Looking back at Holi in the midst of Covid

By Kusum Pant Joshi

Almost a year after Covid was unleashed on the world, Holi arrived at the end of March 2021, flooding us with greetings from almost every part of the globe!
The arrival of this Indian Spring festival, sharply reminded me of happy Holis of the past, especially of those spent in the carefree days of my childhood. Pushed by a wave of nostalgia, I’m venturing to share my experience of Holi when I was at school, college and University in my hometown in India in the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Background of my birthplace:
Allahabad, my birthplace, was and still is a famous Hindu holy place. Located on the banks where there is a unique union of 3 rivers called Triveni Sangam – the holy Ganga, the deep and turbulent Jamuna and the presently invisible Saraswati, its antiquity stretches back several centuries. (Recent geological evidence proves that the River Saraswati really existed and isn’t a Hindu myth.)

In ancient times, the area around my hometown, (now renamed Prayagraj or King of Holy Places), was surrounded by thick forests and known as Prayag or place of sacrifice. According to Hindi traditional accounts, it was given this name because after creating the world, Lord Brahma performed his first sacrifice here. According to  the Ramayana, when Lord Rama was banished from his Kingdom of Ayodhya for 14 years, he, his wife and brother, passed through thick forests to meet the revered sage, Bharadwaj Muni, in his ashram or seminary in Prayag. On special days, devout Hindus are known to have flocked to Prayag from all parts of the country to have a dip in the Sangam.  A vivid description of what he saw during the annual Magh Mela or Hindu fair at Prayag, is part of the record left behind by Huien Tsang, the famous Chinese visitor to India in the 7th century AD.

In the 16th century, during Muslim rule, the Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556 -1605) built the fort, a palace and other structures like the Chalis Satoon (or Hall of 40 pillars) on the river bank. He also renamed Prayag as Allahabad or the town or city of Allah.

Queen Victoria’s Proclamation was read here by the first Viceory of India, Lord Canning at Minto Park in 1858

During British rule, Allahabad played a pivotal role in the revolt of 1857-58. The re- establishment of British control over the town, signalled the virtual end of the rebellion. After the revolt was crushed, it was from Allahabad’s Minto Park on the river bank that the Queen Victoria’s Proclamation was read by Lord Canning, the first Viceroy of India after Britain’s East India Company’s rule ended and its Indian possessions became part of the British Empire.

Allahabad was made the capital of the North Western Provinces & Oudh (NWP & O) and remained the de jure capital of the NWP& O throughout British rule. This was because it’s strategic position on the river Ganga, linked it directly to Calcutta, the capital of Britain’s Indian Empire until 1911, when it was replaced by New Delhi.

The establishment of a High Court of Judicature in 1866 and of Muir Central College in 1872 that grew into the University of Allahabad, enhanced the importance of

Sketch of Muir Central College inspired by  Saracenic architecture             
The Allahabad High Court

Allahabad as an educational and administrative centre. Until recent times, it was renowned for its wide, tree-lined roads and its rambling bungalows. Many of these bungalows had massive iron gates, driveways, porticos, beautiful lawns and back gardens full of shady mango, slender lemon and other trees. Many also had neat rows of quarters that housed the retinues of domestic ‘servants’ who helped maintain each bungalow with its dozens of airy high-ceilinged rooms and vast gardens or run its busy kitchen or bulky motorcar. Many of these bungalows were occupied by the town’s new middle class dominated by successful High Court pleaders or vakils (lawyers).

A car that typifies those used in the early 1900s during the British Raj 

My family:
I was born in Allahabad as my parents were based there. Though my mother was educated in Maharashtra and in various cities of northern India, her family originated from South India where Holi isn’t, (or at least wasn’t), celebrated during her childhood. She made preparations for Holi and celebrated it, but it might not be inappropriate to say that she suffered it because she didn’t seem to really relish it!

On the other hand, my father hailed from the hills of Kumaon in North India and was always keen to celebrate Holi. Moreover, being the Head of the Botany Department and the Dean Faculty of Science, he had considerable social standing as well as numerous friends and acquaintances. As a result, he expected our entire family including my two older siblings and I, to actively celebrate this colourful Spring festival and we did!

What would happen every year on every Holi:
The first signs that Holi was nearing were dry branches from trees that would start being collected by young boys and men in each mohalla or locality of the town. They would heap up these branches on major road crossings so that they would dry up in the sunlight during the few weeks before Holi day. They would then set them alight on the evening before Holi as a symbol of the victory of Good over Evil.

As my parents were University Professors, Holi for us meant that a constant stream of their male University students and male colleagues and male members of staff serving in various official capacities in their Departments (from senior Professors down to clerks, assistants, gardeners), would visit us on the day of Holi to convey their greetings. This influx would start from about 9 am and continue to well past 2 o’clock in the afternoon!

In the hands or trouser pockets of many of our Holi visitors would be a small amount  of coloured green (called ‘abeer’) or red powder (called ‘gulaal’) folded into small  packets made out of little bits of old newspaper. My father would often lament that

Some coloured powder on sale during Holi 

the passage of time had ended those happy days when people played Holi with fresh flowers or water mixed with the natural colour of real flowers such as the beautiful Flame of the Forest known in North India as Tesu and as Palaash in Bengal. 

Fiery blooms of the Flame of the Forest (Butea Monosperma) Palash or Tesu

Once we opened the door of our capacious living room, our Holi visitor or group of visitors would troop in. Some would open their paper packets and after deftly taking a pinch of the powder they had brought with them between their thumb and index finger, would be ready to play Holi with us, their hosts!

Playing Holi!
My parent’s student visitors, being decent and respectful, would be content to merely dot my father or mother’s forehead with a small amount of their coloured powder.
If we chanced to be in the room, they’d do the same to us. They would also embrace my father and either say: “Holi Mubarak!” or “Happy Holi!”! Many would respectfully bend down, also touch my parent’s feet to seek their blessings.

In return, my parents would dot their forehead with a pinch of ‘abeer’ or ‘gulaal’ from small shiny trays placed in the centre of our living room on the glass protected exquisitely hand carved walnut wood table that my father had carefully carted all the  way from Srinagar in Kashmir after one of his trips to the Valley.

Handcrafted walnut wood table made in Kashmir     

But, not all our visitors were students. There were always a good number of Holi visitors who were colleagues of our parents and some relatives and neighbours. While most behaved with decency and discretion, there were always some who would choose to become frivolous just because it was Holi or because they had taken some sips of ‘Bhang’ (made of a mix of Cannabis leaves, flowers and seeds), an intoxicating drink offered in some homes to visitors during Holi.

Brass plate similar to those we used
Botanical drawing showing Cannabis leaves, buds, flowers and seed pods

One such regular Holi visitor who had gained quite a reputation for unruliness during Holi every year, was a very gifted artist and art teacher. I still remember a lovely painting he had gifted us of a scene depicting Nainital’s famous kidney-shaped blue

Aerial view of Nainital showing the Lake and surrounding hills

Lake surrounded by green hills studded with picturesque cottages, used to adorn our study room for years!  But on Holi day, this creative man of art, would completely abandon his subtlety and artist’s demeanour. Instead, he’d turn into a rumbustious youngster and loudly call for me and my siblings. Once we arrived, he would proceed to smearing our face and neck with liberal amounts of coloured powder, and while doing so, would end up dropping it all over the floor of our living room! Oh! What a mess he and those like him would leave behind for us to clear at the end of their riotous Holi celebrations!

What made Holi different from all other festivals?
In the Indian calendar famous for being marked more than the calendar of any other country, with holidays celebrating countless and ever increasing Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and other festivals, Holi used to be the only one during the celebration of which we could never take a bath or shower nor dress up neatly. Instead, we had no choice but to select the most appropriate clothes (i. e., the worst set of clothes) for each family member from our collection of discarded, faded and most ill-fitting clothes!

To access and pull out a set of the best ‘Holi clothes’ for each of us, I, (being the youngest in the family), would volunteer to climb up like an agile monkey, into the old attic above our study cum prayer room.

Out Attic:
This little attic was a brainchild of my father. He had it carved out ingeniously by his favourite carpenter and builder by dividing the original room which had a very high ceiling, into a separate upper section.

Our wonderful attic had a trap door that opened upwards. After pushing up the attic’s trap door open, I would place one arm each on two sides of its opening, haul myself up and then swing up my entire body through the opening into the attic!

Before entering the attic in this unusual manner, I would have to remember that it had a single bulb that needed to be switched on from the room below just before climbing into its small yet cavernous space.

Our attic’s wooden floor would always be stacked with various items of different sizes, shapes and colours. Among these were once loved but subsequently cruelly neglected or discarded toys such as my English-Walkie talkie doll with long plaits    

An English walkie talkie doll similar to the one I once had

Who, despite my breaking her arm by inadvertently dropping her while getting her out of my cupboard, would still happily say: “Oh Mummy! ” whenever I would rock her back and forth!

Among other items stored there was a deeply scarred carom board, metal remnants and tiny nuts and bolts of an old Meccano set shipped all the way from London in the

An advertisement that might have triggered my parents buying a Meccano set for my brother in the 1950s

mid-1950s for my 7-year old brother by my doting parents who were perhaps eager to encourage their only son to turn into an ingenious engineer!  And, how can I ever forget a stack of large old photographs of my mother’s student days, mounted on pieces of sturdy cardboard, that occupied the far end of the attic.

Ah!  What magic those old pictures had the power to weave as they wafted us back to our mother’s college days! One of them was of her in her late teens where, clad in a sari, she could be seen standing with a violin in her hand besides some of her classmates of Delhi’s Indraprastha High School. In another old photograph printed  with the words: “Hindu College, Delhi, BSc 1932” she stood out as much because of her charming presence, as for the fact that she was only the only female in a class composed entirely of male students.

But on the day before Holi, it wouldn’t be any of these fascinating items that would interest me. That day, I’d enter the attic and head straight towards the space where a rich array of leather travel bags, old iron and tin trunks and sturdy wooden boxes  

An assortment of boxes similar to the ones that filled our old attic 

packed with old clothes, mosquito nets and sundry items. My aim would be to rummage through the contents of only those boxes in which clothes set aside for Holi were stored and to fish out the most appropriate ones for each of us!

Besides the Holi clothes of previous years, these usually consisted of a medley of clothes – shirts, trousers, frocks, kurtas, pyjamas or saris – that had fallen out of favour. The reasons for their banishment to the attic could be that they had become decolourised, developed holes, burns, tears or stains or we had outgrown them by increasing in height or in girth!

Our annual Holi celebration:
No matter which clothes we chose from our collection, I could automatically guarantee that we all would look miserable after donning our ‘Holi best’! All these  clothes would be squeaky clean but very crumpled! Still, no one would ever venture to iron them. Instead, the moment I’d descend from our attic with the bundle of Holi apparel to the region below, we would all begin to get into them straightaway. It made no sense to iron them because they would soon be splashed with rainbow colours – in the form of dry powder, coloured liquids or in the form of paint!

After some hot morning tea, my brother would venture out wearing his rather plebeian and nondescript Holi clothes on his bike to visit some of his local friends. A few hours later, he’d return home transformed from an ordinary looking lad clad in faded, ill fitting, crushed clothes into a rare sight to behold. Why? Because his clothes, face, hands, scalp and every other exposed part of his body would be covered with streaks and blotches of violet, green, black, blue, purple, red, silver, brown and a mix of all these colours and more!

I’m really not exaggerating! Often, we’d have to help scrub him clean with soap and water and several cotton wads soaked in kerosene oil. And still, it would take a few days and several showers before his hair and scalp would slowly start regaining their original and natural colour!

As for my mother and my sister and I, we dared not step out of doors because we were mortally scared of being waylaid by anyone wanting to celebrate Holi. Venturing out was bound to result in our being drenched with buckets or mugs full of cold coloured water or being sprayed all over by anyone (known or unknown) on the roadside, using ‘pichkaarees’ (metal hand pumps specially used during Holi) or

An old metal pichkaree used during Holi

getting out faces smeared with ‘abeer’ (green) and ‘gulaal’ (red) powder or even silver paint, if they were more rowdy and adventurous !

Holi guests all day!
At home, whoever visited us on Holi, would be offered tea and ‘gujiyas’ (a special sweet served during the Holi festival). Every year, my father would pre-order dozens of fresh ‘gujiyas’ from a famous shop where traditional Indian sweets and savouries were regularly made and sold.

My father’s favourite Indian sweets and savouries shop was, like many others, presided by a ‘halwai’, a kind of a head cook. This shop was located on a narrow street in the old Katra bazaar a bit away from our ‘mohalla’. My father would also remember to buy a few more items that were essential to get fully prepared for

An inseparable part of our Holi celebration: Gujias!

Holi. These were sweets made out of white sugar and set in moulds shaped like small birds and animals and ‘laiyya’ a kind of bland puffed rice. These white sweets and ‘laiyya’ were liberally distributed to neighbours and especially to children.

The fresh ‘gujiyas’ were offered to all our Holi guests along with homemade potato wafers, that used to be prepared by my mother every year and stored in big airtight tins in a tiny storeroom or pantry located next to our kitchen.

Frankly, on every Holi by midday, my mother would be quite fed up with having to make tea again and again and yet again for all the visitors! As my sister and I would also have to help with catering to the needs of our visitors, we too tended to grumble. Every year, we would wish we had a big insulated tea tank in the kitchen with a little tap which we could fill with tea  and from which we could keep pouring out countless cups of the hot drink ! (Such contraptions did come up later! )

After the Stream of visitors dried out!
On every Holi day, we would have a very late lunch. This was because lunch was possible only after the visits by students, colleagues, friends, family and neighbours were over. Only after the first chapter of Holi visitors closed, could the next one begin!

Special Cleaning and Holi Lunch:
This consisted of each of us taking turns to have a shower. This would be no usual or gentle shower but quite a rigorous one. It would entail scrubbing our hands and faces clean after they had been turned into unrecognisable multi-coloured objects by numerous layers of coloured powder smeared by each of our visitors. After a truly vigorous shower, we would get into our normal clothes. Still looking slightly tinted  red or green in our face and scalp, we would slowly creep back to our normal life after having a hot lunch lovingly prepared by my mother.

Actually, we wouldn’t really be hungry on most Holi days. This was because we would have been helping ourselves all morning and during much of the afternoon to the tasty gujias and potato chips that were meant to be offered to each of our Holi visitors or guests! 

My mother, a very outspoken woman and absolutely fearless in expressing her views about anyone and anything, would often describe the festival negatively, but without any element of disrespect as: “Unholy Holi!”

Post Script:

But this Holi we weren’t gripped by Holi fever. We felt gripped with the unholy terror  of Covid.

But let no fear dampen us! Let’s hope that when Holi comes around next, we will remember old times full of the vibrant colours, loud cheers and sweet smells and tastes of Holi and celebrate it and the arrival of a new Spring with gusto and elan!    

Acknowledgement of photo sources in order of sequence of their appearance:
1. Chalis Satoon: The Chalis Satun, or Hall of Forty Pillars, at Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.
Allahabad Fort: India Luxury Car: Allahabad – Holy place of the confluence of River Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati

3. Palace inside Allahabad Fort: painting1.jpg (640×474) (wikigallery.org)

4. Minto Park Queen’s Proclamation: Minto Park Allahabad – Bing images

5. Muir Central College: Muir Central College – Wikipedia

6. High Court of Allahabad: Official Website of the High Court of Judicature at Allahabad and its Bench at Lucknow, U.P., India (allahabadhighcourt.in)

7. Typical old cars of yester years  Rolls-Royce Other | eBay

8.   3,694 Gulal Photos – Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from Dreamstime

9. From painting by May Dart in Nurseries of Heaven- Flowering Trees of India by Torfrida, Bombay 1944.
10. Table Kashmiri Carved Furniture – Sofa Set Exporter from Srinagar (indiamart.com)

11. Antique Brass Round Tray By Ella James | notonthehighstreet.com

12.. Cannabis Sativa Drawing Botanical Print Plant illustration | Etsy

13. Nainital Lake – Bing images

14. Walkie talkie walkie talkie dolls – Bing images

15. Meccano ad (536) Pinterest

16. Boxes: Antique Boxes & Chests for sale | eBay

Large Antique Brown Leather Suitcase. Vintage Travel Trunk Case. Home Shop Decor | eBay

17. Pichkaree or metal water canon: old metal pichkari – Bing images

18. Gujias: Gujias – Bing images

Dr. Kusum Pant Joshi is a Social Historian, Researcher and Writer. Kusum was Project Manager for Publications & Digital Media in London’s Central Office of Information (COI). She is presently Chief Researcher in a Heritage Project awarded to the South Asian Cinema Foundation in Dec 2019 by UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund.