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Rang Barse: Nothing Sums Up the Spirit of Holi Like Urdu Poetry

Author Rakhshanda Jalil shares with us the spirit of Holi through the verses of famous Urdu poets. 

Art and Culture
6 min read
Rang Barse: Nothing Sums Up the Spirit of Holi Like Urdu Poetry
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The Urdu poet, forever willing to speak up for syncretism and multiculturalism, has written vast amounts of poetry on fairs and festivals, on religious figures and celebrations. Of these, the occasion of Holi or Gulabi Eid – as this festival of colours is referred to among Urdu speakers – has always elicited not only much enthusiasm, but also a fair amount of levity and good humour.


Among the minor dialects that feed major languages, a bit like the tributaries that meet and merge with big rivers, there has been a tradition of writing ribald and often risque verses involving sisters-in-law, women from the neighbourhood and other ladies who would be considered beyond the pale of social interactions on most occasions. But come Holi, they suddenly become the object of intense fascination.

Perhaps inspired by Krishna frolicking with the gopikas in Mathura, much of this sort of poetry derives its spirit and substance from the idea of unconditional and exuberant surrender to love.

Several Hindi films have tweaked and merged tranches of folk songs to produce some memorable lyrics, such as “Arre ja re hat natkhat na chhu re mera ghunghat” in V Shantaram's Navrang or Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s Rang Barse, which was picturised with devastating effect in the song by the same name, featuring his son Amitabh in Silsila, or ‘Holi khele Raghuvira’ in Baghbaan. Then there is the khanqahi tradition of the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and its centuries-old celebration of Holi.

The qawwal bachchas who trace their lineage to the handful of musicians personally trained by Amir Khusro still sing the qawwalis first sung by their ancestors over 700 years ago:

Aaj rang hai, hey maa rang hai ri
Moray mehboob kay ghar rang hai ri

(There's colour today, O mother, there's such colour today,
There is such colour in my beloved's home today)


An Ancient Tradition

In conventional Urdu poetry, prodigious amounts of poetry has been written on Holi, which might be somewhat chaste compared to the more boisterous verse offerings in the dialects, but are by no means any less infectious in their enthusiasm. What is more, this tradition of writing in praise of Holi dates back to several hundred years, to the earliest Urdu poets from across the length and breadth of Hindustan. Let us begin with Wali Uzlat (1692-1775), the poet from Surat in Gujarat, who wrote:

Baad-e-bahar mein sab atish junun ki hai
Har saal avati hai garmi mein fasl-e-Holi

(The breeze of spring fans the fires of passion,
Each year the harvest of Holi comes before summer)

Then there's Faez Dehelvi (1690-1737) exclaiming:

Aaj hai roz-e-vasant ai dostan
Sarv-qad hai bostan ke darmiyan

(Today is the day of spring, O friends,
Like tall and graceful trees in the pleasure garden)

Another poet from Delhi, Shah Hatim (1699-1783), draws our attention to the fun and frolic in the festivities:

Idhar yaar aur udhar ḳhuban saf-ara
Tamasha hai tamasha hai tamasha

(A friend here and a sweetheart there,
It's entertainment, entertainment, entertainment)


Celebrating Life

Mir Taqi Mir (1722-1810), the pre-eminent classical poet, describes the occasion in his Bayan-e Holi thus:

Holi khela Asif-ud Daula vazir
Rang-e sohbat se ajab hai khurd-o pir
Asif-ud Daula and his vazir play holi

(The young and old are coloured
in the strange colours of companionship)

In yet another poem:

Jashn-e Nauroz Hind Holi hai
Raag-o rang aur boli tholi hai

(Holi is the festival of Nauroz for Hind,
It's a day of songs and colours, slang and idiom)

Nazir Akbarabadi (1735-1830), the ‘people's poet’ from Agra who has written lyrically on fairs, festivals, bazars and common people, has this to say about Holi:

Aa dhamke aish-o tarab kya kya jab husn dikhaya Holi ne
Har aan ḳhushi ki dhuum hui yuun lutf jataya Holi ne

(What delights and cheer can compare to the beauty of Holi,
Every moment is filled with joy and celebration, when Holi displays her delights)


Spring has Sprung

And also:

Jab phagun rang jhamakte hon tab dekh baharein Holi ki
Aur daf ke shor khadakte hon tab dekh baharein Holi ki
Pariyon ke rang damakte hon tab dekh baharein Holi
Khum, shishe, jaam, jhalakte hon tab dekh bahāreñ holī kī

(When the month of phagun spreads its colours, see the spring of Holi
And the sound of the drums ring out, see the spring of Holi
The colours of fairies dazzle, see the spring of Holi
Wine barrels, glasses and goblets tinkle, see the spring of Holi)

Then there's Rangin Saadat Yaar Khan (1756-1835), the poet from Lucknow known to write in a woman's voice:

Badal aaye hain ghir gulal ke laal
Kuchh kisi ka nahin kisi ka ḳhayal

(The red clouds of gulal have amassed
No one is bothered by the state of the others)

Ghulam Hamadani Mushafi (1751-1821), one of the most respected names among the 18th-century poets, waxes eloquent about Holi and the coming of spring:

Daal kar ġhunchon ki mundri shaḳh-e-gul ke kaan mein
Ab ke Holī mein banaana gul ko jogan ai saba

(Putting ear-rings of flowers in the ear of the flowering branch,
O soft breeze, turn the flower into a devotee on this Holi)

And also:

Mausam-e-Holi hai din aaye hain rang aur raag ke
Hum se tum kuchh mangne aao bahane phaag ke

(In the season of Holi come days of colour and song
Come, ask me for something in this month of Phaag)

Coming to more recent times, here is Nazeer Banarsi (1909-1996) asking:

Yeh kis ne rang bhara har kali ki pyali mein
Gulal rakh diya kis ne gulon ki thali mein

(Who has filled the cup of the bud with colour?
Who has placed gulal in the thali of the flowers?)

Kanwal Dibaiwi (1919-1984) wants to give in to his friends' urge to play Holi and immerse himself in the gaiety around him, and wash away the stains of communal ill will:

Hum ko lazim hai ki nafrat ki jalaein Holi
Doston aao chalo aisi manaein Holi

(It is necessary for us to burn the Holi of hatred
Friends, come let us celebrate such a Holi today)


Welcoming Inclusion, Ousting Exclusion

And, finally, for all those whose faith is imperilled by the 'other', who speak for exclusion rather than inclusion, here are Saghar Khayami's (1936-2008) words of caution:

Nafrat ke taraf-dar nahin sahib-e-irfan
Dete hain sabaq pyaar ke Gita ho ki Quran
Tyauhar to tyauhar hai Hindu na Musalman
Hum rang uchhalein to pakaiyen vo sivayyan
Ranjida padosi jo utha dar-e-jahan se
Khushiyon ka guzar hoga na phir tere makan se

(The supporters of hatred are not people of discernment
Both the Gita and the Quran give lessons of love
Festivals are just festivals, and neither Hindu nor Musalman
If we play with colours they too will cook siwaiyyan
If your neighbour leaves this world in sorrow
Happiness will never pass by your house again)

(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature.)

(Hey there, lady! What makes you laugh? Do you laugh at sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny? Do 'sanskaari' stereotypes crack you up? This Women's Day, join The Quint's Ab Laugh Naari campaign. Pick up that beer, say cheers, and send us photographs or videos of you laughing out loud at

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Topics:  Mirza Ghalib   lord krishna   Qawwali 

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