Where Holi is ‘sung,’ not merely played

Festival infused nationalism in Assamese folk music

March 21, 2019 11:10 pm | Updated 11:10 pm IST - GUWAHATI

Rhythmic beats: Women dancing as they celebrate Holi in Guwahati on Thursday.

Rhythmic beats: Women dancing as they celebrate Holi in Guwahati on Thursday.

Holi is ‘played’ in most parts of India. But the festival is ‘sung’ in a part of Assam, where it goes by another name: Doul Utsav.

The wellspring of the festival at Barpeta in western Assam is Barpeta Satra, a Vaishnav monastery that Madhabdev established in 1583. Madhabdev was the prime disciple of Srimanta Sankardeva, the saint-reformer who inspired the Bhakti movement in Assam around the time Guru Nanak, Kabir and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu did elsewhere in India.

Madhabdev wrote a few Doul songs such as Faku khele karunamoy (The Lord full of compassion plays Holi) and Dolai Gobinda paramanande (Krishna plays Holi blissfully) for ritualistic celebration of the festival.

Borrowed from Bengali

But the traders of Barpeta, a major commercial centre for centuries, had by then made the common man’s Doul songs popular. The songs they sung in the celebration of colours were influenced by Bengal’s folk music. “Traders those days used to sail on the Brahmaputra to Dhaka and other Bengal ports. They introduced Holi songs borrowed heavily from Bengali. More than a century ago, a group of nationalist poets, writers and musicians began writing Assamese Holi songs. As their music became popular, the Bengali-influenced songs disappeared,” Priya Ranjan Das, a cultural activist in Barpeta, told The Hindu .

Poet Ambikagiri Raichoudhury, writer Prasanna Lal Choudhury and musician Purushottam Das played a major role in the linguistic changeover. “Their songs attained great popularity, giving Barpeta two categories of Holi songs — folk and monastic — that people sing while playing with colours,” he said.

The folk songs have no place in the Barpeta Satra where the monastic songs accompany rituals that make Doul last three or five days, depending on the Hindu month — Chaitra or Faagun — and planetary positions.

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