The instructions were clear: Wear yellow (no black please); carry lots of yellow genda phool (marigold flowers) and maybe some spring gifts too (lemons, melons, mustard flowers). “Bring as much genda as you can, bring basket loads… garlands…so we can dance with genda tokris on our head and take them to Khwajaji (Khwaja Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya) like his beloved Amir Khusrau!” the email read. Now who could resist an invitation like that?
Flower power: (clockwise from top left) Verma paired his yellow robes with his grandmother’s anklets; Saroj Vashisht, who’s reading a story, still remembers how Basant was celebrated in the Lahore of the 1940s; schoolchildren want the marigold flowers; dodging Delhi’s dug-up roads; and marigold flowers come in three colours --yellow, orange and maroon. Photographs by Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Off I went to Lodhi Garden, armed with yellow marigold flowers (which are also available in orange and maroon) and dressed in my best (i.e. only) yellow kurta to celebrate Sufi Basant.
It was easy enough to spot the golden cloud of people—an assortment of Delhiites who were a) organizer Himanshu Verma’s friends b) had lived in the city all their lives but had never visited the Nizamuddin dargah and c) liked the idea of celebrating a traditional festival with a modern-day twist.
The park is one of my favourite hangout spots in Delhi, but I never imagined myself garlanding strangers with happy orange flowers and sitting in a circle with lots of other yellow people, loudly singing Genda phool from the 2009 film Delhi-6 (Verma even distributed a pamphlet with the lyrics), making DIY marigold earrings and watching Verma, founder of New Delhi-based arts organization Red Earth, do a jig in the centre. Verma, one of the city’s most colourful dressers, wore more yellow than I have owned in my lifetime.
Soul food: Sweetened saffron rice with cloves is a Basant favourite. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Soon enough we were surrounded by the usual set of unemployed/underemployed men who spend a working day afternoon at the park; many whipped out their mobile phones to take pictures. A gaggle of schoolboys stopped to hoot, but by then we were lost in the world of Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya. We heard the story of Sufi Basant twice, first from Verma and then from Sadiq Nizami, one of the Sufi saint’s descendants, at Nizamuddin.
The saint had just lost his favourite nephew and refused to be pacified. He moped near the grave, locked himself up and didn’t want to interact with people around him for months. One day as disciple Amir Khusrau sat wondering how he could placate the saint, he encountered a group of Hindus dressed in all yellow, singing and carrying mustard flowers. Khusrau had a Eureka moment, borrowed their bright robes and sang and danced in front of the saint. The older man smiled, his sadness finally dissipated and all was well with the world again.
At Lodhi Garden, an irate park official who tried to tell us we were not allowed to do whatever it was we were doing was quickly dispensed with and after some more storytelling, we ate a quick snack of jaggery-sweetened saffron rice and began the urban trek to the dargah at Nizamuddin.
Even the dug-up pavements along the trunk Lodhi Road from the park to Nizamuddin didn’t dampen the yellow fever of the 50 or so strangers who were enjoying the city together, differently. En route, a silver Mercedes drew up alongside and yet another lady dressed in all yellow hopped out and joined the party.
Every year on Sufi Basant, which falls on the eve of Basant Panchami, the qawwals of Nizamuddin get mustard flowers from outside Delhi. A procession walks the narrow lanes outside the dargah singing qawwalis which include Amir Khusrau’s Basant songs (Phool rahi sarson and Aaj Basant mana lo suhagan). It’s the only day of the year the qawwals are allowed to sing in the inner sanctum of the shrine.
Sadia Dehlvi, the author of Sufism: The Heart of Islam, who was at the dargah with her family and friends that day, says the Sufi celebration of Basant at Nizamuddin is one of her favourite city traditions. “It’s essentially a Hindu agricultural festival being celebrated at the dargah and is representative of Delhi’s composite culture and the wonderful legacy of the Sufis,” she says.
Verma and friends are planning a Gandhi genda phool walk on 30 January. For details, email firstname.lastname@example.org