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My first Holi in India was not an enjoyable one.
Amritsar. 1990. I’d missed the train to Pakistan (seriously), so I took a three-wheeler to the border at Wagah. Although the driver was somewhat anxious, the fare was too good for him to turn down. Ignored by lurking terrorists (were there really any?), we did astonish several jawans crouched behind their sandbagged posts, but were soon hit (inevitably) by a carrier bag of cold water, the rest of the journey being bumpy, chilly and soggy.
Holi is often called the ‘festival of colours’, but this is only one aspect of its core components.
It’s a spring festival celebration which varies across India, even known by different names. In the north, the evening of the full moon (Purnima) of Phalguna Shukla Paksha is ‘choti Holi’ and the burning of Holika, Holika Dahan, while the next day is Holi.
Holi brings together different stories, the key one being of Vishnu protecting his devotee, Prahlad, by burning his murderous aunt, Holika, and, then taking the form of Narasimha, to kill Prahlad’s father, King Hiranyakashipu. But for many, the festival is dominated by the Braj celebrations of the love of Radha and Krishna.
The festival in Braj shows a true carnival in the inversion of the hierarchical order of society – caste, age, gender, social status – in a way which enforces the hierarchy as it is not chaos but a precise order of inversion.
Necklaces of shoes, the language of abuse, the taking of intoxicants, the beating of men by women, and the flinging of mud and dung feature alongside the throwing of coloured powders and water, all representing fertility and spring.
There is also a very aesthetically refined celebration, usually associated with Krishna, in art, poetry, songs and the eating of special food items, notably gujiyas. This more sanitised version is the form of Holi which normally makes it into films, where Holi features in song and dance sequences which are usually public events which extend beyond the family circle.
People throw water or use pichkaris, large syringe-like water pistols, to spray coloured water and they throw coloured powder, while also touching people to smear them with colour (this is based on the poetic trope that dark-skinned Krishna changes colour with light-skinned Radha).
The songs allow some license for contact, wet saris, touching bodies and so on, which otherwise was restricted in films as it was in real life.
The Holi songs serves many other functions in film. Sometimes the focus is on the spectacle and fun, so in ‘Are ja re hat natkhat’ (Navrang, 1959), Sandhya dances as a Krishna and Radha but an elephant also joins her to provide an immense spectacle as the pichkaris spray away.
The whole village comes together to celebrate in ‘Holi aayi re Kanhayi’ (Mother India, 1957), which, despite the lyrics’ reference to the story of Krishna in Braj is set between giant statues of Shiva and Nandi in what seems to be a temple complex. The villages dress in Gujarati costumes and dance in the round.
The song ‘Holi ke din dil khil jaate hain’ in Sholay, 1975 shows the village celebrating, the dance led by the appropriately named Basanti (Hema Malini), just before the dacoits attack. While Veeru (Dharmendra) and Basanti dance, Jai (Amitabh) watches Radha (Jaya Bachchan) who keeps her distance from the celebrations as her widow status meaning she does not play Holi.
However, in ‘Aaj na chhodenge’ (Kati Patang, 1971), Madhu (Asha Parekh) is wearing widow’s white as she is pretending to be Poonam, and sings of her sorrow at Holi, but Kamal (Rajesh Khanna) sprays her with colour.
A more recent depiction of Holi shows it not as a public festival which unites villagers as one family but as a private occasion in someone’s (large) garden. In Baghban (2003), Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini join again as Raj and Pooja in ‘Hori khele Raghuveera’, one of the few times that the family celebrates together in the film about duties and responsibilities.
The fun of Holi allows Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) to put a tika on Narayan Sharma (Amitabh) in Mohabbatein (2000), as the latter yields to the plea to allow students to celebrate Holi, while in ‘Balam pichkari’ (Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, 2013), Naina (Deepika) comes to life and impresses Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor).
The grimmest Holi in Hindi film is in Damini (1993) when Damini (Meenakshi Sheshadri) sees her brother-in-law and his friends gang-rape their maid.
The danger of Holi is also seen on the Holi sequences of Yash Chopra. These are private celebrations of Holi in gardens which present two different dangers. The first is ‘Ang se ang lagana’ (Darr, 1993), where Rahul who is stalking Kiran (Juhi Chawla) gets into the family’s celebrations as part of a band. The first shot of the film is the dafli played by Vijay (Anupam Kher) as the couples celebrate transferring colour on to one another by hugging.
But it is Rahul’s dhol playing which intrudes into song dialogues between Kiran and her fiancé Sunil (Sunny Deol) that highlight his invasion of the family’s space and his insertion of himself between the couple as he manages to rub colour onto Kiran.
In Silsila (1981), Amit (Amitabh) and Chandni (Rekha) say that they didn’t marry the person they loved. When Amit begins to sing (in his own voice), he is so stoned on bhang that he sings to and dances with Chandni in ways that clearly show their love for each other. Their spouses look on with increasing dismay, then horror as his meaning becomes more obvious when he sings that the lover gets all the fun while the husband looks on.
Chandni’s awkwardness begins to fade as she too shows her love for Amit, laughing as he showers her with flowers, lies in her lap until they finally unite in an embrace under her dupatta. The song is a turning point in the plot as all the characters are now aware of what we, the audience, already knew, namely that Amit and Chandni’s love did not stop when they married others.
Holi has become even more of a private affair in Padmaavat (2018), where the king and queen celebrate Holi alone in a world of beige and gold hyper-romance, as she smears colour on his feet. Meanwhile, Khilji dips his face in saffron powder to join in the celebrations.
In Braj, the celebration of Holi lasts until Rang Panchami, a day for reconciliation and new beginnings. I wish everyone a happy and colourful Holi.
Rachel Dwyer is professor emerita of Indian culture and cinema at SOAS, University of London.