Mass of red and yellow

When everybody is a “mass of red and yellow” Holi, the festival of spring, has always been popular in India for its colourful hilarity, fun and laughter. It had special attraction for the British sahibs who described it as a carnival of the Hindus, a time of universal merriment and joy and licence of all kinds, writes Pran Nevile

HOLI, the festival of spring, has always been the most popular in India for its colourful hilarity, fun and laughter. It had special attraction for the sahibs. The British accounts of Holi describe it as a carnival of the Hindus, a time of universal merriment and joy and licence of all kinds. The ceremonies and sports linked with Holi are compared to those of the Portuguese Christmas. It was an occasion when in their excitement people would forget all distinctions of caste, class, age, sex and religion.

The Holi in Lucknow (C 1800)There is a fascinating account by Miss Fane, daughter of the British Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Henry Fane, when he was invited along with his staff by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to participate in Holi festivities at his palace in Lahore on March 22, 1837. She describes the event in her letters home which provide a rare picture of that vanished world. She writes, “Today commenced a holy festival known as the festival of Hollie (sic). It is the custom at this time for the Hindoos to bedaub each other with a red powder and other dirt. The Seiks (sic) are not Hindoos, but they also keep this festival; so Runjeet asked my father and staff to go to his residence and assist in the badaubbing. They all took the precaution of dressing in white clothes, and most fortunate it was they did so, for such objects as they returned eyes never saw. Sweeps in England on May Day they were most like, but I think even these areclean to them. They were a mass of red and yellow — skin, hair, clothes, all begrimed. They all faired alike, from king Runjeet to my father and all his staff. I have just learnt that this festival is a rejoicing for the coming of the spring. It also commemorates some improprieties that took place between their god, Krishna, and some young lady, so I am told a great many naughtinesses take place amongst the natives at this season”.

Holi in early times was celebrated in honour of Kama, the God of love, and to express the passionate feelings inspired by the spring season and the delight which the revival of nature diffused. The Mughal kings and nobles celebrated it as Id-i-Gulabi or Ab-i-Pashi. They exchanged rose-water bottles and there was much merriment with dance and music.A Holi scene in Bengal by S.C. Belnos (C 1820)British observers were greatly impressed by the orderliness of these colourful festivities. M. Elphinstone, a scholar-cum-administrator, describes (in 1820s) the sports in which people eagerly joined during Holi: “The boys dance round fires, sing licentious and satirical songs and give vent to all sorts of ribaldry against their superiors, by whom it is always taken in good part. The great sport of the occasion, however, consists in sprinkling each other with yellow liquid and throwing a crimson powder over each other’s person.The liquid is also squirted through syringes and the powder is sometimes made up in large balls covered with isinglass, which break as soon as they come in contact with the body. All ranks engage in this sport with enthusiasm and get into the spirit of the contest, till all parties are completely drenched with the red powder that they can scarcely be recognised. A great prime minister will invite a foreign ambassador to play the Holi at his house, and will take his share in the most riotous parts of it with the ardour of a school boy”.

According to Bishop Heber (1828), “Holi is an occasion when drunkenness is common among the Hindus”. In Gujarat, Forbes mentions in his Oriental Memoirs that a favourite diversion, very much similar to that on April 1 in England, was to “send people on errands and expeditions that are to end in disappointment and raise a laugh at the expense of the person sent”.

The painting of the Holi festival by a Patna artist (C 1790)Holi celebrations in the court of Sindhia in Gwalior come alive in a fascinating account (given in 1809) by Thomas Broughton who took part in the festivities there. “When we visited Seendhiya (sic)”, he writes, “to partake of this curious amusement, he received us in a tent, erected for the purpose. In front were assembled all the dancing girls in camp. We went dressed for the occasion in white linen jackets and pantaloons. The Maharaj himself began the amusements of the day by sprinkling a little red and yellow water upon us from goolabadans, which are small silver vessels kept for the purpose of sprinkling rose water at visitors. Everyone then began to throw about the abeer and squirt at his neighbours as he pleased. “We were alternately powdered and drenched till the floor on which we sat was covered some inches in depth with a kind of pink and orange coloured mud. Such a scene I never witnessed in my life”. Then Broughton describes the performance of the dancing girls “bedecked with gold and silver lace, their tawdry trappingsstained with patches of abeer, and dripping, like so many Naiads, with orange-coloured water, now chanting the Holi songs with all the airs of practised libertinism, and now shrinking with affected screams beneath a fresh shower from Maharaj”. “The Holi songs”, he adds, “are not necessarily indelicate: in one song, Krishna, in his youthful character of Kanaiaha or beloved, is described as having been attacked by a party of Gopees or maids, of Mathura during the time of Holi. As it portrays, with much accuracy and spirit, the peculiar customs of that festival, I have translated it as follows:

While some his loosen’d turban seize,
And ask for P,hag, and laughing teaze;
Others approach with roguish leer,
And softly whisper in his ear.
With many a scoff, and many a taunt,
The P,Hagoon some fair Gopees chaunt;
While others, as he bends his way,
Sing at their doors Dhumaree gay.,
One boldly strikes a loving slap;
One brings the powder in her lap;
And clouds of crimson dust arise
About the youth with lotus-eyes.
Then all the colour’d water pour,
And whelm him in a saffron shower;
And crowding round him bid him stand,
With wands of flowers in every hand.

Contemporary writings document the attendance of British residents at Indian festivals. In the East India Company’s army, the participation of British officers in Holi was a matter of etiquette. The sepoys were delighted to see their British officers participate in their revelry and would often play practical jokes on unpopular officers.

Holi, our colourful festival, has through the centuries continued to dominate our festival calendar. Public enthusiasm for it today is as dazzling as in the days gone by. No wonder, we call Holi the ‘Queen of Indian festivals’.