Kamla Mathur was born and brought up in Etah, a small town in Uttar Pradesh. Now, at 65, she lives in Delhi and reminisces fondly of the Holi she and her siblings celebrated at ‘home’, in the area called Brajbhoomi, the land where the Braj dialect of Hindi is spoken. Brajbhoomi refers to the places connected to the legends of the birth and childhood of Krishna and his dalliance with Radha.

As Holi continues to be a significant festival for the Brajvasis, many of the old ways of celebration survive. However, with time, the community feeling has lessened somewhat. Kamla Mathur takes us back to her childhood when Holi meant sheer fun.

Holi is For Children
Holi is For Children [Illustrations by Shinod AP]
When I was small, our Holi celebrations used to go on for 20 days. In Etah, Holi started on Basant panchami, the festival that announces the arrival of spring and almost everyone used to be dressed in yellow.

In the morning, the idol of Lord Krishna would be taken out on a rath or chariot in a procession. All the while the attendant priests would sprinkle gulal (dry powdered colour) and gulab jal (rose water) on the onlookers. Do you know this procession used to be taken out at 7 a.m. especially so that we children would not miss out on it – we had to go to school after that.

The next few days would be spent visiting friends. A dash of gulal or chandan (sandalwood) powder on the forehead was the usual practice. The wild celebration was reserved for badi (big) Holi. My mother used to make gulal at home by grinding dried flowers. So, for those few days the whole house smelt of flowers and chandan.

Four days before Holi, came the day of rang pashi. It was spent in making food, decorating the house and dressing up. A traditional meal would comprise kadhi (a dish made of curd and ground Bengal gram) and rice, roti and a vegetable. This was offered as bhog or offering to Lord Krishna first thing in the morning.

Then the women would get busy making rangoli (floor patterns) and cleaning the house for guests in the evening. We children would patter around – helping a bit, spoiling a bit more! I used to help my mother make kanji or a cool drink with vada or a fried ball of fermented lentil and gujiyas, a sweetmeat. This would be for the evening.

Rang Pashi was a very important day for us and for a new daughter-in-law in the family. In the evening, the women would dress up in their dandiya – a white saree with specially dyed pink borders and bedeck themselves in jewellery.

A white sheet would be spread out in the living room for the family members and relatives to sit in a circle with a plateful of gulal and coloured water made from the tesu flower, in the centre. Then, starting from the eldest, everyone would put some colour on each other and tuck into the food!

You know, something very exciting would happen that day. The new daughter-in-law was supposed to watch for an opportunity to lock up all the elders of the house into a room. And then she could ask for anything from anyone – jewellery, new clothes, anything! The in-laws, uncles and aunts could not refuse her. After all, she would not let them out till they agreed to give what she demanded! We used to have a lot of fun on this day.

The eve before Holi is puranmachi or full moon day. On that day, Holi is burned at a time decided by the priest. The fire signifies the triumph of good over evil. We would all walk around the fire once and make plans for the next day.

On Holi day, there are no constraints. You can put as much colour on anyone and drench anyone repeatedly. We used to make bucketfuls of tesu water and gulal at home.

Traditionally, only a few colours of gulal were made. Red colour with rose flowers, orange colour with harshringhar flowers, light yellow colour with tesu flowers and white colour with chameli flowers. Sometimes, rarely though, my mother would add a pinch of finely ground silver to the colours to add a touch of glitter in them.

By noon on Holi we would be completely exhausted. And all we would think about was lunch and sleep.

All these celebrations and get-togethers used to be a build-up to the final day – each occasion made us aware of the changing seasons, the landscape, the cropping patterns and the changing feelings in our hearts as winter changed to spring.

Nowadays the celebrations are quite toned down and people are increasingly letting go of customs. I think this dilutes the fun in a festival, especially for children. But then, the times are very different.

As told to Manisha Deveshvar