Color Me in Song
(Was published in The Hindustan Times))
A group of boys and girls in ragged clothes, were asking for money and mithai, drenched in colors that would frustrate any environmentalist – red, silver, green, walking through the gali-koocha of dilli nagari’s DDA colonies. While this asking for Phagwa was not exactly Braj Ki Hori, but the dholak and the fairly high pitched ranting along with it was intriguing – I was quite taken aback with what I managed to make out. They were actually singing the trademark Holi song – Aaj Biraj Mein Hori re Rasiya. But to my mind it also brought out the core idea of this festival –it transcends many boundaries in the way it gets celebrated. And a uniting theme in all of this is the music that is so intrinsically linked to Holi – I definitely do not refer only to the Bollywood staple Rang Barse here.
Celebrated throughout northern India by the privileged and the commoner alike, the music around Holi suggests how folk and the classical traditions co-exist, how color and music come together and how traditional festivities can overlook religious convictions. Whether it is the songsters on the streets, the sonorous strains of legends like Thumri singer Shobha Gurtu or the Qawwal Jaffar Hussein Badayuni, there is so much music in Holi and this is just a glimpse into that world.
What is really the connection between color and music? It is actually an unusual one. Color can be seen, is perceivable while music exists on another plane – more abstract, more intangible. Yet the two are closely connected. The strains of Kafi, Pilu, Tilang or Bhairavi, some common Raag in which Holi songs are sung, do elicit moods of love, celebration, belonging, separation and sensuality. These Raag have mostly risen from folk tunes - with their origin in folk music. Although over time they have come to be formalized into Raag in the classical genre, they remain relegated to the domain of “lighter” Raag. In fact the folk element in the semi-classical tradition of Thumri is the most evident in the sub-genre of Hori. And therefore a lot of us grow up with these tunes in our conscious; the familiarity making it all the more enjoyable.
A more obvious connection between color and music is the rich text that comes through Basant, Holi and even Sawan where moods and colors merge into a beautiful tapestry. References to Hari Chudiyan (green bangles), Gori baiyyan (fair skinned arms) Kumkum (vermillion), Kesar (saffron), Gulal (red color), Daph and Shehnai, Rang Rez (the Dyer) and Chunariya (the Stole) come to mind straight away. Even today people relive legends through these songs; celebrate the exasperating, but highly charming ways of Krishna as he drenches the Gopis in color and love; songs associated with Radha and Krishna and with games and pranks that young Krishna played with the Gopis. You can feel the romance in the intent of the lyric, like in this traditional Thumri:
Vanshi wale Se Khelungi mein Holi;
Mohe rang mein kari aur jhakjhori;
(With the Flautist will I play this Holi,
He who drenches me in indefatigable color)
In fact there is a song for every mood in Holi including the Nayika in Viraha – or the heroine distressed by separation in rare Thumris and Dadra’s:
Hori Aaj Jarey Chahe Kaal Jarey, Mora Kunwar Kanhai Mose Aan Mile
Jar Jaye Hori Piya Ghar Naahi, Abir Gulal Mein Aag Lagey
(Referring to the pyre that is lit to signify the triumph of the good over evil, this traditional Dadra is the voice of a lonely heart pining for her lover, Krishna)
But the real mood is having fun and being naughty (haven’t we heard of Natkhat Kanha!) - a time to flirt and let your hair down. These fun songs bring out the risqué in the celebration. Aayi Hurdangon Ki Holi Ayi – here comes the riotous Holi, as a popular Bihari folk song aptly describes it. Barsana where Lathmaar Holi is traditionally celebrated finds mention in a lot of the Phag and Holi text. Women pick up sticks to beat men who do not retaliate – all done playfully! There is also a tradition where women let out Gaari’s (literally meaning abusive words), giving women a slim opportunity to let go just one day in a man’s world! Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar who couldn’t resist joining the fun used Braj Boli to write:
Kyon Mo Pe Rang Ki Maari Pichkaari
Dekho Kunwar Ji Doongi Mein Gaari
(Why drench me with color, now Kunwarji I will let out a Gaari!)
This fanfare and gaiety also entered art music – Khayal and Dhrupad - not something you would see for instance in Diwali. Dhamar, a sub-category of Dhrupad, is specifically related to Holi and thematically has nothing to do with either the ritualistic context or the feudal aristocracy that Dhrupad so represented. A popular Dhamar which infuses both sensuality and spirituality at once:
Khelat Hari Sang Sakal Rang Bhari Hori Sakhi
Kanchan Pichkari Karan, Kesar Rang Bori Aaj
Bheegat Tana Dekhat Jan Atii Laajat Mann Hi Mann
Aise Dhoom Brindavan Machi Hai Nandalal Bhavan
That music in Holi satisfies an emotional bonding with the listener -no use for worldly wisdom here - comes through in the secular aspect of the festival. Major traditions of devotional music in India such as Sufi and Bhakti Sangeet come to mind in this regard. Whether it is the Bhakti poet Surdas’s pada “Tum Chalo Sabahi Mili Jaaye Khelan Horiyan” or the ‘Muslim’ Krishna Bhakt, Ras Khan’s “Aaj Khelen Hori Braj Gori”, the mood, the enthusiasm and the underlying intent of love and devotion is very comparable. The great poet, Amir Khusro has written hundreds of Holi verses addressed to his spiritual mentor Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, whom he compares to Krishna: Mohe suhagan, rang de Khwajaji, Aao, Sufiyon sang Hori khelo.
This music is pure inebriation infused with the magic and power of imagery. Best savored with your Gujia, Gulal and Gaari!