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Kumaoni Holi: Splendid Colours of a Rich Tradition

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By CS Tewari

Holi celebrations in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand are very well-known. The festival of Holi here is a kaleidoscope of lively colours and earthy folk songs – a veritable reflection of the vibrant and rich local culture. In Kumaon Anchal, we can see three different types of Holi celebrations – Baithi Holi, Khadi Holi and Mahilaon ki Holi.

Baithi Holi is celebrated with music and songs mostly in urban environments, groups of around five-to-seven or more people come together at temples, community centres or homes and sing songs. The sumptuous festive pahadi fare served to everyone includes preparations with Aalu ke gutake and singalas made of sooji.

People get together to sing songs for ‘Baithi Holi’ from the first Sunday of the Hindu month of ‘Paush’. These musical celebrations move into a higher octave post ‘Basant Panchami’, which marks the arrival of spring. It is popularly believed that the tradition of ‘Baithi Holi’ began around the nineteenth century.

In present times, local cultural institutions such as The Hukka Club are working towards taking this rich tradition forward. In Almora, starting from the first Sunday of the Paush month to the full-moon day of Phagun, people come together to sing songs and enjoy this unique form of Holi celebrations.

Khadi Holi is celebrated in rural areas. Participation of common folks is prominent in these festivities. Music and songs on ‘Khadi Holi’ begin with the ritual of tying a piece of cloth around the branch of the ‘Padam’ tree (Himalayan Cherry) and applying colours on Phalgun Ekadashi day and continue until the day after the full moon known as ‘Chhaladi’.

Khadi Holi songs in Kumaon are sung only by the men folk. The men gather in a circle and sing these songs. Importantly, their feet and hands move in sync with the rhythm of the songs. These singers are known as ‘holyaars’. Dressed in white-coloured kurtas and pajamas and wearing ‘topis’ (caps), the ‘holyaars’ go from one house to another and sing these songs. Percussionists, playing the manjiras and dholaks, perform amid the circle of the dancing ‘holyaars’.

In some parts of Kumaon, there is a tradition of Holi songs and celebrations exclusively by women. These songs are a combination of ‘Baithi Holi’ and ‘Khadi Holi’ styles. Instruments like manjiras and dholaks are used by women, too. These Holi celebrations by women begin on Ekadashi day before Holi.

Having wrapped up domestic and farming chores, women enthusiastically participate in ‘Baithi Holi’. Humour and satire are also usually incorporated in these songs by the women. The songs feature satirical depictions of social events and humorous takes on family members and others in the village such as parents-in-law, daughters-in-law, village elders, alcoholics and politicians.

Different hues of Holi
Come Spring, the entire Kumaon region is drenched in the colours of the season. While the mountain peaks are capped in flaming red colour by the blooming Rhododendrons ‘Buransh’ flowers, the plains are covered in swathes of yellow mustard ‘Sarson’ flowers swaying to the cool breeze. Fruit trees such as ‘Aadu’, ‘Khubani’, ‘Dadim’ and ‘Padam’ come alive with blooming flowers adding distinct streaks of pink and white around homes in the region. ‘Pyoli’ and ‘Kilmad’ flowers add a bright yellow touch to the colourful vistas.

The vibrant hues of the season have a profound effect on the people in the region who then become one with nature and enthusiastically celebrate the festival of Holi with lively music and dance. ‘Khadi Holi’ songs begin on Ekadashi of the Shuklapaksha in the Phagun month. On this day, branches of ‘Padam’ trees are cut and placed on the ground in temples and homes at an auspicious hour and colourful pieces of cloth, ‘Cheer’, are ritualistically tied around them. After the ceremonial worship of the branch, performers gather around it in a circle and begin their ‘Khadi Holi’ performance.

On Holi Ekadashi, temples as well as ‘puja’ spaces in homes are anointed with colours. People dress in white coloured clothes and play Holi putting colours on each other. Lord Ganesha is worshipped along with all other Gods and Goddesses and their blessings sought for the well-being and prosperity of families and villages.

Everyone in the villages – young and old, alike – get into the spirit of Holi. The sounds of the ‘dhols’ and ‘jhanjhars’ reverberate in the air filled with melodies of the Holi songs sung by the people in village temples. The whole milieu is rendered divine as though the Gods themselves have descended to sing songs and celebrate along with the ‘holyaars’.

The ‘Holika’ fire is lit on the night of the ‘Purnima’. Holi is celebrated with colours and water on the following day, called ‘Chaladi’. On this day, the ‘holyaars’ visit homes and shower blessings on families. With this ritual, the ‘holyaars’ bid farewell to the festival and await its return in the following year.
Gaavain khele dev aasheesh,
Ho ho holak re
Baras Diwali barsai phaag,
Ho ho holak re
Jo nar jeevain khele phaag,
Ho ho holak re…

One can see specific influences of the Kumaon region in the Holi celebrations of this place. The festival of Holi, having originated in the Braj-Avadh of Uttar Pradesh, spread to the hilly regions of Uttarakhand and slowly began to assimilate local flavours and influences which have given it a distinct form. Over time, folk culture and lore blended seamlessly into the spirit of the festival. This distinct form of Holi, resplendent with regional nuances, is today an important cultural legacy of Kumaon.

Songs sung before Basant Panchami are typically devotional and spiritual in nature, while the songs after that take on more colourful and ornate themes. ‘Khadi Holi’ songs begin with the planting of the branches of the Himalayan Wild Cherry trees (‘Padam’ trees) in public places covered with colourful pieces of cloth on ‘Phalgun Ekadashi’ day, after the ritual of ‘rang-anushthaan”. This long period of ritual singing during Holi is unique to the Kumaon region and possibly cannot be seen anywhere else.

Some folk characteristics of Kumaoni Holi are like this –

• Simplified music compositions in ‘Baithi Holi’: Songs sung in ‘Baithi Holi’ are based on classical ‘raagas’, but the style of singing makes it easy for even those who do not know or understand classical music. The compositions are simple and can be sung by one and all.

• These Holi songs touch upon various emotions and give important spiritual and social messages to listeners. While the songs that are devotional in nature exhort one towards attaining spiritual experiences, the songs themed around the colours of the season are breezy and enjoyable adding to the enthusiasm and festivities.

• Socio-political influences of the Holi songs: Often Holi songs have incorporated powerful socio-political messages. This is a salient aspect of Holi in this part of the country. Poets like Gauri Datt Pande ‘Gaurda’, Girish Tiwari ‘Girda’ and Charu Chandra Pandey have composed well-known Holi songs that have had a deep social impact in the region. These songs have played an important role during the freedom movement including the Forest Satyagraha and for other social causes such as the movement against alcoholism in the region.

• Traditionally, Holi celebrations have marked the coming together of different communities, oneness and brotherhood. Even today, villages in the hilly regions of Kumaon celebrate Holi collectively and ‘holyaars’ visit homes not only in their own villages but in the neighbouring villages as well.

• The unique tradition of showering blessings: When ‘holyaars’ visit homes in the region to sing Holi songs, the chief ‘holyaar’ blesses every member of the family. These blessings epitomise the principles of “Jeevet Sharadah Shatam” symbolising the Indian ethos of oneness with nature, fostering the well-being of all. Heads of families and other members, young and old are blessed with happiness, good health, divine grace and well-being. The ‘holyaars’ also wish that the spirit and gaiety of the spring season remains in these homes throughout the year.

(The Author is Research Associate at Doon Library and Research Centre, Dehradun)