For those interested in a traditional touch while playing colours during the Holi, Jaipur’s famous gulal gotas could be the answer

A people’s festival, celebrating societal “liminality”, that has a dash of everything — vivid colours, loud music, social sanction for psychotropic drugs, public display of the society’s collective eroticism; and all this on a much grander scale than any “woodstock festival” ever held anywhere in the world.

Yes, Holi is around the corner; and like every year, the market has geared up to outdo itself — throwing at consumers all sorts of colour-toys, water pistols, pichkaris and what have you. But for those who have had enough of the pink and yellow plastics, thankfully our country continues to preserve the charm and crackle of the old world — in small discreet parts of the urban bazaar, the discreet cameos of these traditional arts often come to the rescue of the discerning.

One such piece of traditional art is the gulaal gota — a beautifully decorated, flattened ball of lac, filled with soft gulaal in different colours. This was how people threw colour at each other before the synthetic rubber water balloons took over. And Jaipur in the only place in the whole world where these little beauties are made, claim their makers.

Baaba Khan, a 57-year-old M.F. Hussain lookalike, is a lac artist. Heading one of the last families still practising this art, Khan is a busy man around Holi when he has more business on his hands than the entire year. Apart from the usual lac artefacts like jewellery and stationary that he makes round the year, in the spring he manufactures a large number of gulaal gotas.

Lac is a material used since ancient times; it finds mention in mythological stories and even in the Mahabharat. Lakshagriha, the palace of the Pandavas that was burnt to ashes, was reportedly made of lac.

It is a resinous secretion of a number of species of insects, collected in a hardened form off the insects’ host trees; that is Khan’s chief raw material. “We heat it until it melts; then roll it around a stick while it’s still hot. Then once it hardens a bit, we mix it with colours and roll it into long sheets,” he says.

Once these sheets are baked, Khan and his family use blowpipes to turn them into flat balls that are then painted with bright colours — turning the sappy, insect secretion into funky gulaal gotas.

First used about 300 years ago, gulaal gotas were the favourites of Rajasthan’s royalty who used to march out on elephants to play Holi with their subjects and throw down these gotas at them. “In those times, it used to be an honour to be hit by that gota, we hear from our elders,” says Khan.

But since it’s made of lac, the gulaal gota has got to be hard and if it lands against your face, it would hurt, right? “Not at all. It does not even hurt as much as a water balloon. It is so delicately rolled and blown,” says Khan.

But now there is no royal patronage and the constant price-rise has left him wondering about the future of this traditional art form. “Colours, fuel and even lac, everything is so expensive these days. In 1972, a gota used to cost Rs. two to five, but now it costs Rs. 30,” he says. Lac costs Rs. 2,500 a kg now compared to Rs. 165 per kg back then.

He still gets orders from erstwhile royal families though. The Jaipur city palace and Maharaja Gaj Singh of Jodhpur are still his biggest customers. “Now there are no kings. We get a lot of orders from NRIs now. I have been to Japan and Germany to make gotas for NRIs there,” says Khan.

With so many difficulties, how does he manage to keep going? “Seeing how you contribute to a great festival of another religion and make people happy is very gratifying.”

Keywords: Holigulaal gota