Holi Hues


The colours of spring, the change of season to warmer tones of yellow, vermillion and green from the starkness of winters. Holi is symbolic of the victory of good over evil. Holika on the insistence of her brother, Hiranyakashyap tries to kill her nephew, Prahlad who is a pious virtuous kid and opposes his father’s wrongs. Holika gets burnt instead and people celebrate smearing her ashes and crushed flowers. The festival gets its name from her.

This symbolic festival in the Northern part of India has a ritual of creating an effigy of Holika and burning it the day before. It is considered auspicious. In other parts of the country, it celebrates the advent of spring after a harsh winter. Awakening, rebirth and newness. It is known by its different names, Phagua in Bihar, Dol Jatra in Orissa, Bengal and Assam, Shimga in Maharashtra. In the South, they believe that not Holika but the Cupid of our land Kama Devata is burnt by Shiva for his prank and is called Kama Dahana.

Orissa and Bengal commemorate Radha Krishna during the swing festival or Dol Purnima. It is believed that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu sent his disciples and pilgrims to Bengal and they propagated this colourful festival. Scholars have also interpreted her vanquishment as a symbolic victory over diseases like measles and chickenpox that infected children during these months.

A favourite version is the Lathmar Holi celebrated in Barsana near Vrindavan. According to a legend, Krishna teased Radha and her friends who chased them out. Every year the men are greeted by women with sticks and those who cannot protect themselves are dressed in female garb and made to dance in public. Delightful!

Jawhar Sirkar in his article on this festival, mentions that Holi has a ritual singing of obscene songs and has been observed by travellers from even the middle Ages. Hindus are open with sexual innuendos and it has been mentioned in many texts. A hundred years ago, MM Underhill commented on the lewd language as had William Crooke in the 1880s. The Pracheen Smritis mention this festival centuries before Chaitanya and there was a mention of young men using terrible profanities. This is a festival celebrated by all communities and sadly “touching the lower castes on the second day of Holi followed by a bath is said to destroy all illnesses”.

He also iterates that Holi with all its riotous revelry is not confined to India and Nepal and this festival was carried over to Surinam, Trinidad, Fiji, Mauritius by the Indian diaspora and is celebrated with the usual colours, folk songs, dholak and dances. In Guyana, it is actually a National Holiday and people of all races, colours and religions participate. This concept of throwing colours has been adopted also by Americans and Europeans and there are several community festivals where men and women outdo Indians in their fervour and merriment.

Growing up, we focused on the fun aspect. Planning and preparing water bombs and balloons, some vile smelly potions. We congregated on someone’s terrace and the fun remained undiminished every time. Despite the same activities we were reenergized every year with greater enthusiasm. The faux chasing, dunking and targeting unsuspecting friends with our arsenal of missiles. The blue colour was invariably one that refused to go. We mixed eggshells with ink to increase potency and in the absence of the internet, information was eagerly gleaned from anyone who cared to share.

We were usually allowed a sip of Bhaang in chilled thandai (a drink made with milk, dry fruits and spices). The merriment was euphoric while we sang songs and soaked in the warm sunshine. We generously slathered oil beforehand to avoid colours from staying on, though the real fun was to have more colours stay on us than the next person in school. After a  prolonged bath, deep slumber overtook our senses. Happy bliss!

Before global warming, our seasons changed quite definitively. Mid-November, we wore cardigans to school and snuggled into quilts at night. The nip stayed on till Holi and this day was the day we first put on the fans. Announcing summer with certitude.

Today with more awareness we use organic colours, in the warm shade of pinks, yellows. Dry “gulaal”, no water, sane and correct. It lacks the spontaneity and sheer gladness we experienced then. Even kids despite their term exams looming ahead were allowed to play. A novel addition was a raincoat and do as you will.

Holi heralds colour after a bland winter and suffuses hope in grim everyday lives!

Vibha Mitra is a Heritage Enthusiast – actively involved with Calcutta Heritage Collective. With a passion to do things well, she expresses herself from an original point of view. Films, plays, crosswords, Scrabble, Sudoku, Netflix are all jostling for space in her world. Vibha has also authored the book “Odds and Bends”, a journal and her reflection.