of the festival. Of course, he did observe Muharram in the evening.

Post 1857, for nearly 200 years, Holi remained a shadow of its former kind. Confined to the vicinity of homes and palaces, the Chandni Chowk fiesta turned into more sombre fair with the evening mehfil as the constant. It wasn’t till 1950 that Holi of the Red Fort saw a revival of sorts with the Nawabs of Aligarh and Agra, along with some kunwars of Wazirpura and Dhirpura decided to celebrate the festival in Chandni Chowk style. Complete with old weapon-carrier spraying colour on all and sundry with rubber tubes immersed in big drums filled with coloured water, that year, Holi reminded many of the true ‘essence’ of the Phagun Mas festival — of an occasion that celebrates brotherhood, love and new beginnings.

No surprise then that in his poem Chandpur ki Holi, legendary Urdu poet Qayam writes Ilahihai jab takke ye shor o shar ho alam mien/ Holi seybaqiasar (O God let the festivity of Holi survive till the world does).

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