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An 18th century painting of Krishna and Radha, currently housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
An 18th century painting of Krishna and Radha, currently housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The colours of divine love

Many Holi-related song texts in north India liken the exchange of glances between lovers to playing with colour

On Holi this year, severe water scarcity in the drought-hit parts of the country prompted people from different walks of life to suggest that a dry Holi of sorts be played or efforts be made to adopt eco-friendly ways in order to conserve water. Not unexpectedly, these suggestions became somewhat controversial, but if one were to refer to some of the Holi-related song texts in north India, one would find many such examples.

Take, for example, a thumri, recorded in the voice of the great vocalist Girija Devi, who has been awarded the Padma Vibhushan this year—khel rahe rang Holi unke dou naina. Although the lyrics do not specifically mention any deity, it could be presumed that the two who are referred to, and whose amorous glances play Holi, are the eternal deities and muse to many artists and creators, Radha and Krishna. Descriptions of the passionate, tender and colourful exchange of glances, likened to the playing with colour during Holi, are not exclusive to this one thumri text alone, but are shared by many verses written by several poets, and are rendered in diverse musical styles and genres.

This exchange of glances suggests a profound intimacy that is both sensuous and sublime. This is not mere coquetry or flirtation, but an inexplicable communication and expression of a many splendored love described in the lyrics that follow:

Sainan ki pichkari chali hai

(They use their glances like a pichkari)

Baadhi preeti dou ori

(Their love for each other surges uncontrollably as their eyes lock)

Witness to this silent communication, where not a word is spoken, no physical contact attempted, and yet much is exchanged, shared, said and heard, are Vasudev and Devaki, the parents of Krishna, who feast their eyes on the sight of the divine couple with the intense longing of the chakor bird that looks to the moon—nirakhi rahe Vasudev Devaki jaise chandra-chakori.

In another variant of the same song text, presented as part of the worship ritual in Krishna temples, the sense of togetherness shared by Radha and Krishna as they gaze into each other’s eyes is marked by the dark pupil of the eye becoming symbolic of Krishna, and the bright sclera symbolizing the radiant Radha—shyam putari Shyam bhai hai, jyoti bani Radha gori.

However, it is not only in the centuries-old temple texts that the symbolic playing of Holi through the gaze of lovers is celebrated. Among the possibly countless examples of similar images and metaphors, one that comes to mind is Suryakant Tripathi Nirala’s erotic nainon ke dore laal gulaal bhare kheli Holi, which could possibly earn the “explicit" tagging in an iTunes store if translated into a language like English. But if song texts are any indication of the culture and rituals of a society, Indian texts around the central theme of Holi, not surprisingly, point to immense diversity, an unabashed celebration of love, both earthly and divine, and, of course, a most exciting solution to playing Holi without wasting a drop of water!

Shubha Mudgal tweets at @smudgal and posts on Instagram as shubhamudgal.

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