Baithak Holi: Preserved in Kumaoni villages, a unique celebration with music, dance and mischief

The distinct notes of harmonium reverberated in the air as I walked towards the chaupal of Corbett’s adopted village Chhoti Haldwani in search of legendary single-barrel muzzle-load gun handed over to father of Trilok Singh Negi, by the legendary hunter himself. But the sight that greeted me evoked a spontaneous smile.

Among the circle of women was a young one purposely dressed in typical traditional attire of male singers of Holiyar toli; a white nokdar topi or white pointed Nehru cap, kurta, churidar pajama and metallic sunglasses. She chewed on a paan while fiddling with keys of a harmonium. All women had gathered at Trilok Singh Negi’s home for ‘Mahila Baithaki Holi’. Greeting me with a cheeky ‘salaam’, she proceeded to indulge women around her with fitting music to their Holi songs.

Baithak Holi: Preserved in Kumaoni villages, a unique celebration with music, dance and mischief

The Mahila Baithaki Holi. All images courtesy of the author.

Holi was still a few days away but for people of Chhoti Haldwani, the celebrations of the colourful festival had begun from as early as Basant Panchami. In some other parts of Kumaon, festivities started even earlier, around December, on the first Sunday of the month of Poush.

Originating in courts of Chand kings of Champavat in the 15th century, traditional Kumaoni Holi is a musical extravaganza of folk and devotional songs based on Hindustani Classical music with heavy influences from Kumaoni folk music. ‘Baithaki Holi’ literally implies ‘sitting Holi’ where the singers ‘Holiyars’ sit in a group or ‘toli’ to sing devotional songs praising Lord Krishna usually at temples. Later the toli visits houses of other villagers to perform and sing with dholak, harmonium and tabla. The lyrics soon turn from prayer format to naughtier depicting Krishna teasing the gopis, to much raunchier as the evening approaches.

Usually, the men and women organise separate ‘baithak’ for want of informal and unrestrained atmosphere during song performances. The men’s baithak is known as Khadi Holi while women let their hair down at the Mahila Holi baithak. It is during these two different forms of Baithaki Holi that different age groups come together to enjoy the festivities without any biases and social egos. Men and women, in their separate groups, indulge in suggestive jokes and songs without taking offense. Age differences and social hierarchies are forgotten for a fun-filled excitement during the baithaks.

Having walked into the song and dance celebration of women enjoying in the mild sun of after morning hour, I had no choice but to accept their invitation to the celebrations. Women at the gathering had finished their household chores early in the morning to participate in the baithak and gyrated with complete abandon to ‘Bagon me bahar hai, jeeja tera intezar hai... aisi hori hum bhi khele jaise jeeja-sali ki’, ribbing each other. Every time the music reached a point of crescendo, the woman dancing on the floor would pull up another to dance and soon I was engulfed in it. There was no escape.

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Women at the gathering had finished their household chores early in the morning to participate in the baithak.

The more I mingled with the women; more they involved me in their merrymaking, opening up bit by bit about their life in hills. Sunita devi, a middle-aged woman, having finished her dance was offered a glass of kesar milk amidst laughter. With plates full of home-made aaloo gutuk or fried potato chunks, gujiya made of khoya and dry-fruits, and tumblers of the sweetened milk making rounds, she revealed, “Men mix thandai with some bhang (Indian edible version of cannabis) during these gatherings and the songs sung by men at Khadi baithak also turn lewd at time.”

The Kumaoni songs sung during Baithaki Holi are based on different ragas depending on the time of the day. While the day necessarily begins with songs based on Raag Dhamar it tends to end with Raag Yaman in late evenings. The after morning hours are mostly reserved for Raag Bhimpalasi or Pilu in light-hearted songs that derive from Thumri style of singing. It is said that the songs sung during Baithaki Holi have upheld the tradition of Thumri style of classical music.

The songs illustrate myriad emotions from love, passion, estrangement to mild flirtations, playfulness and spirituality. While the songs in baithaks do take on shades of mischievousness, the toli always culminates the day with a song of blessing for the prosperity of the household it is visiting.

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The songs illustrate myriad emotions from love, passion, estrangement to mild flirtations, playfulness and spirituality.

Another feature of Kumaoni Holi that makes it unique is ‘chear bandhan’. A paiya tree branch is tied with chear or scraps of cloth from different houses of the village to be burned later a day prior to chharadi when everyone indulges in playing the festival with natural yellow-orange coloured water called ‘chharad’ made from crushing and boiling sun-dried tesu flowers. The ‘chear’ is zealously guarded against being wrested by people of other villages in a display of supremacy.

Kumaoni Holi is a unique celebration much different from the one that is observed in the rest of the country. The fast eroding culture is somewhat preserved in Kumaoni villages. The unadulterated sounds of dholaks, hurka, tabla and harmonium accompanied by innocently rustic and soulful renditions by simple villagers create a cheerful atmosphere which no other modern instrument can achieve.

As I headed back to chaos of city life where, as Holi approached closer, loud blaring film songs wound rip away at calm morning and young rowdy men wet with outlandish chemical colours would whizz past on speeding bikes oblivious to their own and others safety, I know I would miss the tinkling laughter and impish lyrics of ‘devar-bhabi, jeej-saali’ Holi songs.

Shoma Abhyankar is a travel writer based in Pune. She tweets as @throbbingmind

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Updated Date: Mar 19, 2019 12:32:03 IST

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