High notes of Holi
In Hindi cinema, the tradition of ‘hori’, celebrating the love of Radha and Krishna, has always been big
It is hard to imagine Indian festivals without music. As most festivals are associated with the change of seasons and the arrival of a new crop, song and dance provide an opportunity to cherish the old and embrace the new. Holi assumes a special place in music as an entire genre called Hori is dedicated to the festival. In the classical format, it is closer to Dhrupad, while in semi-classical it is decorated with elements of Thumri. Sung across the Gangetic belt, Horis, set to Dhamar taal, celebrate the divine romance between Radha and Krishna.
Over the years, Hindi cinema has drawn extensively from semi-classical and folk music, and Holi songs provide a great opportunity not just to tease the beloved but also to make a statement.
V. Shantaram not only captured the vibrant nature of the festival in ‘Arey ja re hat natkhat’ (Navrang, 1959) but also how the day encompasses gender equality. More than seven-minute long, lyricist Bharat Vyas imbues the song with interesting wordplay where the girl says, ‘Arey ja re natkhat, na chhoo mera ghoonghat, palat ke doongi tujhe aaj gaari re, mujhko na samjho tum bholi bhali re’ (don’t touch my veil, I will give back in the same language; don’t consider me docile) and the boy responds: ‘Meethi lage aaj teri gaari re’ (your abuses sound sweet today).
Some of the best Holi songs reflect the composite culture of the Hindi film industry. Mehboob Khan, Naushad and Shakeel Budayuni had a knack for creating Holi songs to depict the flow of time. In Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), Shamshad Begum sings ‘Holi aayi re kanhai rang chhalke’ as Naushad brings Western music-style orchestration into play.
Naushad and Shakeel combined again to create ‘Tan rang lo ji aaj man rang lo’ for S.U. Sunny’s Kohinoor. But before that, the duo had already hit the right chord with ‘Khelo rang hamare sang aaj din rang rangeela aaya’ in Aan (1952). Picturised on Dilip Kumar, Nimmi, Nadira and Premnath, it is again used as a narrative device by director Mehboob Khan and brings out the egalitarian idea behind the festival with lines like ‘aaj koi raja na koi rani hai.’
A Holi song that very easily comes to mind is “Rang barse bheege chunar wali’ from Yash Chopra’s Silsila. Sung by Amitabh Bachchan and composed by Shiv-Hari (Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia), the song has outlived the film.
They wanted a Hori and it was Yash Chopra who came up with the idea that they should approach Harivansh Rai Bachchan, who was in Bombay those days, to write the song. He came up with the lyrics, based on a rural folk song.
Holi songs have also been used to underline or mitigate social evils. In Kati Patang’s ‘Aaj na chhodenge… khelenge hum Holi,’ Shakti Samanta used the song to portray the sorrow of widows who are expected to stay away from colours. In a radical move, the song ends with the heroine’s (Asha Parekh) white sari doused in gulal.
Anand Bakshi and R.D. Burman combined again in Sholay where the festival played a crucial part in the narrative to create ‘Holi ke din dil mil jaate hain, rangon main rang mil jaate hain’.
As Hindi film music became less lyrical and the festival more physical, Holi songs have been increasingly reduced to poor versions of ‘Rang barse’ or became just an excuse to drench bodies. But recently, sanity was restored with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani, where Birju Maharaj and Shreya Ghoshal combined to create the lyricism of yore with ‘Mujhe rang do laal nand ke lal’.