One festival that truly depicts the composite essence of not only India but the whole sub-continent is Holi. It is not just a festival of colours but a celebration of life itself.
Every festival carries a deeper message. Deepavali, for instance, dispels darkness and evil forces. Holi fills our lives with colourful shades. It is a festival of bonhomie and reconciliation when people embrace each other, forgetting any bitterness and ill-feeling.
When the French traveller Vernier came to India during the regime of Mughal emperor Shah Jehan, he was wonder-struck to see so many people playing Holi. They belonged to all streams and strata of society.
This is the beauty of Holi. It dissolves social differences and brings people together. In fact, Holi ka dahan, a day before Dhulandi, symbolises the bonfire of all ill-feeling. The message of egalitarianism marks this festival and distinguishes it from others.
Abul Fazl, one of the nine gems in Akbar’s court, wrote in Ain-e-Akbari, a book that vividly describes Akbar and his times, of how “Shanshah ust chee shudam aviyaar minhal mustambeer qabl-e-jashn-e-faam” (the emperor began to collect pichkari of different sizes well before Holi).
Akbar was very fond of Holi and played it with not only his courtiers but also the masses, for which he would come out of his palace. That was the day even a commoner could put colours on the emperor of India. Even a zealot like Aurangzeb did not stop people from celebrating Holi on the streets.
The spirit of Holi is just unsurpassable. It can only be felt, not described. Those who have seen Holi play in northern India, especially in Uttar Pradesh, will always remember it. Uttar Pradesh’s Latthmaar Holi, during which women beat men with sticks in a light-hearted way, is a spectacle to behold.
Once a teacher of mine described Holi as a festival of wholesomeness. He philosophically pointed out that on the day of Holi, we play with all sorts and shades of colours. There are colours like grey, black and brown apart from the vibrant red, pink, yellow and blue. This riot of colours delineates all hues of life. Life is at times vibrant, effervescent and euphoric. Pink, green and yellow depict that state. Life is also robust. Red symbolises that.
But every day is not Sunday. There are sombre moments and sluggish phases in life as well. Colours like grey, black and brown manifest those periods of lull.
To quote Sahir Ludhianavi from Meri Pahali Holi: “Zindagi ke her rang ko chand lamhaat mein dekh liya/Meri Pahali Holi ne mujhe falsafana bana diya” (I saw all colours of life in a few moments/ My very first Holi made me a philosopher). Beneath the veneer of colours and apparent boisterous bonhomie, Holi gives a message that with equipoise and equanimity should one face all the colours of life — because the different colours represent different circumstances.
A few years ago I was in Lahore around Holi. Just a day before Holi, I asked my host, Mir Muhammad Khan, “Kya aap log Holi khelte hain?” (do you play Holi?). “Aap logon se zyada” (more than you), was the reply. He then spoke of the significance of Holi, and the next day played it from dawn to dusk. He originally belonged to Patna, and said that on every Holi, he relived and revived colour-filled memories of Holi of Bihar.
It is not for nothing that the British philosopher Sir Aldous Huxley termed Holi “the sub-continent’s festival of festivals.” It is indeed the sartaaj-e-jashn, or the festival of festivals.