Mohan Singh Karki remembers the time as a child, when he would return home with lips and tongue red, having feasted on buransh or rhododendron flowers. It was not uncommon for children to eat these flowers when they went into the Uttarakhand jungles to fetch firewood, graze cattle or play with friends. Somewhere between the deodar and pine landscape, buransh would welcome spring with its bright clusters, dotting the green-grey-white landscape with a flourish of red. What people call a cultural motif of Uttarakhand, is also the state’s national tree.
Holi, celebrated as the festival of spring, is prakriti ka utsav, says Karki. “Prakriti mein naayi umang, naya utsah hota hai (There’s new hope and joy in nature). From buransh that grows on trees to piyuli, a yellow flower that grow as a creeper along the road, and the blooming of peach, apricot, plum and pear in orchards, there’s a natural vibrancy and colour everywhere,” he says. Holi was more a festival of flowers and songs than the use of colour itself, recalls Karki, who manages the community radio station, Kumaon Vani, in Mukteshwar. Shekhar Pathak, Founder, People’s Association for Himalaya Area Research, affirms, “Even before the songs and colour, nature itself proclaims the arrival of spring in the hills. Our fields are lush with wheat and mustard harvests, lime trees are in full bloom, and an abundance of wild flowers everywhere tell that the festival is here.”
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Artificial colours are new to villages, says 52-year-old Karki. “In our childhood, if we wanted yellow, we used haldi in water or lime juice, which doesn’t rub off easily. We would boil buransh or tesu flowers for the red or yellowish orange colour. It was a week of celebrations, which continue even to this day,” he says.
The festival is celebrated in three parts — baithki holi, khari holi and mahila holi. While baithki begins from the temples, it often ends in people’s courtyards, where holiyars (banjarans or singers) sing with musical instruments, with a focus on the rich classical ragas of the region. “Raag ka uttar-chadav (the dips and crescendos of a raag) would depend on the time of day. As the night draws closer the music lulls, but with the break of dawn, raag khilne lagti hai (it comes alive),” says Pathak, quite literally in the midst of a baithki as we speak to him.
Khari holi, sung by villagers involves going door-to-door singing hymns and blessing people in every home. Pathak remembers a time when he was witness to a mahila holi, where only the women congregated. “They imitated the elders and prominent people of the village, through theatre and music, which was quite a revelation for me as a child,” he says.
Much before Holi though, children bring flowers and sweets, laying the petals before every door, and in return are treated to food or clothes. It’s a way of inviting blessings and announcing the arrival of the season.
Karki recalls how entertainment was more community driven, where the dependence was more on each other, than external elements. “People used local means to make colour, prepare food and entertain one another. The idea of the collective was very strong. Even in our songs, you could tell of our lives through the way the songs were written. They would tell of the environment, of the birds and trees, of what we ate and what we did. It proclaimed our oneness with nature. We were closer to the earth,” he says.