Yellow, marigold and nostalgia dominated a gathering that had set out to mark Sufi Basant
It was not too hard to spot the clutch of people in yellow ambling around Mohammad Shah Sayyid's tomb at Lodhi Gardens recently, basking in the warm generosity of the moody Delhi sun. They had gathered there to symbolically mark the end of winter by walking to the Nizamuddin dargah to celebrate Sufi Basant, an annual festival that occurs a day before Basant Panchami. The walk was organised by Red Earth, an organisation that engages with the visual and performing arts.
Red Earth director and marigold-lover Himanshu termed the event a ‘Genda Phool Public Action', handing out marigold earrings, saplings and seeds to participants while urging them to spread the ‘love'. He explains, “Flowers are an important part of the social and cultural fabric of South Asia. I want to spread greenery and explore the marigold flower through art and other public events.”
A minor fracas ensued when garden authorities arrived to object to the gathering, but it was resolved unconventionally when feisty old author Saroj Vashishth took them to task in colourful language. Vashishth also shared her memories of Basant celebrations in the Lahore of pre-Partition India. She fondly recalled how the natural colour of the sky would be completely masked from view by a cacophony of flaming yellow lights.
Every child got new yellow clothes for Basant. Later, she read out her story ‘Basant Aata Nahi Laya Jaata Hain' from the anthology “Kala November”, a translation of stories set against the backdrop of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
The origins of Sufi Basant are traced back to the Chisti Sufis in the 12th century. Legend has it that Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, devastated by the passing away of his young nephew Taqiuddin Nooh, withdrew from the world and spent months in enforced solitude. His disciple and friend Amir Khusrau could not bear to see him waste away.
One day, Khusrau met some gaily attired women who were dancing and singing on the streets with baskets of colourful flowers. On learning that the flowers were an offering to mark the auspicious date of Basant, he dressed as a woman and took the procession to the graveyard where Nizamuddin still mourned the death of his nephew.
Seeing Khusrau attired thus brought a smile to Nizamuddin's face and alleviated his sorrow. Since then, the dargahcontinues to mark Sufi Basant by a procession that winds its way through the tiny lanes of Nizamuddin..
On reaching the dargah, we paid our respects at the tombs of Amir Khusrau and Nizamuddin before accompanying the Basant procession. The first stop was in the back alley of a building not far from the dargah, where the men stopped to collect mustard plants and say a short prayer. After this, the revelry began in earnest with the procession singing of the flowering mustard plant that is offered at the tomb to herald the arrival of spring.
We made a short round of the neighbourhood and returned to the dargah, where prayers and offerings were followed by a spirited session of traditional Basant songs in the courtyard.
The atmosphere at the dargah is permeated by divergent strains of piety. There are the qawwals wearing tilted skull caps, their lips rendered poetically red by a lifetime of betel chewing. And then there are those who cluster around the latticed walls of the tombs, impervious to the uplifting voices of the qawwals, quietly rocking back and forth in prayer.
The qawwals situate their devotion in full-throated musical abandon, while the others invest their faith in the red-and-yellow threads that they tie around the jalis, their fingers trembling with the anticipation of wishes to be fulfilled.