It’s the season of love and it’s been that way in Delhi for 800 years, writes R. V. Smith
Few know that the first celebration of Basant Panchami (which falls on Feb 15 this year) began in AD 1200, some decades before the birth of Hazrat Nizamuddin. This venue used to be what later came to the known as the Turkman Gate area. In the reign of Firoze Tughlak the celebration was at Bhuri Bhattyari-ka-Mahal, opposite present-day Karol Bagh’s Link Road, Bhuri Bhattiyari is identified with a fair innkeeper with whom Firoze is said to have fallen in love in the month of Basant. Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, however, says that the mahal was the palace of a nobleman, Bu Ali Bhatti, whose name in course of time was corrupted to Bhuri Bhattiyari. Kite-flying competitions at the palace, now just a ruined gateway, were the highlight, with yellow flags fluttering about in the balmy breeze. Even up to the 1970s one found manja (kite-string) makers using the palace ground to wind up yards and yards of string in the charkhis (reels) used by the kite-fliers. One doesn’t see them any more but Basant Kumars and Basantis are a dime a dozen (though none of the latter drives a tonga like the cute “Basanti” of the film Sholay). There have been outstanding Basant-born people. In recent times Vasant Sathe was a well-known name, so also one-time Maharashtra strongman Vasant Dada Patil, Basanti Sanyal, a rare beauty and before them Basant Kumar Biswas, who was hanged in the (Lord) Hardinge Bomb Conspiracy Case of 1912. No wonder yellow or saffron bags (jholas) have become a symbol of martyred patriots. The most romantic season, after Sawan, Basant, interestingly enough, was celebrated in pre-Sultanate times at the Yog Maya Mandir, in Mehrauli.
Nizamuddin Auliya became fond of Basant in middle age, when he was passing through a bereavement— the death of his beloved nephew Taqqiuddin Nuh. His concerned chief disciple, Amir Khusrau, wearing yellow garments, danced before him to dissipate the gloom— first making the saint smile and then laugh. After that Basant became an annual feature at his khankah (abode), a custom still observed by, the Hasan Nizamis, with qawwalis.
In Moghul times Akbar and Jahangir got attracted to the festival of spring, which was celebrated in a grand manner at Humayun’s Tomb to the strains of Basant ragas. Jahangir particularly relished the season because of his love for nature— the flowers, birds and bees which found expression in his paintings. Among the later Moghuls, before Muhammad Shah Rangila, Muizuddin Jahandar Shah picked his concubines at this time, among whom Lal Kanwar and Zohra found pride of place. His nephew Muhammad Farrukh Siyar was more interested in State intrigues with the Sayyid Brothers but Rafiushhan, father of Shah Jahan II (1719), is said to have lost his heart to a village belle in a Basanti sari who was carrying a pitcher on her head. That he did not get to marry her is another story.
During the reign of Akbar Shah Sani and Bahadur Shah Zafar, Basant got good patronage. Isn’t it a curious fact that once the biggest Basant Mela was held outside the Kotla of Feroze Shah? The mela during Zafar’s time was held behind the Red Fort, with the emperor watching it along with his begums from the open space between the Shahi Hammams and Dewan-e-Khas. The Basant mela of Raja Hindu Rao Ghatke was also a prominent fair those days. Urdu poetry found a worthy subject in the festival, with Nazir Akbarabadi (1740-1830) and others lauding it in eloquent verse. As a boy Ghalib used to fly yellow kites from the roof of the Kala Mahal in Agra, where he was born until, like Mir Taqi Mir, he came to Delhi and had to restrain his enthusiasm for Basant under the tutelage of a stern guardian after his father’s untimely death— but not for long as it found an outlet in his exquisite poetry.
Incidentally, a Basant Mela is still held at Nazir’s grave to mark his death anniversary. The mela had its heyday at the time of Hazrat Maikash Akbarabadi in the 1950s and 60s. After the mela in 1961 the District Magistrate invited journalists to a Basant function at which sex workers vowed to perform only song and dance programmes. The prettiest of the lot, with marigold flowers covering her head, neck and wrists, sang a soulful ghazal: “Dil ki yeh arzoo thhi koi dilruba milay/Ab tak to job hi dost milay bewafa milay” (the heart desires an empathizer instead of the unfaithful ones so far). There were some moist eyes after that, with the more tender ladies using yellow handkerchiefs to wipe them, and at least one man the trail of his saffron turban.
In the closing years of the 19th Century, British land revenue officials recorded the magical appeal of Jat villages during Basant on the borders of Delhi and Gurgaon. When Pusa Institute came up in the 1930s, the residents of the villages of Todapur-Dasghara and present-day Inderpuri (whose land it was earlier) used to flock to the mustard fields of Pusa to celebrate Basant with song and dance. Now too these mustard fields are a pleasant sight even for those passing by in DTC buses, though no flags are flown there, like at the Yog Maya temple, to gauge wind direction and predict the weather, for the saying goes, “As the weather at Basant, so will it be till Holi.” With it goes the rustic wisdom “Ayo Basant, pala uranth” (come Basant and ground frost flees). But the most popular one perhaps is “A love affair in Basant finds fruition at Sawan”. Prince Rafiushhan’s bitter experience, however seems to belie this adage.