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The songs of Holi

March 28, 2013

IT is Holi again and I am surprisingly riveted to YouTube, listening to Jaddan Bai’s lilting composition in Raga Durga. From the feel of it, she must have sung it in the 1930s.

The words from the 78rpm record are haunting, and flow like confident advice steeped in experience: “Roop, joban, goon dharay rahat hain in bhaagan ke aage.” [A beautiful visage, youth and all your talents fall powerless before the vagaries of fate and time.] It should not be surprising if many who claim the legacy of Ayodhya as being exclusively Hindu fail to understand the lines in Awadhi, the language in which Tulsidas wrote his epic poem ‘Ramcharitmanas’ in the much-maligned Mughal era. Malik Mohammed Jayasi and Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana probably understood its syncretic message better.

Neither Jaddan Bai nor Raga Durga is of course identified in any special way with the festival of colours. The usual compositions sung around this time are mostly in Khamaj, Pilu, Gara and Kafi, all late or early afternoon ragas. It’s different today, though, as Holi revellers mostly dance to inordinately loud drums in imitation of Michael Jackson’s pelvic thrusts. There are the odd Holi compositions in Bhairavi, a morning raga, or even Tilak Kamod, a late evening melody. Most songs celebrate the frolic of the mythical Lord Krishna with the milkmaids of Mathura.

Earlier this week, I took a niece from Karachi to a festival of thumri in Delhi. The evening was crowned by a rare concert by Girija Devi, now in her 80s. She is perhaps the last surviving relic of the different, more agreeable world that India once was. Her peers included Rasoolan Bai who, like Jaddan Bai, belonged to the tradition of courtesan singers. In her memorable bass voice Rasoolan sang a few beautiful odes to Krishna and Rama. She stopped singing in the 1970s after her house was burnt down by a Hindu mob in Ahmedabad.

It is curious that Ahmedabad, which has given rise to Narendra Modi’s brand of religious intolerance, was also the venue where Begum Akhtar and many other Muslim musicians and poets were embraced with unalloyed love. Begum Akhtar died in the middle of a concert in Ahmedabad, in a way symbolising her devotion to the city. More recently, Modi’s mobs desecrated the grave of Wali Dakhani, the 17th-century poet who celebrated the Hindu Mecca of Varanasi thus: “Kucha-i-yaar ain kaasi hai, jogiya dil wahi’n ka baasi hai.” [My sweetheart lives in Benares, and my ascetic heart belongs there.]

Modi’s mobs also destroyed Fayyaz Khan’s grave in Baroda. The feisty singer devoted many compositions to Krishna and his frolic. The most celebrated exponent of Raas Leela, the story of Krishna’s dalliances, was of course Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Before the British exiled him to Matia Burj near Calcutta, the Muslim nawab of Oudh was writing verses for thumris and composing ballets in the Kathak dance form, all glorifying the mythology of Krishna and the legend of Holi around him.

The ageing Birju Maharaj has preserved the nawab’s legacy. His outstanding skills with Kathak have won the guru wide adulation and an army of fawning students. Watching him among the audience last week while his disciples performed the ballet from the story of Prahlad was a treat for the visitor from Karachi. That legend forms a rival narrative of how Holi came into existence. By contrast, Sheema Kirmani was fighting hard to keep the tradition of Kathak alive in Pakistan, the niece noted.

Why was I listening to Jaddan Bai and Raga Durga on a day when the world around me was celebrating Holi with colours or partaking of that delightful brew called bhang? (Nazir Akbarabadi, often regarded as Ghalib’s peer, wrote some fabulous verses on Holi and bhang.) The fact is that I was looking for the family tree of Sanjay Dutt, the bad movie actor with a good heart who was recently handed a five-year prison term for his alleged involvement in the 1993 bomb attacks in Mumbai. He was found with a banned gun and perhaps a pistol, which he apparently got from shady friends belonging to Mumbai’s Muslim underworld.

Sanjay Dutt has Muslim and Hindu blood in him, if blood can be assigned that description at all. His mother was the 1950s movie star Nargis, whose mother was Jaddan Bai. As jumbled as any DNA can get, Jaddan Bai had three children from different men, two Hindus and a Muslim. Sanjay’s mother Nargis had a Hindu father, the only one who married Jaddan Bai. Sanjay’s father Sunil Dutt was a Husaini Brahmin. Legend has it that Husaini Brahmins fought in the battle of Karbala against the forces of Yazid. Whatever be the truth about the evolution of his religious heritage, Sanjay Dutt responded to the violence against Muslims in January 1993 in Mumbai with the helplessness increasingly identified with Indian Muslims. That moment of intense helplessness is being scrupulously shunned and underplayed as the media takes sides on whether he deserves to be pardoned.

The actor’s DNA has much to commend him. It could only happen in India that the most iconic Holi song was written by Shakeel Badayuni, composed by Naushad and sung by Shamshad Begum, three Muslim legends. And it was filmed on Nargis in a landmark role that cast her as Mother India. What religion was hers? “Holi ayee re Kanhaee, rang chhalke, suna de zara bansuri.” It was an anguished appeal to Krishna from his sweethearts not to stop playing his magic flute. Sanjay Dutt’s tragedy and Jaddan Bai’s syncretic legacy are tied to the fading notes of that song.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.