The Colourful Greyness: Holi, A Part of Sufi Culture & Literature

The history of celebration of the festival in great fervour by Muslims is passed onto us in musical form.

6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

India is increasingly become communally charged and almost all issues are divided into the two blocks of Hindus and Muslims. Not only are these projected as antithetical to each other, the space in between them is deliberately ignored and every effort is made - from casual offending jokes to violence - to discourage anyone from exploring that space.

The cultural equivalent of the space of grey area between the distinct black and white entities in the northern Indian subcontinent context can be said to be the ganga-jamuni tehzeeb, the syncretic legacy river developed over centuries of confluence of peoples, religions, and cultures.

Perhaps, the most outspoken creative expression of this unique syncretic history is the Qawwali Ganj Shakar ke Laal Nizamuddin by the recently deceased Ustad Ameer Ali Khan 'Muskaan vaale' by belonging simultaneously to many modern mutual contradictions, specifically important at the time of the festival of Holi.

Holi in The Words of Sufi Bards

The Qawwali is an ode to, like Qawwalis usually are, numerous Sufi giants - Baba Farid, Moiunddin Chisti, etc, and in particular to Nizamuddin Auliya. It can be said to be a hori (the loose sub-genre of songs related to/sung during the festival Holi) and belongs to the category of poems that use three languages - Urdu, Punjabi and Braj Bhasha.

Interestingly, the languages fade into each other effortlessly and without the perception of any abrupt disconnection. The chorus of the recital is “Ganj Shakar ke Laal Nizamuddin, Chist nagar mein phaag rachayo,” that translates to “Nizamuddin, the beloved of Ganj Shakar plays Holi in the land of the Chistis”.

It is evident by the chorus that the Qawwali pulls us into the love of Holi of Nizamuddin Auliya. Aligning with the spirit of the occasion, it playfully describes the flirtations, removing the beloved's veil, and colouring her/him, not to forget the use of the festival weaponry, the pichkari (water-gun).

Needless to say, this Qawwali, true to its style, is androgynous, where a male Qawwal projects himself as a doting female beloved of great Sufi saints, in sharp contrast to most modern styles that adhere to and promote gender differentiation and segregation.

The Ustad lends an exceptional grace to this practice by the use of his charming 'adaa' - a unique intermix of expressions, voice and gestures - which is quite delightful to watch, especially the lines, “Bindiya lagaaun kabhi jhoomar sajaaun, Khwaja Moinuddin ke vaari vaari jaun” (I try to adorn myself with bindi and head jewelry in devotion to Saint Moinuddin)“ and “Khwaja Nizamuddin chatur khiladi, baiyaan padak mora ghungtaa uthaayo (Saint Nizamuddin is a sly trickster, lifted my veil after holding my wrist)“.

One of the most beautiful expressions of love in literature is the analogy of colour and applying colour (rang and rangna) to eternal devotion and affection, and the qawwali expresses the feeling as “Rang daaro, mohe madva pilaayo/ apne rangeele ki Bedam vaali, jis mohe laal gulab banayo (applied colour and intoxicated me/ the Bedam one of my colourful made a red rose of me)“.

The Qawwali ends in paens to the stature of the sufi saints by the lines in Urdu: “Gadai ki teri chaukhat ki badshahi ki/ bana diya hai fakeeri ne tajdaar mujhe (I served your throne/ and this penury made me an emperor)”.

Although saturated with fun, love and everything Holi (pun intended), this literal aspect along with the artistic constructions and primary internet search delves into some very interesting facts.

‘Who Says Holi is A Hindu Festival?’

Holi has definitely seen more harmonious times in the medieval era. Mughal emperors (from Babur, the first Mughal emperor to Zafar, the last one) and other Nawabs, and prominent Sufi saints are known to revel in the colours and water.

The omnipresence of such accounts in our history can be summed up in the words of Munshi Zakaullah from his book Tarikh-e-Hindustani.

“Who says Holi is a Hindu festival?”

The cultural aspect of the history of celebration of the festival in great fervour by Muslims is passed onto us in musical form, especially through the hori sub-genre of Qawwali. Renditions like, “Sab sakhiyaan mil hori khelo, aai milan ki raat, Nijam aaj dulha bano ho (let all girl-friends enjoy holi as it is the night of conjugal union, Nijam has become a bridegroom today); Hori khelungi keh bismillah, boond padi allah allah keh bismillah; and in the present “Aao re chistio Holi khele” (Come Chistis, lets enjoy Holi) deserve acknowledgement for immortalising the medieval Indian spirit of Holi.

Coming back to the present Qawwali, while there may be nothing remarkable about the fact that the poem was penned by a Sufi saint, as many of his predecessors have written poems on Holi, his attire may be. This poem was written by Bedam Shah Warsi of Deva Sharif who lived around the late 19th century and wore clothes in varying shades of green, yellow, brown and pink in honour of his peer (master) that also includes a colour similar to saffron.

Living at a time when a beautiful colour is increasing being used to cement the wall of division between religions, it can be quite a revelation that around the time of Swami Vivekananda, saffron was not strictly restricted to the Hindu ascetics (if true ascetics identify with a religion, that is).

Not only that, Bedam was a polyglot with a love for the Sanskrit language, and examined the Vedas, Mahabharat and Ramayana deeply among other scriptures. In this poem, the use of three different languages - Urdu, Punjabi and Braj Basha - with distinct scripts, shows the fluidity of languages in creative expressions.

All the three languages used by Bedam, now associated with three distinct peoples, are the hardcore product of syncretic Indian culture that reached its zenith in the medieval times; the last Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah 'Zafar' also used these three languages in his couplets and poems.

‘Khoon ki Holi’

This Qawwali is a tribute to the porosity of rigid, man-made India-Pakistan border. First of all, here is a Pakistani Qawwal epitomising the poem of a medieval Indian saint, in languages essentially Indian. Yet it will not be wrong in any way to consider the poet and the languages inalienable constituents of Pakistani cultural heritage and history as well.

Secondly, Ustad Ameer Ali Khan belongs to the Talwandi gharana of Qawwals essentially hailing from Kapurthala in Indian Punjab. And perhaps, this connection - of colours of a bygone era deliberately left to be forgotten - between India and Pakistan is the biggest and truest symbolism of this Qawwali.

However, the fact that Ustad Ameer Ali Khan's family belongs to Kapurthala hides the inevitable agony of partition as well - his family migrated to Pakistan in 1947, where he was born in 1955. There is no denying the fact that the Partition was a bloody blow to the syncretic space that India was, and during times such as the present, the two compartments - India and Pakistan - prove a handy tool for radical forces.

These radicals seem keener to favour the gruesome symbolism of Holi, khoon ki holi, in which the sight of streets awash by red coloured gulaal is used as an analogy to blood after widespread cruel violence.

The words of Arundhati Roy seem apt here, “As positions of both sides (India and Pakistan) hardened, even the literary canons came to be partitioned. The 'Urdu' canon erased the sublime, anti-caste Bhakti poets... The 'Hindi' canon erased the greatest Urdu poets... gradually, as the older generation passes, the newer one, whose formal education comes from 'new' Hindi books and textbooks that have to be approved by government committees, will find it harder and harder to reclaim an ineffably beautiful legacy that is rightfully theirs.”

Art (music, literature, paintings etc.) reflects the political and social realities of a time. This interpretation becomes especially important for India at the present time because history writing is also one of the many contentious issues divided on the basis of the two religions. Through the Qawwali Ganj Shakar ke laal and poem of Bedam Shah Warsi, an effort has been made to understand the historical situation and sense of compatibility of the earlier Indian society.

(Medha Pande is a nature enthusiast from Nainital. She has grown up observing the works of Salim Ali and Jim Corbett. She has been published in The Wire, Down to Earth, Hindustan Times and Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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