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Memories of Holi: Festival of Love

In this month of Holi, the festival of colors, poet and folklorist Ved Prakash Vatuk reminisces about a time in his childhood when Holi in the village was a colorful, culturally rich time of celebration that broke down all barriers of caste and social divisions.

Holi ke Rang (Siliconeer photo)

Holi was a very special festival in my childhood. It was more special than the other three main festivals of the Hindus. If Shravani or raksha bandhan was the festival mainly for the Brahmans, vijaya dashami or dashahra the pride of the Kshatriyas and diwali the most important festival for the Vaishyas, Holi was the festival for all segments of society to be celebrated with unbridled joy and equal fervor. In fact Holi was celebrated not on a particular day only but for the whole season beginning with vasant panchmi in the 11th Hindu month of Magh until the first middle of the first month Chaitra when the new Vikram samvat, or Hindu year, began.

Holi was the season when all norms of society were suspended and all classes and castes mingled.

Holi meant several things to us. It meant, of course, the festival of colors where you could drown anyone with colored water, grease their faces and heads with color mixtures, but it also meant singing folk songs called Holi in our area, playing instruments and performing dances to go along with those songs and performing folk drama, or holi sangs, for two months. The songs called phagua (meaning folk songs to be sung in the month of Falgun, the twelfth month in which the Holi or Phag festival is celebrated) in the Bhojpuri speaking area were composed in a different style. They were also called chautala or songs of four talas composed in a meter of sixteen matras. The rasia songs in Brij area were very different from them. The subject matters and the ragas used to describe them were also different. Most Bhojpuri or Avadh area songs were sung in the name of Lord Rama and Sita, while the Brij bhasha songs were sung in the name of Lord Krishna and Radha. But the holi songs in our area — western U.P. and Haryana — were more secular, describing a situation as it related to a particular person or event or a folk ballad or drama written in holi meter.

In my village, groups of holi singers and dancers were organized in different mohallas or neighborhoods. Since persons residing in a mohalla belonged to a particular caste, the members of a holi singing group in that neighborhood also came mostly from that caste. Each group or toli then tried to beat the other one in competition. For a month and a half these groups gathered every evening and sang these songs. The whole village reverberated with songs.

Each group had six to ten members, each one playing a different instrument. Drummers were the most intoxicated players and dancers among them. There was one singer in each group who sang the songs. The song had one line of refrain, and four stanzas of the poetry — the last line of each stanza rhymed with the refrain. The voice of the reader was raised with the last line of the stanza and a staff was raised to indicate the end of it, which meant the beating of the drums and playing of other instruments could begin with fervor and the dances could proceed. The same singer would raise his staff to indicate when the playing and dancing should stop and recitation of the song could begin.

On the east side of the village on the bank of the village pond, a high pile of dung cakes and wood was prepared artistically for a month where a bonfire was to be made on the full moon night of the Falgun month. Every day young girls and women brought specially made little dung cakes with holes in the middle and placed them on the pile. On that evening at a time prescribed by the village priest a fire was to be lit. Before that, holi-singing groups came from all four directions and joined the whole village population there. It took them several hours of singing and dancing to reach there. And there they played and danced and sang for a long time.

Different groups, different songs, different subjects — but the tune remained the same. This was the unity of the village that was the most enjoyable. At the given moment the priest lit the fire, new wheat plants were placed on rising flames by many to roast the new crop grain and then were distributed as a token of friendship, unity and love. There was only one place to celebrate holi.

Holi meant burning away all kinds of evil and enmity and beginning life again with love and friendship. The myth goes that the demon Hiranyakashyap forbade anyone to worship any god but himself in his kingdom, but his own child son Prahlad became a devout worshipper of God. Prahlad was given the death sentence by his father but nothing could kill him. Hiranyakashyap’s sister Holi had a boon from the gods so that she would not burn in fire, so she was asked to take Prahlad in her lap and entered a fire. That she did. But Prahlad came out of the fire and she was burnt to ashes. It was a victory of truth over falsehood, a victory of good over evil.

And so the celebration began. This is the day when everyone is supposed to bury the hatchet and start a new life of unity and love. And to emphasize this, the whole village used to gather that day and celebrate the festival as one unit in one place.

When my father died in 1941, eleven days before that festival, the whole village decided not to celebrate holi. Such was the feeling of solidarity. But my mother insisted that the village must celebrate and that was an example of one’s own grief being transcended by love for all.

The day after the bonfire and feasts the whole village seemed to go mad. Every one threw colored muddy water at every one. Children and grown ups, men and women. People were thrown unaware into the color/mud pools. Special targets were sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law. The best color-fight in the village was staged in dalit mohallas where the women mercilessly beat men with cloths soaked in color, mud or whatever they fancied to wet them with. We children used to climb the roofs of the neighboring houses and see the game they played. Of course it was not like Barsana holi, where women beat the men with staffs. But it was fun to watch the roles reversed at least for a day when the women had the upper hand.

The third day the whole village teams again came singing and dancing in new clothes. That day people dressed like horses and other animals or mythological figures. Skits were performed and the whole village again gathered near the village hall on the eastern side. We enjoyed the colorful plays. High castes and low castes — all were there in the crowd.

After that for several weeks professionals sang and performers staged sang plays, and these sangs were all composed in holi styles. Their plots were secular mostly. But one sang troupe specialized in the Mahabharata. An episode from the Mahabharata was played each day.

Today that whole culture is gone with modernization. There are no holi singers, no holi dancers, and no holi sangs. Their place has been taken by movie songs and mass culture, which hardly unites anyone in the village. The little holi fire is lit in different mohallas. No hatchet seems to be buried. Enmity and village divisions remain and politics and riches continue to draw people farther apart.

Of course, in cities some people gather in one place in the afternoon after color-fights for holi-milan. But it seems all so artificial.

Children in cities don’t play pranks like they used to on unsuspecting grown-ups in the month of Falgun, when they would hang a hook from the roof and take caps off from the heads of these people only to be returned after some payment. That was the way they used to collect money for the color-throwing day.

There was a time when if any marriage took place in the month of Falgun, women of the village used to play tricks on the members of the bridegroom party. In this way the joy of holi was not limited to one day like now, but was spread throughout the month. With the songs and sangs people learnt their history and culture while at the same time learned about their own living society, and all of this inspired reforms and an affection for tradition, society and community among young people. In a word, the holi season was a time not only to entertain us, but also to impart to us knowledge about our past while preparing us for our future.

Today, affluence and the rat race for wealth has changed the temperament of people both in the city and the village, and in the village, it has been robbed of much of its authenticity and distinctive cultural flavor. What has taken its place may have more glitz, but it has lost much of the cultural richness of yesteryear.

Poet folklorist Ved Prakash Vatuk’s many awards include the U.P. government’s Pravasi Bharatiya Hindi Sahitya Bhushan. “Essays in Indian Folk Traditions,” his collected writings, has just been published by the Folklore Institute, Berkeley, Calif.


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