The festival of Holi falls on Monday. The results of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections will be known by tomorrow. We do not yet know which colour will fly the most: saffron, red or blue.

However, all colours will fly on Holi in the state, which is home to the three holy cities for Hindus: Mathura, Ayodhya and Kashi.

Here, we take a quick tour of the three Holis in these three cities through three folk songs which have been adapted into various literary and musical styles and are now spread all over the world.

Folk music of India

The classical music tradition of India is rooted in Sanskrit musicological texts like the Sangita-ratnakara (‘The Ocean of Music’) and starts from as early as Sama Veda, which has different types of ‘samans’. Hindustani classical music has also had influence from the Persian musical traditions during Mughal rule.

In contrast, the folk music forms of India (like Pahadi, Rasiya, Kajari, Chaiti, Sohar, Nachari, Haveli, Lavani, Pandavani, Yakshagana, etc.) comprise a parallel tradition rooted not in classical Sanskrit texts but folk traditions. Over time, both classical and folk forms of Indian music have influenced each other.

While songs in the Indian classical music tradition are primarily devotional or philosophical, folk songs are mostly centred around festivals and joyous occasions.

Holi being a popular festival of masses in northern parts of India like Uttar Pradesh, it comes as no surprise that there are many folk songs focused on Holi. A lot of them revolve around Hindu gods and goddesses and themes based on Puranic sources. While the most popular songs feature Krishna and Radha, songs featuring Rama and Sita (and even Shiva and Parvati) are not uncommon. These Holi folk songs featuring Hindu deities are an example of a beautiful synthesis of Sanskritic culture and folk culture in India.

We now look at three folk songs describing three Holis in the holy cities of Mathura, Ayodhya and Kashi.

Holi 1: Bankey Bihari Temple, Vrindavan

We start with Vrindavan in Mathura, the city of Krishna in western Uttar Pradesh (Braj Bhumi). The region is believed to be the birthplace of not just Krishna but also the festival of Holi. Vrindavan is famous for its many Holis: the Lathmar Holi, the Phoolon Wali Holi, the Holi of widows (a recent tradition) and the most famous of them all – the Holi of the Bankey Bihari Temple, played in a small courtyard in the temple compound.

Many folk songs on Holi are popular in the Braj region, but none beats the popularity of ‘aaj biraj mein hori re rasiya’. This song has been adapted to semi-classical forms in recent times by well-known singers like Padma Bhushan Shobha Gurtu (1925-2004).

While the oft-repeated word rasiya in the song also has a negative connotation today, the word primarily means “a connoisseur” or “an aesthete”, and derives from the Sanskrit word rasika. It is this positive sense which is to be understood in the song, and the rasiya referred to in the song is the aesthete-connoisseur Krishna.

Rasiya is also the name of a genre of folk music popular in Braj region. The song features the usual motifs from the artistic depictions of Radha and Krishna. As is usual with folk songs, many variants of the song exist. One of the variants goes thus (see note 1 for Devanagari lyrics):

Aaj biraj mein hori re rasiya, hori re rasiya barjori re rasiya (1)

(Today is Holi in Braj, O connoisseur (Krishna)! It is Holi, and there is [playful] compulsion, O Krishna!)

Ghar-ghar se braj-banita aai, koi shyamal koi gori re rasiya (2)

(The girls of Braj have come from their respective homes [to play Holi]. Some are dusky while some are fair, O Krishna!)

It te shyam sakha sang nikasein, ut vrishabhanu-dulari re rasiya (3)

(Here comes Krishna with his friends and there comes the daughter of Vrishabhanu (i.e. Radha), O Krishna!)

Udat gulal lal bhaye badara, kesar ki pichkari re rasiya (4)

(The ‘gulal’ (red powder) is in the air, [due to which] the clouds [appear to] have become red. And there is spraying of saffron from the water-guns, O Krishna!)

Bajat been mridang pakhavaj, gaavat de-de tari re rasiya (5)

(The ‘been’ (a type of wind instrument), ‘mridang’ (a type of drum), and ‘pakhavaj’ (a small drum) are being played; people are singing, clapping [to their beats], O Krishna!)

Shyam shyamali khelain hori, tan man dhan balihari re rasiya (6)

(Krishna and Radha play Holi. We sacrifice our body, mind, and wealth [to Radha and you], O Krishna!)

A rendition of a variant in traditional Braj tunes by the Bhagavata exponent Mridul Krishna Shastri from Vrindavan can be heard here, with visuals of the Bankey Bihari Temple.

Holi 2: The banks of Sarayu, Ayodhya

From Vrindavan, we move to Ayodhya, the city of Rama in Awadh (central Uttar Pradesh). Arguably the most famous folk song on Holi in Awadh is, holi khelata raghubira awadh mein. The song originated in Awadh, and over time its variants became popular in Bhojpuri-speaking regions of Purvanchal. The song was carried to countries as far as Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago by Bhojpuri-speaking indentured labourers, and it stays popular to date among their descendants. A Sanskrit adaptation of the song is part of the lyrical-epic poem ‘Gitaramayana’ (2011). There is no barjori (playful coercion) in the Holi of this song, for it is the Holi of Ayodhya, the city of maryada-purushottama Rama.

The first line of the song is well-known in Indian popular culture, thanks to its rendition by actor and singer Amitabh Bachchan in the Hindi film Baghban (2003). As the song in the movie had only one line from the song, the remaining lines are not widely known outside the regions and communities where the song is traditionally sung.

Here is a variant of the song featuring Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, Shatrughna and Sita. Other variants, some with additional lines including questions like “Who wields the golden water gun in hand, and who holds ‘abeer’ in the hand?”, are also popular. The song goes thus (see note 2 for Devanagari lyrics):

Holi khelat raghubira, avadh mein holi khelat raghubira (1)

(Rama, the brave prince of Raghu dynasty, plays Holi in Ayodhya. Rama plays Holi in Ayodhya.)

Rama ke hath kanak pichkari, rama ke hath kanak pichkari

lachiman hath abira, avadh mein holi khelat raghubira (2)

(Rama holds a golden water-gun in his hand, while Lakshmana holds the ‘abeer’ (colour powder). Rama plays Holi in Ayodhya.)

Bharat ke hath dholak bhal sohat, bharat ke hath dholak bhal sohat

satrughan hath manjira, avadh mein holi khelat raghubira (3)

(A fine ‘dholak’ (drum) is suited in the hands of Bharata, and ‘manjira’ (cymbals) in the hands of Shatrughna. Rama plays Holi in Ayodhya.)

Rama ka bhijat lalat pat painya, rama ka bhijat lalat pat painya

sita ka bhijat sarira, avadh mein holi khelat raghubira (4)

(Rama’s forehead, clothes and feet are soaked in colour; and Sita’s whole frame is soaked in colour. Rama plays Holi in Ayodhya.)

A soulful rendition of a Bhojpuri variant by Dr Vijay Choubey with violin and tabla and varying tempos can be heard here.

Holi 3: Manikarnika Ghat, Kashi (Varanasi)

We now move to the Manikarnika Ghat on the banks of Ganga in Varanasi, the city of Shiva in Purvanchal (eastern Uttar Pradesh). The Holi here is unique, for the powder that flies the most in the air is not the gulal or abeer but the grey bhasma (ash) from the burning pyres. Holi is played on Manikarnika Ghat with ash by aghori sadhus and even some common folk on the day following Rangbhari Ekadashi, which falls four days before the Holi. This Holi of Bhutanatha (Shiva as the lord of ghosts) in the city of Kashi Vishvanatha is best captured in the folk song khelain masane mein holi, popularised in recent times by Padma Bhushan Pandit Channulal Mishra (1936-). The song goes thus (see note 3 for lyrics in Devanagari):

Khelain masane mein hori, digambar khelain masane mein hori

bhoot pisaach batori, digambar khelain masane mein hori (1)

(Digambara (the direction-clad Shiva) plays Holi in the ‘shmashana’ (cremation ground). Gathering evil spirits and hideous demons, Shiva plays Holi in the ‘shmashana’.)

Lakhi sundar phaguni chata ke, man se rang gulal hata ke,

chita bhasm bhar jhori, digambar khelain masane mein hori (2)

(Seeing the beautiful brilliance of Phalgun, removing [the thought of] all colours and ‘gulal’ from the mind, and filling a bag with ash from the pyres, Shiva plays Holi in the ‘shmashana’.)

Gop na gopi shyam na radha, na koi rok na kaunau badha,

na sajan na gori, digambar khelain masane mein hori (3)

(Here, there are neither ‘gopa’-s nor ‘gopi’-s, neither Krishna nor Radha, neither any hindrance nor any obstruction, neither a hero nor a heroine. Shiva plays Holi in the ‘shmashana’.)

Nachat gavat damaru-dhari, chodain sarp garal pichkari,

peetein pret dhakori, digambar khelain masane mein hori (4)

(The bearer of ‘damaru’ (a small drum) dances and sings. Using a snake as the spray-gun, he sprays venom which the ghosts guzzlingly drink. Shiva plays Holi in the ‘shmashana’.)

Bhutnath ki mangal hori, dekhi sihaein birij ke gori,

dhan dhan nath aghori, digambar khelain masane mein hori (5)

(This is the auspicious Holi of Bhutanatha (Shiva), witnessing which [even] the fair maidens of Braj are spellbound. Blessed is Shiva, the lord of the ‘aghori’-s. Shiva plays Holi in the ‘shmashana’.)

A mellifluous and classically enriched rendition of this song by Pandit Channulal Mishra in multiple octaves can be heard here.

Happy Holi!

1. आज बिरज में होरी रे रसिया, होरी रे रसिया बरजोरी रे रसिया। घर-घर तें ब्रज-बनिता आई, कोई श्यामल कोई गोरी रे रसिया॥ इत ते श्याम सखा संग निकसे, उत वृषभान-दुलारी रे रसिया। उड़त गुलाल लाल भये बदरा, केसर की पिचकारी रे रसिया॥ बाजत बीन मृदंग पखावज, गावत दे-दे तारी रे रसिया। श्याम श्यामली खेलैं होरी, तन मन धन बलिहारी रे रसिया॥

2. होली खेलत रघुबीरा, अवध में होली खेलत रघुबीरा॥ रामा के हाथ कनक पिचकारी, रामा के हाथ कनक पिचकारी। लछिमन हाथ अबीरा, अवध में होली खेलत रघुबीरा॥ भरत के हाथ ढोलक भल सोहत, भरत के हाथ ढोलक भल सोहत। सत्रुघन हाथ मँजीरा, अवध में होली खेलत रघुबीरा॥ रामा का भीजत ललट पट पइयाँ, रामा का भीजत ललट पट पइयाँ। सीता का भीजत सरीरा, अवध में होली खेलत रघुबीरा॥

3. खेलैं मसाने में होरी, दिगम्बर खेलैं मसाने में होरी। भूत पिसाच बटोरी, दिगम्बर खेलैं मसाने में होरी॥ लखि सुन्दर फागुनी छटा के, मन से रंग गुलाल हटा के। चिता भस्म भरि झोरी, दिगम्बर खेलैं मसाने में होरी॥ गोप न गोपी श्याम न राधा, न कोई रोक न कौनऊ बाधा। ना साजन ना गोरी, दिगम्बर खेलैं मसाने में होरी॥ नाचत गावत डमरूधारी, छोड़ैं सर्प गरल पिचकारी। पीतैं प्रेत ढकोरी, दिगम्बर खेलैं मसाने में होरी॥ भूतनाथ की मंगल होरी, देखे सिहाहैं बिरिज के छोरी। धन-धन नाथ अघोरी, दिगम्बर खेलैं मसाने में होरी॥