Holi and Hindustani Classical Music

Written by Chaitra Sontakke on 10 March 2020

Spring arrives and in its wake brings Holi - the festival of riotous colours, food and music. Indian tradition has music at the epicentre of all its traditions and festivals - from Kirtans sung in temples or Bhajans at gatherings - the colours of music are spread across every aspect of life. Holi is no exception - and in parts of India - it is nearly a month long celebration beginning with Vasant Panchami (onset of spring) and ending with Baisakhi. 

Hindustani Classical Music and the Bhakti Tradition

While all festivals in India are traditionally celebrated with music, Holi and Hindustani Classical music have always shared a special connection. The presence of classical music in the temples of Northern India can be traced back to the Bhakti movement that reached its peak during the 15th to 17th century AD. Even now, the temples of Braja tradition in Northern India perform their everyday ritual worship (Pooja Vidhi) with Kirtans. These Kirtans are sung in the Dhrupad style with compositions in different Ragas. These compositions typically weave stories of the Lord Krishna and his consort Radha as they frolic and play with the Gopis (milkmaids) in Vrindavan (the birthplace of Krishna). 

Holi in Dhamar, Thumri and Khayal singing

Dhamar is a style allied to Dhrupad in Hindustani Classical music. Dhamar compositions written in Brijbhasha (the Brij language) are set to a 14 beat cycle (Taal), also called Dhamar. The composition begins in a slow rhythm and then picks up pace as the singer doubles, quadruples the speed. 

Here’s a Dhrupad-Dhamar depicting Holi ‘Chori Chori Maarata  Kumkuma’ in Raga Kedar and Dhamar Taal followed by a faster composition in Sooltal by Pandit Uday Bhawalkar

Music is such a central part of the celebration of Holi, that it has inspired an entire subgenre in folk and light classical - Hori (the rural spin on the word that denotes the festival itself). 

There are folk styles which have evolved in the same region of Braj. These forms have evolved into Thumri which is a lighter form of Hindustani classical music. This form is lighter in terms of the flexibility allowed in the Raga structures, though this form demands immense vocal skills and dexterity in voice. Thumri includes other forms like Dadra, Hori, Kajri, Chaiti and Jhoola - each depicting a variety of themes. Hori is a form which describes Holi played by Krishna, the lyrical content of Hori is similar to Dhamar and the musical form is allied to the Khayal form. 

Listen to this beautiful rendition of the Hori by Shuba Mudgal ‘Kanhaiya Ghar Chalo Mori’ in her powerful voice.

Common Ragas and Taals in Hori

The Raga commonly used for Hori or Khayal with descriptions of Holi is Kafi. Thumris are also composed in other Ragas like Khamaj, Des, Pilu, Pahadi, Bhairavi and Tilang. 

Shobha Gurtu, often known as the Thumri Queen, has popularised this Thumri - “Aaj Biraj Mein Holi Re Rasiya Rasiya” sung in her husky yet melodious voice.

A Hori composition would be set in the beat cycles (Taals) that are also used in the Thumri style. These are Deepchandi, varieties in Keherwa, Dadra, and Addha. Deepchandi, like Dhamar, is also a 14 beat Taal. 

Listen to Girija Devi , of  Seniya and Banaras Gharana fame singing Aisi Hori Na Khelo (Raag Piloo Hori) in her ethereal voice. Girija Devi’s disciple Malini Awasthi has been instrumental in popularising folk music in India. She’s a  torch bearer for continuing the rich tradition of Holi songs.

Holi and Bollywood

Of course, no discussion of music in India is complete without Bollywood which has borrowed heavily from both classical and folk songs to bring songs of Holi to the masses. 

Here’s a Thumri - Baat Chalat Nayi Chunari Rang Daali - from the movie Ladki (1958) originally sung by the versatile Geeta Dutt. Our student Anupama Roy presents it beautifully here

The popular “Rang Barse” sung throughout India during Holi was also inspired by a Meera Bhajan. The poet Harivansh Rai Bachcchan penned the lyrics which have since then been popularised by the movie Silsila. 

So this Holi, play with colours, feast on sweets, and dance to the rhythm of the myriad tunes of India.