A painting of Krishna and Radha playing Holi auctioned by Christies now in Private Collection

In spring the breeze was quaint, the potholed road winding down towards where I lived those days looked slightly shimmery was carpeted with vermilion flowers of Palash or Flame of the Forest. On my way back from school, I often picked the fallen ones to check out their velvetiness. There would be a peculiar aroma drifting in the air; of Rangoon creepers, a dash of Cape Jasmine and camphor incense of the nearby temple where sankirtan (devotional music) gatherings happened.

My immature mind had no clue why the singing party non customarily sang eulogy songs of Krishna (Hindu deity) instead of Kali (Hindu deity) to whom the local temple was dedicated! Chitrahaar that aired on Wednesday evening on the only television channel of the country was the most anticipated programme; a curated montage of film songs that would beam quintessential Holi numbers always featuring that one song — swashbuckling Veeru (Dharmendra) romancing his on-screen love interest Basanti (Hema Malini) on the day of Holi in India’s one of the biggest blockbusters — Sholay. It was the definite prelude to The Festival of Colours, in Bengal of early eighties.

Those were years when I had no exposure to Steve McCurry’s India, resonant in the grand shots of Holi nor could I imagine the stampede possibility of such a gathering which I read now. My age of hankering innocence wasn’t ambushed then and I was drawn to the extraordinarily happy scene of Holi played on-screen where everyone participated unhesitatingly.

Decades later, far away from India, in my apartment in New York, I watched my first magnolia bloom, inadvertently seeking that erstwhile smell in the air, I realised that the Holi song of Sholay happens to reflect a composite India at its popular best. Written by the country’s one of the best lyricist Anand Bakshi it flowed like this:

Gile shikawe bhul ke doston

Dushman bhi gale mil jaate hain

(We are thrilled on this day of Holi as colours blend with each other, keeping aside all complaints and laments, even foes hug each other).

Everyone’s Colours — The Holi once Played

Given to think this is about championing pluralism via popular entertainer that otherwise had all tropes of class, caste, gender biases.

And it is on this playbook Holi is situated at least for the last four hundred sixty-eight years of the subcontinent’s in its socio, cultural history.

Hindu mythology is variant. It bases around two popular narratives of Holi both celebratory. One that revolves around the commemoration of love of the divine couple Radha — Krishna, wherein Radha paints complaining Krishna’s (unhappy with his dark skin tone) face and vice versa playfully resulting in the celebration of oneness and colours, the other where Holika fire is symbolic of triumph over evil, detailed in the Vishnu Purana. Beyond these manifestations of religiosity, there was always a social aspect to the festivity.

For the subcontinent Holi’s social manifestation is also connected with the mix of Nature turning new leaf in Spring and the bountiful colours that it ushers; the reds of Palash, Shimul, of the greenness mango leaves, the yellow of amaltas, the orange of marigold, of the ardent aroma of Arabian jasmine, gardenia and other fragrant flowers, invoking timeless imagery of spring traditions.

The above would form the lived experiences of Holi, enamouring the emperors read Mughal, the saints read wise men across board and the commoners — the people of course.

A maharaja playing Holi near a garden pavilion ca. 1764 Image Credit: The San Diego Museum of Art

The composite canvas

The empire that Akbar inherited was stratified in caste and class. His entry as an assured ruler, his cogent vision would gradually transform it to an inclusive and pluralistic domain. The change would influence the emperor too, who began learning the ethos of what was prevalent, ancient — in other words impressions of Hindu, Jain, Buddhist life; of belief systems different than his own.

As ruler he could have been orthodox and the state power he held would let him be yet he chose to be malleable, hospitable. Notes historian of South Asia, Audrey Truschke in her “Culture of Encounters — Sanskrit at the Mughal Courts, “In distinction to most of his engagements with Sanskrit traditions Akbar used sun veneration as a public ritual.”

She tells, how the emperor learnt the veneration of Sun from the Jain ascetics like Siddhichandra and Bhanuchandra sometime in 1587. Soon Akbar was able to recite thousand names of Sun deity following the Sanskrit text ‘Suryasahasranama’.

On occasions his openness and authority would come together to implement initiatives that only a pluralistic emperor can envisage and execute like supporting making of temples, excavating ponds. Such an incident is referred by religious historian Diana L. Eck in ‘India A Sacred Geography’, an engagement between Narayan Bhatta, a Brahminical activist, Akbar’s treasurer Todar Mal and the emperor himself, “He (Narayan Bhatta) arrived in Braj in 1545.

His prodigious energies seem to have come to attention of the Mughal Emperor Akbar and his Hindu treasurer Todar Mal from whom Narayana Bhatta requested help in excavating ponds and building temples. By 1522, he was living at Radha Kund, where he is said to have written a number of books, the most famous of which is Vraja Bhakti Vilasa, a Sanskrit text detailing sacred landscape of Braj”.

Setting the colorboard

Now Braj as in Brajbhumi (a region encompassing Vrindavan and Mathura in Uttar Pradesh — land of Lord Krishna, the most sacred seat of Vaishnavism) was present in Akbar’s life in more than one way. The emperor was married to the daughter of Hindu Rajput Raja Bharmal of Amer known in history as Qadasi Arkani Mariam -uz- Zamani or Mariam Zamani (the pillar of purity, Mary of Age). She was Akbar’s Padshah Begum (chief queen) an important influence in his life.

Records tell Akbar participated in her practices of celebrating Hindu festivals within the imperial palace and Holi was among them. Abul Fazl, the royal chronicler mentions in ‘Akbarnama’, how the head of the empire excitedly collected pichkari or water pistols and how on the day of Holi, he would step out of his imperial fort — residence in Agra to play colours with people. This surely was a rare act not easy for a Muslim emperor, but Akbar’s syncretism and idea of religiosity was distinct, ahead of his time.

Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela celebrating Holi, c. 1737, by Bhupal Singh. Asia Society exhibition Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857 Image Credit:

Interestingly there is no visual record of Akbar celebrating Holi unlike his son Prince Salim’s who ascended on the Mughal throne succeeding Akbar continuing his father’s traditions of interfaith and cross-cultural engagements. In Tuzk-e-Jahangiri his autobiography written in Persian, documenting the first 19 years (1605—1623) of his administration, Jahangir writes how he participated in Holi, organising musical soirées addressed as ‘Mehfil-e-Holi’. Over a vivid commentary, he enumerates, “Their day is Holi, which in their belief is the last day of the year. This day falls in the month of Isfandarmudh, when the sun is in Pisces.

On the eve of this day they light fires in all the lanes and streets. When it is daylight, they spray powder on each other’s heads and faces for one watch and create an amazing uproar. After that, they wash themselves, put their clothes on, and go to gardens and fields.”

Jahangir’s visible participation can be seen in multiple paintings of Mughal School evident of Mughal cosmopolitanism to be enduringly continued by his son Shah Jahan (1592 — 1666). Shah Jahan moved the Mughal capital from Agra to Delhi present day Old Delhi where he had built a magnificent city naming it Shahjahanabad. The new capital embraced Holi celebrations in full vigour referring it to Eid-e-Gulaabi (Festival of Pink) or Aab-e-Pashi (Shower of colourful flowers). The emperor participated, by watching the festivities from his royal residence while his nobilities (Omras), Mansabdars (military), provincial allies all played with rose water pichkaris and colours.

Raja Raj Singh of Kishangarh celebrating the Holi festival, attributable to Bhavanidas, Kishangarh circa 1725-30 Image Credit:

At the end

It would take some seventy years for the plural spirit of the early Mughals to be revived but by then the empire had started showing signs of downfall. Anyhow, the rejuvenator would be none other than ‘Rangeela’ or Muhammad Shah Rangeela (1702 — 1748). Shah who was a great lover and connoisseur of arts, music, poetry earned himself the nick name ‘Rangeela’ or The Colourful.

Critiqued unfairly by a section of historians, Rangeela was aligned to artistic pursuits more than his regnal duties, yet his contribution to what is very culturally ‘Indian’ and or of the ‘Subcontinent’ origin is undeniable. He declared Urdu (Zuban-i Urdū-yi Muʿallá or Lashkari Zaban) as the official court language replacing Farsi — the later being the lingua franca of the Mughals. The language got the rightful boost only to be attain a robust full.

He also had a panache for music and introduced Qawwali (a Sufi devotional music) into the royal ensemble of musical performances. Such a man would participate in cross-cultural activities like Holi seems inevitable.

In the fractured empire, which was downsized to Delhi, the poet ruler Bahadur Shah Zafar II born Mirza Abu Zafar Siraj-ud-din Muhammad (1775 — 1862) was the last torch bearer of pluralism. A huge talented poet Zafar wrote in more than one language. Quotes historian and author Rana Safvi in her blog Hazrat -E- Dilli a poem (section cited here) written by Zafar in Braj Bhasha on the playfulness of Holi;

“Aaj main phagwa ta sau Kanha faita pakad kar leoon.

(After many days have I caught you, how can I let you go

I will catch you by your cummerbund and play Holi with you)

shokh rang aisi dheet langar sau khelay kaun ab hori

mukh meedai aur haath marore karke woh barjori

Who can play Holi with such a mischievous Kanha

My face you have coloured and my wrist you have twisted in your playfulness.”

The liberal ruler opened the celebration to one and all. It is recorded that everyone could play Holi or Eid-e-Gulaabi and the poorest of the poor could flung colours at the Emperor who personally celebrated it from his Qilla-e-Moalla (The Exalted Palace), the world famous Red Fort (named according to colour of the sandstone). Flowers of Spring were showered, sweets were be distributed and the festivity would go on for days.

Nobody was offended at the exuberant scale of gaiety. People would participate in fairs and feasts held on the banks of river Yamuna. Musicians and renowned tawaifs would perform for the elites at the Red Fort at night. The air would become fragrant of roses and sweet smell of holi colours, and for those few days Shahjahanabad would embrace egalitarianism with no divide of religion, caste, creed, cultural background.

This has been the history of India, a lived experience, not a dry account of historical emperors, their regimes and facts, albeit difficult to imagine today!

Nilosree is a noted author, filmmaker