Holi no longer ‘holy’: Changing colours of the festival

Agra : Unlike many other festivals, Holi, according to pandits and learned scholars of the Braj area “is the time for gay abandon, for dropping the artificial barriers, class differences, snobbish or elitist tendencies and mix around”. But, now the festival of ‘colours’ sees ‘no mixing’ as the level of patience is declining and people are becoming “intolerant”.

Culture critic Mahesh Dhakar of Agra said: “Long back the city of Taj used to organise Maha Moorkh (fool) Sammelans (gathering), where all important people in town used to gather. They were then awarded Puruskars and titles of different levels of Moorkhata(foolishness). The top award was Maha Moorkha. This went on in the Belanganj area for years.”

Shishir Bhagat, one of the owners of the famous 250-year-old Bhagat Halwai, in Belanganj said : “Times have changed. Those days the relations were deep and genuine and no one reacted sharply to Holi frivolties. Weeks in advance, groups of street urchins would pester pedestrians and passersby, to collect small donations for the final day celebrations. But now the Holi celebrations have lost their original flavour and become generally an indoor club activity. No more mixing with the masses.”

With changing lifestyles and values, Holi revelry has taken new hues: modern, less expressive and boisterous.

“It has become so difficult to laugh your guts out without artificiality. Earlier it used to be impossible to move out of the house because of the rowdies stopping everyone, throwing dirt or demanding money for celebrations. We have gradually become urbane and civil, but the rural areas continue to engage in full throated singing and dancing to the beat of dholaks and nagadas,” said old timer Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society.

Liquor has replaced the traditional Thandai and Bhang.

“People gather at common places, birds of a feather flock together type, but there is very little effort made to break the social barriers these days,” laments social activist Sudhier Gupta.

“Even the municipal corporation organised mela on Holi remains a detestable demonstration of caste loyalties. Each caste panchayat puts up its stall where its members greet one another. Definitely the finer aspects of Holi revelries are all a feature of the past,” added Gupta.

High costs and increasing economic burden on families have also contributed to limiting the celebrations to just a few hours on Holi, said home maker Padmini.

In Mathura-Vrindavan, the celebrations are now largely confined to temples.

“The fervour rarely spills over to the streets. It could be an invitation for trouble if someone chose to smear gulal or throw colour on strangers. The geet-sangeet parampara(tradition) is also on the decline, largely because the conventional Haveli Sangeet of Braj is not attracting new adherents,” explained Bihari Sharma, young journalist of Vrindavan Kunj.

Holi, also called as Phag, is time for folk dances, songs and Rasia dangals, a form of poetry peculiar to this region.

Agra being a quintessential Mughal city, can not overlook the rich tradition of celebrations set by Akbar and Jahangir.

Both Mughal emperors indulged in the merriment and showered gulab and colours on the revellers. Musical mehfils were held all night and community bhang drinking was the order of the day.

Urdu poets Nazir Akbarabadi, emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and so many others have penned special songs including “phags” to be sung during celebrations.

Sufi saints Amir Khusrau and Nizammuddin Aulia also sang songs in pure Persian celebrating the spirit of what was then called Eid-e-Gulabi, when the royals exchanged gulab, rose water and itr, while the drummers kept beating their nagadas (big round drums).

Contemporary paintings show Jahangir playing Holi with his wife Noorjahan. The carnival lasted several days, even during the time of Bahadur Shah Zafar who had special arrangements made for the celebrations.

Talking after receiving the prestigious “Maha Moorkha Award”, at a function held Sunday evening, the National general secretary of Indian People’s Theatre Association, Jitendra Raghvanshi said: “Yes each age has to redefine its idiom and forms of expressions, necessitating re-invention and repackaging of emotions in various shades. Changes in perception, and levels of tolerance are factors that seem to be transforming Holi from a mass festival to a class and caste festival, but these are temporary phases.”

“Eventually the essential spirit of celebration will find new forms of expression,” Raghvanshi added.

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