Holi has just passed us by. I celebrated it by listening to an extraordinary Hori sung by the one and only Gauhar Jaan who had recorded it for Gramophone Company Ltd. in August 1915 on a 10” double-sided disc. Vikram Sampath, who wrote her biography titled ‘My Name is Gauhar Jaan’: The Life and Times of a Musician, had also released a CD of her recordings containing this gem along with the book. In these times when people’s minds have been poisoned by communalism of all hues, will anybody be able to believe that this bandish describes the celebration of a colourful Holi in the holy city of Medina? “Mere Hazrat ne Madine mein manaaee Holi, Unke ashaab ne kya khoob rachaaee Holi” (My Hazrat enthusiastically played Holi in Medina along with his companions) is a testimony to the transformational powers of creative imagination and could be composed and sung only by an artiste who truly believed in the unity of all religions and respected them equally. Gauhar Jaan also sang another bandish “Hori khelat Khwaja Moinuddin” about the famous Sufi saint playing Holi. Nobody ever raised a finger, leave alone a hand, to criticise, condemn, or attack Gauhar Jaan who was perhaps the most famous courtesan singer of the last century. One may also recall that it was Gauhar Jaan who had penned and composed the famous Hori “Kaisee ye dhoom machaee” that was later sung by Begum Akhtar and other famous singers.
There are many ways of looking at the festival of Holi and understanding its meaning and significance. To those who believe in the mythological story of the demon king Hiranyakashipu and his Vishnu-worshipping son Prahlad, it is a day to celebrate the triumph of good over evil or of devotion (Bhakti) over power (Shakti). To many others, it is a colourful spring festival associated with a hoary fertility cult that aims at bountiful agricultural produce. Essentially, it is a celebration of sensuousness, kama (sexual desire) and procreation through the symbolic use of different colours. It’s also a religio-cultural site for sexual catharsis of an entire society. And India is not alone in this. Other societies too have similar festivals like Carnival and Valentine’s Day. Among ancient cultures, India was perhaps unique in making sex (in the widest sense of the term) an object of scientific as well as literary study and Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra , composed in circa 3rd century, was adopted as a model by many subsequent writers like Kokkoka, Padamashri, Yashodhara, Jyotirishvara, Jayadeva, Devaraja and Kalyanamalla for their treatises on the subject . The festival of Holaka (Holi) finds a mention in Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra .
The period from Vasant Panchami to Holi was specifically earmarked to celebrate Madanotsava (Festival of Cupid). One may recall that Acharya Hazari Prasad Dwivedi’s iconic novel Banabhatta ki Atmakatha opens with the description of Madanotsava festivities and Bana’s successful attempt to rescue a princess, held against her will in the royal palace, by making use of the fact that most men and women were busy drinking and frolicking.
Embracing local culture
When Muslims conquered various parts of India and made the country their home, they gradually embraced a large number of local ways and customs, which the local converts had been practising for centuries. This gave the sub-continental Islam its unique and distinctive character, making it very different from its original Arabic version. Sufi saints gave a further impetus to this process. Those who have studied history know that Akbar, whose imperial court used Persian as the official language, spoke to his relatives from his father’s side in Turkish and to his Indian wives and others in his Harem in Braj. Muslim rulers right up to Bahadurshah Zafar celebrated Vasant Panchami and Holi. Mir Taqi ‘Mir’ in one of his couplets said that Holi was the Nauroz (Iranian New Year) of India. Quite a few other Urdu poets too wrote about Holi.
However, among all Urdu poets, it is Nazir Akbarabadi whose poetry gives the most realistic and interesting descriptions of everyday life in a down-to-earth language. Understandably, he was frowned upon and mocked by the urbane aristocratic snobs. It was Nazir’s poetry that inspired Habib Tanvir to write and stage his most famous play Agra Bazar . And this is what he had to say about Nazir Akbarabadi who wrote as many as twenty long poems on Holi: “During his life no writer cared for him and, for more than a century after his death, no critic ever mentioned him. But he was kept alive by the common people for nearly two hundred years and his poetry, transmitted orally from generation to generation, continued to survive.”
Here is a sample of Nazir’s poetry. “Miyan tu hamse na rakh kuchh ghubaar Holi mein/ Ki roothe milte hain aapas mein yaar Holi mein/ Machee hai rang kee kaisee bahaar Holi mein/ Hua hai zor-e-chaman aashkaar Holi mein/ Azab yah Hind kee dekhee bahaar Holil mein.” (O Miyan, please do not retain any grudge in your heart against me because estranged friends reunite in Holi. Behold, there is a veritable riot of colours and it has made the enhanced beauty of the garden manifest. What a unique beauty India acquires in Holi!)
The writer is a seasoned literary critic