SOMETIME IN LATE 2013, as a student at the Delhi School of Economics, I was part of a research study in Vrindavan. A few of us scholars had travelled to the temple town in order to study the widows who lived there. Just a year ago, in 2012, photographs of these “Vrindavan widows” (as they are called) had been widely published in the national media, showing them setting aside their bleak lives for a day and stepping out on the streets to play with colours during Holi. During our fieldwork, we met with several of the widows and asked what made them break away from the strictures of tradition and embrace colours. The answer we received dwelt on how colours, and the festival of Holi in particular, became for them a symbol of joy and hope.

While the idea of colours or rang is usually clubbed with the festival of Holi, to be fair, nothing could be further from the truth.

Rang as a theme has been a mainstay of the culture of the subcontinent, shaping the region’s collective consciousness. Holi only accentuates our association with colours. However, this association with colour is in no way religious, and as we will see shortly, actually transcends religious boundaries.

The present discourse in the country has tried to bring to the forefront pre-existing religious fault lines — with history and interpretation being the unfortunate collateral damage. From its representation in Mughal paintings, to becoming a metaphor for delivering messages of piety and desire in the poetry of Amir Khusro in the 13th century, and finally a chameleon-like symbol in myriad Bollywood songs, the fabric of India’s popular culture seems to have been so historically porous, so as to allow the idea of colour, or rang, to continually ooze in.

From Amir Khusro to Bollywood

Perhaps it only makes more sense to use Amir Khusro’s poetry as an entry point. The 13th century poet who spent most of his time in and around Delhi – so much so that he was even alternatively referred to as Dehlavi, or the one who belongs to the city of Delhi – transformed the literary landscape of the subcontinent to such an extent that renditions of gazals composed by him are heard even now, from the wandering troubadours who congregate at his tomb during Khusro’s urs (or death anniversary), to electrified remixes from Coke Studio. But this postmodern rendition aside, the core of his poetry remains intact.

Any discussion of Khusro cannot be completed without situating him firmly in the context of the Sufism, which by the 13th century, had become an important cultural marker in the Islamic world. As borne out by visitors to the subcontinent then, such as the intrepid Ibn Battuta, Delhi in the 12th and 13th centuries had already become a large cosmopolitan centre, attracting wandering scholars, poets and Sufis. Its bazaars brought in traders and merchants from far flung places, like Anatolia, Istanbul, Samarkhand and many others.


— Illustration © Amrai Dua for Firstpost

While a lot of ink had been used in trying to argue that Islam, around this time, spread though the point of the sword, and that religious boundaries in the subcontinent had always been rigid, reasonable historical evidence points to the contrary. In fact, if there was one factor that helped Islam spread rapidly, it was Sufism. Saints and poets, inspired by the various tenets of Sufi Islam, travelled far and wide across the vast region that the subcontinent was at that point of time — travels that brought them into direct contact with the local people, allowing them a chance to spread Islam. Moreover, this was the time when a twin mystical movement was occurring within Hinduism itself, called Bhakti. At the local level, the boundaries between the two religions were not confrontational, but rather syncretistic, each borrowing from the other and influencing each other.

This syncretism is what we find to be at the core of Khusro’s imaginary landscape. Let’s start with a fragment from his most famous poem, to illustrate this point:

Chaāp tilak sab chhīnī re mose nainā milāike

Bāt agam keh dīnī re mose nainā milāike

(In English, it can be translated thus: You have taken away the marks of my identity, by just a glance.)

In this excerpt, two words immediately stand out: chaap and tilak. The former is the prayer bump, or zebiba, which Muslims have on their forehead, said to have been formed after prolonged contact of the brow with the fabric of the prayer mat. The zebiba, in the community, is mainly seen as a symbol of piousness. The tilak, on the other hand, is the mark Hindus wear on their foreheads, and immediately brings to mind images of a priest, or of someone heavily steeped within rituals that define Hinduism. The reason these two words stand out from the very outset is because it seems as if the division between a Hindu and a Muslim, two distinct religious traditions, was already on Khusro’s mind when he penned it. But that is not remarkable. This distinction, or boundary, for Khusro seems only temporary, not cast in stone, and becomes transient immediately after coming into contact with the subject of the poem. The subject, whom the poem addresses with the pronoun ‘You’ can be anyone: a lover, to the very divine. For the adherents of Sufism and Bhaktism, the distinction between a lover and the divine was rather blurry and one transformed into the other.

In the same poem, a few couplets later, Khusro writes:

Bal bal jāūn main tore rang rajvā

Apnī sī rang dinī re mose nainā milāike

(English Translation: I can give my life for you, O dyer of colours, Just by one glance You have dyed me in your own colours)

Khusro here sneaks in the figure of the dyer of colours, and uses that figure as a metaphor to bridge distinction. The underlying idea here, in continuation with the image of the zebiba and the tilak before, seems to be boundaries, about the inherent different colours that distinguish us, that accentuates our difference. But this Us-Other dichotomy, in the hands of Khusro, becomes a mere illusion. The dichotomy, to be noted, isn’t only religious but also gender. Khusro was prone to assume the character of the bride in his poems, and hence a majority of his poetical works profusely use feminine iconography, such as bangles, sindoor, words like suhagan etc to characterise his own persona.

So, in a way, these poems are a plea to escape the labels that tie us down, and the image of the dyer who absorbs us and dyes us in a uniform colour, becomes an effective tool to express that profound emotion of esca