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Jashn-e-Holi: Urdu Poets On Gulabi Eid—Celebration of Spring, Love & Diversity

The coming of spring, traditionally marked by Basant Panchami, was celebrated with gay abandon by the Sufis.

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There has always been a tradition of diverse communities celebrating Holi across large parts of Upper India. Called Gulabi Eid by the Mughals, there are accounts of the emperor and his courtiers throwing abeer and gulal on each other as well as sprinkling coloured water made from the tesu flowers that bloom in abundance at this time of the year.

The coming of spring, traditionally marked by Basant Panchami, was celebrated with gay abandon by the Sufis whose dargahs became great melting pots where cultures and civilisations met and flowered.

Descendants of the qawwal bacchas trained by Amir Khusro, the poet-disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, still sing these verses composed over 700 years ago:

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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.)

Sufi singers still sing this kaafi by the 18th-century Sufi saint Bulleh Shah, though few pause to take in its assertion of a faith that is moored in Islam yet willing to celebrate Holi:

Hori khelungi keh Bismillah. Nam nabi ki ratan chadi, boond padi Illalah

(I will take the name of Allah and play Holi

Like a gem bearing the Prophet's name, every drop cries out Allah Allah.)

Using verses from the Holy Quran, Bulleh Shah goes on: Rang rangeeli ohi khilave, jis seekhi ho fanaa fi Allah. 'Alastu bi rabbikum', pritam bole

Sab sakhiyan ne ghunghat khole 'Qaloo bala', yun hi kar bole, 'La Ilaha Illallah'

Only he may play with these colours who has learnt to immerse himself in Allah

(The beloved asked, 'Am I not your Lord?'

All the maidens flung back their veils

'Yes, you are', they said, 'There is no Lord save Allah.')

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Urdu Poets' Holi Rendition

Then there are numerous Urdu poets who have written with passion and verve on this most fun-filled of all Indian festivals. Here is Nazir Akbarabadi, the people's poet from Agra, waxing eloquent in a long nazm:

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 with the beauty of Holi

Every moment has joy and celebration when Holi displays her delights.)

And Nazeer Banarsi is 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.)

Gauhar jaan, the courtesan singer, went so far as to sing 'Mere hazrat ne madine mein manayi Holi' (My Lord celebrated Holi in Medina) and Abida Parveen has immortalised Shah Niyaz's kalaam:

Holi hoye rahi hai Ahmad jiyo ke dwaar

Hazrat Ali ka rang bano hai Hassan Hussain khilaar

(Holi is being played at the doorstep of our beloved Ahmed

Hazrat Ali has become the colour and Hasan and Husain the players.)

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Holi, Essence of Romance & Desire in Urdu Poetry..

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, 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.
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Among the minor dialects that feed major languages, a bit like 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, 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 Harishwan Rai Bachchan's Rang barse that was picturised with such devastating effect on his son in Silsila, or, Hori 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:

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Aaj hai roz-e-vasant ai dostaan

In conventional Urdu poetry, prodigious amounts of poetry have 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 dates back several hundred years to the earliest Urdu poets from across the length and breadth of Hindustani writing in praise of Holi.

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 dostaan

Sarv-qad hai bostaan 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.)

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

And elsewhere:

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 with the beauty of Holi

Every moment has joy and celebration when Holi displays her delights)

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.)

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Season of Celebration, Inclusion & Exuberance Manifests in Verses

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 to 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' urging 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

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

And as Ashok Mathur wished me in a recent text message: Main to syre rahi sapnon mein, mo pe rang daro Nandlal....(I was fast asleep, lost in my dreams when Nandlal threw colour on me....)

(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Sufism   Happy Holi   colours 

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