Avik Chattopadhyay: The religion of festivals!

08 Apr,2021

Avik ChattopadhyayBy Avik Chattopadhyay


On the day of Holi, the festival of colours, on March 29, I wished many of my friends “Holi Mubarak!”. An old friend of mine, highly educated and erudite, responded by saying it should be “Shubhkamnayein” and not “Mubarak” as the latter was an Urdu word. On my commenting that Urdu was also Indian and therefore as appropriate, he retorted with a curt “Good night.”


It disturbed me that an intellectual of sorts in society, whom many would typically look up to, had such a constricted view about the ‘purity’ of a festival greeting. But then, these are truly trying times when we are undergoing an period of inquisition on determining who is good enough to belong to this land called India and who is an outsider. We are recalibrating all things around us to classify them into being originally Indian and being imposed by cultures that do not belong to this land!


I grew up in a city called Allahabad where, as a child I heard one cyclist greet another outside my school with “Bhaijaan, aapko Eid ka Ram-Ram.” That is etched in my mind. My parents come from a city called Calcutta where people of all faiths line up outside a Jewish confectionary called Nahoum & Sons where Muslim workers bake some of the best cakes and rum balls for Christmas.


Nahoum & Sons, New Market, Kolkata since 1916.


Festivals are some of the biggest ‘brands’ in any economy, impacting sentiments, livelihoods and prosperity more than most businesses.


They are unique socio-economic-cultural events, more so today than they were a hundred years ago. The Durga Puja is the single biggest economic activity in Bengal. And that involves people of all faiths and beliefs than just the specific religious community. The ardent Hindu looks forward to authentic Awadhi Biryani on the day of Maha Ashtami as much as the Christian kids enjoy ‘pandal hopping’ clicking selfies before the idols of the goddess. When they greet you with “Happy Pujo” or “Puja mubarak ho”, nobody would retort that the greeting should be “Shubho Pujo”. In fact the more the greetings the better as it transcends a religious occasion into becoming a cultural extravaganza!


The fervour is almost equally feverish on Eid and Christmas which everyone lovingly refers to as “Bada Din” [Big Day], not because of a colonial hangover but because everyone believes it is certainly a big day of collective celebration.


For us, occasions like Holi, Eid-ul-Fitr, Diwali, Durga Puja, Onam, Ganesh Chaturthi and Christmas were ones where we saw different forms of celebration with their unique rituals and culture codes enjoyed by one and all. Why should a festival be constrained by only religious customs? Most festivals do have their origin in a certain religious event or reason which nobody denies, yet over the centuries they have outgrown this limited role into one of collective enjoyment. After all, the word “festival” comes from the Latin word “festivalis” and etymologically has a close connection with the word ‘feast’ implying a special day of celebration, eating, congregation and rituals. Interestingly, the Arabic word “eid” also means festival. It is due to the vastness of the interpretation of the word that it is used for any memorable occasion or celebration, be it for mangoes or music or Moliere.


It is the slow but sure openness of a festival that has its origin in a religion that makes the occasion grow into a socio-cultural gala and the religion or faith a globally acceptable and mature one. By the way, the word gala comes from the Arabic “khil’a”.


The attempt to shackle a festival into mere rituals and methods of greeting takes away all that make it memorable and globally acceptable in participation and socio-economic activity. Try telling the master craftsmen from Chandannagar who light up Park Street in Kolkata every year that their Christmas decorations need to be only with Biblical motifs and they would gape at you in amazement and consternation in equal measure.


I had to give a befitting reply to my friend’s curt “good night”. So, I connected with friends across groups asking about the history of Holi celebrations over the ages. One kind soul in a group of Urdu lovers did me a huge favour and I share some wonderful bits from his expansive piece.


Holi is lovingly called “Eid-e-Gulabi” in Indian Muslim literature. Sufi saints like Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and Ameer Khusrau have, in their chaste Persian and Hindvi poetry, adored the ‘pink’ festival generously. Aulia 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.


Holi symbolises the commencement of a new year with a rabi harvest along with nice weather and refreshing air. The Umarahs, the Rajahs and the Nawabs all exchanged rose water bottles and sprinkled it on each other amid the frenzied drumming of the ‘nagaras’.


More colour to Holi is added as it falls near the Muslim festival of Id-ul-Fitr.


Jahangir has been shown holding Mehfil-e-Holi in `Tuzk-e-Jahangiri’. Many artists, specially Govardhan and Rasik, have shown Jahangir playing Holi with his wife, Noorjahan. During Shahjahan’s rule in Delhi, Holi was known as Id-e-Gulabi [Pink Id] or Aab-e-Pashi [Shower of colourful flowers].


Quli Qutab Shah, a renowned south Indian poet, wrote about Holi in his inimitable Hyderabadi Urdu, describing the festival of colours in the Braj and Bundelkhand regions in India’s north. Equally enjoyable are the poems of Mir Taqi Mir who joined the court of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah and wrote in praise of Jashne-e-Holi. Poets like Khwaja Haider Ali Aatish, Insha and Taban have written great Holi songs.


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 playing with coloured mud. 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].


I had enough to flood my friend with and prove a point that festivals have no religion. In fact, there needs to be a new religion of just festivals from across the world, spanning all faiths and cultures and rituals that the world must embrace with open arms.


I prepared my reply…read it once again and then deleted it. Even if he would read it, he would not possibly accept.


Holi mubarak!



Avik Chattopadhyay is a senior brand and strategy consultant based in Gurugram. He writes on MxMIndia every other Thursday. His views here are personal

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