Prakriti Humare Tyohaaroin Mein: Shubh Holi
Environmentalists have been in the news lately, what with farmers’ protests and all….
Public relies on media coverage to learn about the reasons behind (any) protests. Media have been known to merely ‘cover events’ instead of providing a complete information on issues. Without a complete understanding of the issues, public is unable to take an informed stance. Images, protests, and riots fit the way television/newspapers work. Both need bright and controversial images to attract viewers/readers. It is not in media’s interest to explain the details of a protest, share the two sides of the story.
In a country where Prime Minister –Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri, gave us the slogan, Jai Jawan, Jai Kissan (“Hail to the soldier; Hail to the farmer”), India is being accused of being unfair to her farmers. Farmers – who we consider annadata(the giver of food), and who, we know, are closest to mother earth.
This, in India, where the dominant faith is so intertwined with nature, trees, earth, and water that each has been regarded as divine. Hinduism is a nature friendly way of life, where our symbiotic existence with environment is the foundation of every festival. Hinduism honors seasons’ role in our lives, and marks each cycle with a festival. Seasonal changes are celebrated as a divine injunction, and every associated festival has a deity attached to it. Festivities come in the form of large meals, and singing songs about how Krishna and Rama, Rati and Rudradev would observe the celebration (Holi Khele Raghuveera, Aaj Biraj Mein Hori Re)
Our modern existence has made us forget much wisdom and ways in which we honored nature in every festival. Media coverage links festivals with pleasing visuals without providing an understanding of ‘why’ of the festival. Today, festivals are celebrated for their fun, rather than for the role they play in human psyche, and how they connect us to our environment. People are more concerned about what they will wear on Diwali, rather than understanding the connection between amavasya (new moon night), following Shraadh (week dedicated to ancestors) in autumn, lighting of the lamps and bursting firecrackers.
Almost all festivals in Hinduism mark planetary movements and honor resulting seasonal changes. Starting with Makar-Sankranti, the 14th of January when the Sun makes an entry into Capricorn (Makar). The transition is celebrated all over India with different flavors due to climate differences, e.g. it is celebrated with a bonfire or kite flying in the North of India, marking the beginning of the end of winter and with river baths in the south, where it is the last of the ‘tropical-winter’.
For all our talk being eco-friendly, most people, especially those living in cities, do not even know the names of plants that grow in their vicinity. And the young take pride in not knowing the names of spices and condiments used daily in our kitchens.
Urban residents rely on media to learn about rural festivals or those that are restricted to certain states. For example, Holi is more popular in the north of India, but has been popularized by Bollywood for the colorful imagery it can add to a movie. But bollywoodization of festivals has also desacralized them by detaching them from their spiritual and environmental significance. Priyanka Chopra even compared it to a rave party (Video). Sadly, we have started to bring Bollywood music into our temples even though traditional way of celebrating Holi in temples was with flowers and inviting bhajan-mandalis to evoke Brij holi.(Video).
Do we know how Holi was celebrated a hundred years ago and how eco-friendly it really was?
I got a glimpse of that while living in Fiji, where I attended ‘Chautaal’ for the first time. It was an honor to be invited to a celebration my first year in the country. (Video) It was fascinating to see how festivals have been kept alive by the Indian diaspora around the world. Much of this (old) diaspora was forcibly created during the British Rule and ended up in former British colonies such as Trinidad & Tobago, Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana and Surinam.
Celebrations for welcoming spring begin with Basant Panchami by worshiping Ma Sarawasti, the Goddess of learning, since Panchami symbolizes ‘awakening’ and new birth, and end forty-days later in throwing color on friends and family. Strangers are not exempt either, for it is spring, our hearts are open and friendliness is in the air!
Forty days between Basant Panchami and Holi are filled with intense singing to augur spring. Chau-taal, meaning chaar(four) taal (beats) is a specific kind of folk music that uses stories from rural life, puranas, and even modern life to sing spirited songs. Being a community celebration each of the forty days of chautaal is held at a different family’s house. At the end of an intense singing and dancing everyone needs a good dose of homemade food. The host family gladly prepares snacks in the anticipation that for a few hours their house will be filled with young and old singing songs that leave both the house and the attendees energized. Towards the end of each chautaal singing, special couplets that contain jokes and limericks recited to engage the children in the family.
I attended four days of chautaal singing including one chautaal competition. Two nights were celebrated in a temple, one at the university and one at a community hall. Songs evoked rural life, flowers in bloom and tales of Rama and Krishna.
I’ve searched for ages;
my beloved’s nowhere. I can’t
hunger or thirst. Sleep is a distant dream.
I am in misery. After drinking
his flute, peace is a myth.
No charm, no magic, no mantra,
no medicine cures my restlessness.
I ask leaves and plants,
“Have you glimpsed Krishna?”
O Jasmine, Earth, and Tulsi,
you are my only friends. Night and day
I cry, “Hari. Hari.”
In a split second Nanda-Yashomati’s
beloved son disappeared
into the forest. Lalbihari is blind
to all else but Krishna.
Translated by Rajiv Mahabir, Holi Songs of Demerara (Link)
Almost all singers and musicians were men, but women were present at every occasion. Many Fijian words and rituals were included in the singing. For example, there was a reference to Yagona (pronounced Yangona), which is a drink made by pounding the roots of a plant by the same name (also called kava). It would seem that references to bhaang have been replaced with Yangona, since it has‘sedative, anesthetic, and euphoriant properties’.
Annual Chautaal singing ensures that new generation learns both lyrics and musical instruments such as harmonium, drums, bells and cymbals. Chautaalis a multi-generation celebration that weaves a bridge between generations. It warmed my heart to see young college students playing dholak and harmonium, as they sang some favorite and familiar songs. I was also told that powdered color and colored water for Holi used to be made with natural dyes extracted from flowers, fruits and vegetables (Tesu flowers, turmeric, saffron, beetroot, henna, grapes etc.)
It made me realize how Bollywood, by linking it with drinking and dancing, has distorted our understanding of Holi. Attending chautaal in Fiji was a great opportunity to experience ‘masti’ without any alcohol because the singers were drunk on music. Unfortunately, despite having grown up in Delhi, I never learnt about Chautaal until I attended one in Fiji. I have deep gratitude for all the people of the Indian diaspora who have kept traditions alive despite the hardships and discriminations they had to bear.
Wouldn’t we be better informed and more in touch with our environment if we followed panchaang, the HIndu calendar, with its focus on changes in nature? Wouldn’t it be nice if we the learnt folk songs, and made a tradition of evening singing for forty days before Holi?
Maybe it is time to reclaim Holi by going back to celebrating it the way it was meant to be, singing chautaal, making colors from natural dyes and dancing with abandon!!
May you all have a colorful and music filled Holi!
DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.