While most associate Holi with a Hindu ethos, even a cursory glance through the pages of history reveals otherwise. Holi always falls in the month of March, which in the Mughal era fell close on the heels of another significant festival, Navroz. Over time, both the festivals became twins.
The Mughals were known to be liberal and openly enjoyed celebrating Indian festivals. Historian Zakaullah writes that Babur was so wonderstruck when he saw Holi celebrations where people were splashing around in a pool of coloured water that he followed suit and filled a pool with his favourite coloured liquid — wine. Abul Fazal writes in Ain-e Akbarithat Akbar used to start collecting beautiful squirts and syringes of different sizes throughout the year in anticipation. This was one of the rare occasions when Akbar would come out from his fort and play Holi with even the commoners. Tuzk-e-Jahangirimentions that Jahangir played Holi actively and organised musical gatherings.
Shajahan would watch the Holi celebrations from the jharokaof Red Fort. He also gave it the name Eid-e-Gulabi(the festival of colour), Jashn-e-Aab-Pashi (the festival of spraying water). During Shahjahan’s rule, a Holi fair was organised near what is today Rajghat which included pantomimes in which jesters would imitate the king and princes and nobody took offence. Bahadur Shah Zafar went as far as making Holi the official festival of the Red Fort and patronised a new genre of Urdu poetry called Hori, which was sung on the day of Holi.
Before the Mughals, even Muslim Sufi poets had used this festive opportunity to propagate the message of brotherhood. Holi was celebrated at most Sufi monasteries. Nizammuddin Aulia, who is considered to be among the first secular theorists, advocated love for people of all faiths. He also directed his protégée to compose poetry in the language of the commoners and started celebrating Holi at his monastery. Khusrau was not only an enthusiastic Holi player but also composed verse for the occasion: Aaj rang hai, maa ri aaj rang hai/Morey khwaja ke ghar aaj rang hai/Mohey peer payo Nijamuddin aulia/Des bides mien phiri ri, tera rang bhayo nijamuddin aulia/Aaj sajan mila morey aangan mien (Its colour today, my mother its colour today, My beloved is found in my own yard).
This tradition of celebrating Holi became such an integral part of Sufi culture that even today, a ritual “rang” is observed on the last day of the annual celebrations at every shrine.
The tales of elaborate Holi celebrations abound as much in Lucknow as they do In Delhi. Nawab Saadat Ali Khan and Asifuddaula would spend crores on Holi celebrations. The participating nautch girls, singers, prostitutes and courtiers were famously rewarded with gold coins and velvet cloth.
The references to Holi are innumerable in Urdu poetry. Almost no important Urdu poet, from Khusrau to Sahir Ludhyanvi, left this topic untouched. Nazeer Akbarabadi, who is hailed as an enthusiastic ambassador of Hindu culture, composed eight long poems about Holi. Shah Niaz, a Sufi and a poet, was a contemporary of Nazeer. He wrote: Hori hoye rahi hai Ahmad geo ke duwar/Hazrat Ali ke rang bano hai Hasan Husain khilar. Shah Niaz (Holi is being played at the gate of Prophet Mohammad, Ali has brought colours, Husain and Hasan are playing).
Qayam, an 18th century poet, has famously depicted the real naughtiness of Holi. His importance can be understood through Ghalib’s acknowledgement of Qayam as his Ustad. In his long poem Chandpur ki Holi,Qayam paints a scene of an inebriated Maulvi who has forgotten his way to the mosque. This is the state of people on Holi. People from all spheres of life whether pious or habitual drinkers, celebrate together and indulge in mud-slinging. It makes everyone equal and free. Qayam ends his poem with a prayer: Ilahihai jab takke ye shor o shar ho alam mien/ Holi seybaqiasar (O God let the festivity of Holi survive till the world does).
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 8, 2019 under the title ‘Colours of poetry’. The writer teaches Urdu literature at Zakir Hussain College, Delhi University