2016.03.05, Written by “Geetanjali Krishna”, (Source):
Spring has come early to north India, and, as the silk cotton tree outside my window bursts into crimson bloom, the changing season puts me in the mood for thumri. The flowers and languorous music evoke the spirit of Holi, although it is still a fortnight away. But I’m not alone in jumping the gun — in Brajbhumi, Holi is celebrated for nearly a month after Basant Panchami. And since a cousin and I began the Holi Project, a discovery of the beautiful but fast-disappearing musical tradition around Holi, my interest in the culture of Braj has become an enduring one.
A 30-second search on the internet yields gold — a rare recording of Begum Akhtar singing Kaisi yeh dhoom machayi. She sings about the passionate Holi that Krishna played with the gopis (milkmaids) and I recall the story that the bards of Brajbhumi have sung for generations. It is believed that the young Krishna was jealous of Radha’s fair complexion since he was very dark. When he told his mother, Yashoda, she teasingly asked him to play Holi with Radha so that they may both be touched by the same colours of love. Akhtar’s thumri is sophisticated, almost delicate, and it brings to mind the discordance that occurred two years ago, when the Braj of my imagination met the Braj of today.
Some friends and I decided, at the spur of the moment, to go to Barsana, the birthplace of Krishna’s lover, Radha, to watch its famous seasonal festivities. Situated upon a hillock and surrounded by Aravalli scrublands, Barsana is an important place in Braj with the only temple in the world dedicated to Radha. The temple was at the top of the hillock, reached by picturesque alleys snaking upwards. The air was redolent with the pleasant fragrance of gulal, dry colour that revellers traditionally sprinkle on one another. Strains of music emanated from the temple, and it all seemed much like the Braj the bards sang of. From the flower-bedecked ramparts of the temple, we watched the preparations for the day’s festivities, which were to culminate in the afternoon in the ritualised beating of the men of the neighbouring villages by the ladies of Barsana — the famous lathmaar Holi.
As we watched, the music slowly built up to a faster tempo. Some veiled women stepped out of the crowd to dance, and everything went south after that.
A man with wild eyes, crazed with bhang, ran up to us and forcibly rubbed colour across our lady parts. The police, many of whom were women, stationed at the temple said that we should expect this and worse in Barsana. “After all, it is Holi,” said one, laughingly. Shaken and suitably stirred, we took shelter in one of the temple’s towers to watch the festivities and protect ourselves. The music and dancing became crazier, which wasn’t surprising since much of it was fuelled by hefty doses of bhang. Soon, we realised that by retreating into the tower, we had backed ourselves into a corner from which there was no escape. Man after lusty man decided to come up to us to “play” Holi there. So we decided to leave.
If the men inside the temple were crazy, it seemed as if the men outside on the narrow streets of Barsana were on some sort of unholy — pun intended — institutionalised rampage. Amid cries of Radhey, Radhey and “bura na mano holi hai” (don’t take offence, it’s Holi), they pummelled, poked, prodded and provoked till we could take no more. “Why do the women beat them with sticks only once a year?” my friend gasped. “These guys should be beaten black and blue every day of their lives!”.
Eventually, we managed to beat an inglorious retreat, sick to our hearts that an age-old tradition had morphed into something so distasteful.
I’m roused from my unpleasant reverie by a call from a photographer friend. She wants to go to Barsana for Holi this year and asks if I’d go along. Wild horses won’t drag me there, I say, but if she must go, then I suggest she travel with a group. “We always go in large numbers and ensure that we’re in the temple before the festivities begin, and leave after they’ve ended and crowds dispersed,” says Ramit Mitra of Delhi By Foot, the Delhi-based walking tour operator that has been taking people to Braj for the last three years. “Although only a few of our female guests have reported untoward incidents, I make sure to caution first-timers about the potential dangers of Holi in Braj,” he adds.
Meanwhile, I’m happily back on the Holi Project, listening to Shobha Gurtu extolling Holi in Braj with Aaj Biraj Mein Hori Hai Rasiya. Some places, I muse, are best left imagined instead of experienced. And then I daydream pleasurably about the men of Nandgaon and Barsana getting beaten with sticks.