down memory lane | History & Culture

When the Nawabs played Holi...

Warm colours: The festival signifies a change in season

Warm colours: The festival signifies a change in season  

Ahead of the festival of colours, let’s recall how the Walled City celebrated the festival

Nawabs and nawabzadas playing Holi despite Islamic taboo may sound far-fetched, but is not untrue. Delhi’s Nawab Buddhan of Suiwalan, Nawab Dojana of Matia Mahal, the Nawab of Basai Darapur and Nawab F. Z. Khan of Agra, did not mind a bit of colour revelry in post-1857 days. Their families enjoyed it too. For the women, it meant catching relatives and friends unawares early in the morning, splashing them with cold water and colouring their faces with red and black powder. “Tu bilkul churail lag rahi hai Bhabhi” (sister-in-law you are really looking like a she-ghost) was one of the epithets hurled during the sudden tamasha. Fun over, it was time to clean up the mess and change soiled clothes for visits by sethanis (wives of the city seths) who brought sweets and other savouries in abundance. This is what Mohd Mian Akbar, a Ballimaran shoe merchant, used to say up to his death in the 1980s. However, to counter his view (despite repetition) here is what an Englishman had to say a 100 years earlier:

When the Nawabs played Holi...

“Holi” is celebrated by Hindus but not by Muslims, who resent colour being thrown on them. The festival falls in March which corresponds to the Indian month of Phagun, when the colours of spring transform the landscape as if by the magic brush of a painter who, with deft strokes changes the bleak scenario of winter to the yellow, pink and golden hues of “Basant”, said Capt Ridgeway in his diary before the outbreak of the first war of independence, in Delhi. By that time the heat of summer was to bring about a drastic change in the natural surroundings, with tree leaves drooping under the impact of the blazing sun. The only redeeming feature, Ridgeway noted, was the pleasantness of the early mornings and late evenings, “when the heat subsided and one went to the gardens for fresh air and figs sold in leaf-cups the size of dessert quarter-plates”.

Tense times

People did celebrate Holi in 1857 but it was much subdued the next year, when the British had regained full control of the Capital and the surrounding areas. The same thing happened 90 years later in 1947 when Partition was yet to be effected. Contrary to popular perception, some leading Muslims, among whom were nawabs, did celebrate the festival of colours with great enthusiasm that year too as their ancestors had been courtiers at the durbar of Mohammad Shah Rangila and later Shah Alam, Akbar Shah Sani and Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Among them, Mohammad Shah and Zafar celebrated Holi with great gusto, though Shah Alam did not mind dabbling in colours with Maratha chieftains, whose leader, Mahadji Scindia, was the most powerful military leader in North India with the emperor under his thumb. Akbar Shah did not mind his financiers, the bullion merchants of Chandni Chowk led by Seth Sidhu Mal, putting gulal on his forehead and sprinkling rosewater on his royal clothes, which dried up very fast, leaving behind a faint perfume. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the least orthodox of them, liked the Holi revelry of his subjects and also participated in it, but with regard to his status as the inheritor of Mughal dignity. The orthodox nobles of his court however preferred to stay indoors during the time the colour-throwing was at its peak.

In 1948, post-Partition, Holi was celebrated on a subdued note in Delhi, Agra and other prominent cities. There were warnings from the police that colour was not to be thrown on unwilling people, yet there was perceptible tension in Chandni Chowk, Daryaganj, Paharganj and Dev Nagar. Fearing a riot, a strong police force was made to patrol the thoroughfares, along with the armed constabulary on the orders of Mr Beadon. Though there was no rioting, sporadic clashes were reported from some areas, where a sort of curfew-like situation prevailed later.

Change of colour

However, by 1949, conditions became stable and Holi was celebrated without major incidents. In the mid-1950s the nawabzadas of Aligarh and Agra, along with some kunwars of Wazirpura and Dhirpura celebrated Holi in style in Chandni Chowk. They went about in an old weapon-carrier spraying colour on all and sundry with rubber tubes immersed in big drums filled with coloured water.

That year, like other years, also saw grand celebrations outside Lala Chunna Mal’s haveli. In the Jama Masjid area, a much-married Urdu poet, one of whose compositions is echoed in the film song, “Gal Gulabi, chaal sharabi/Aap se accha kohi nahin hai”, went about greeting his men and women friends in the Walled City and presenting them his romantic verses sprinkled with wet gulal.

A practice in those days for Hindi newspapers was to award “Holi degrees” to friends, colleagues, acquaintances and also political leaders. These were in the form of one-line sentences which were both ribald and hilarious. About that time one old tradition that has ended was the Christian Holi, celebrated on Shrove Tuesday, a day before Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the fasting season of Lent. Now Holi has lost much of its colourful past and even the colours are scarce as black and silver paint and infection-causing dirty water is generally used.

No fears of infection were aroused when the Nawab of Loharu played Holi in unpolluted times with the Nawab of Tonk and his own brother-in-law Mirza Ghalib. The poet, however, missed the revelry of Braj Holi in his native Agra and the titillating colour-soaked verses of Mian Nazir Akbarabadi on the much-maligned "Holi-ka-Bhudua-Diwali-ka-chor", the fictitious buffoons made the butt of irksome jokes during the two change of season festivals.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 9:49:26 AM |

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