The Colours of Holi

Holi Radha KrishnaHappy Holi everyone! On this day of colours, I thought to talk about colour-symbolisms in Indian culture, especially amongst Hindus. To connect with the poetry, music and spirituality of India, one must understand its unique language of colour.

There are of course secular associations that form the base of our reaction to colour. Being a visual artist, I am very sensitive to these colour triggers but I believe the following triggers are fairly common amongst Indians. A roomful of people in white and we think of the grief and bereavement. Women in red remind us of brides. A glimpse of yellow mustard fields and we are transported to Punjab. A swish of red and shocking pink skirts and we recall the women of Rajasthan. Men in black dhotis? Surely pilgrims to Sabarimalai? The poetry and music of India make full use of these colour triggers to bring evocative images to our minds.

On a religious level, there are very strong colour associations with the various forms of God. Red is for Ganesh of course, but also for Hanuman. Red is for prosperity and auspiciousness. Red is the colour of kumkum that we place in the position of आज्ञा (meaning: Unlimited Power) chakra, the Third Eye chakra, our direct connection to our inner self.  Think of yellow and the yellow silk of Vishnu’s attire, pitambaram, comes to mind as do tilaks of sandalwood. How can we remember blue and not think of Krishna’s skin or Shiva’s throat? Think of Green and we are reminded of the beautiful Meenakshi, the tulasi leaf we worship Vishnu with and the bilva leaf we lay at Shiva’s feet. One cannot think of a rich saffron without thinking of Sanyasis and their lives spent in following the path of God.

The religious poetry of India often uses being coloured as an analogy for bhakti.
मैं तो सांवरे के रंग रची
‘ I have been dyed in the colour of my beloved

sang Meera. Kabir, who was a Nirguni (a devotee of Nirguna Brahman, the undefinable God) likened the body to a woven shawl and said
ऐसा रंग रंगा रंगरे ने कि लालो लाल कर दीनी
‘The dyer dyed the shawl totally red’

Red-saffron represents self-realisation, the colour that sanyasis wear.
Nusrat Fateh Ali in his famous Sanson Ki Mala sings
प्रेम के रंग में ऐसी डूबी बन गया एक ही रूप
’I drowned in the colour of love so much that everything became one’
likening Bhakti or devotion with being dyed.

On a deeper level, each chakra in our body is associated with a colour. From the red of the Mooladhara chakra at the base of the spine to the Sahasrara chakra at the crown of the head, we have an inner spectrum of light within ourselves. The qualities and the power of each chakra can be accessed by its colour. A great healing and energizing meditation is to visualise each chakra in its colour and letting the colour energy radiate through the whole body. Today on Holi, let us splash ourselves with the spiritual power of each colour.

For my song choice of today, I present to you something quite unique. Traditional Holi songs are almost always about Krishna and the gopikas, for colour and Holi are about life and the living, about joy and play, about love – all that Krishna is about. But in today’s song, it is not Krishna who plays Holi, but Shiva, who is about asceticism and detachment, about self-control and inner strength. In the cycle of life and death, if Krishna is about life and colour, Shiva is about death and colourlessness, each one half of the whole. Shiva playing Holi? Who would sing of it? Channulal Mishra of Benaras, the city of Shiva, but of course!

खेलैं मसाने में होरी दिगंबर खेले मसाने में होरी ।
भूत पिसाच बटोरी, दिगंबर खेले मसाने में होरी ।।

लखि सुंदर फागुनी छटा के, मन से रंग-गुलाल हटा के
चिता-भस्‍म भर झोरी, दिगंबर खेले मसाने में होरी ।।

गोपन-गोपी श्‍याम न राधा, ना कोई रोक ना कौनऊ बाधा
ना साजन ना गोरी, दिगंबर खेले मसाने में होरी ।।

नाचत गावत डमरूधारी, छोड़ै सर्प-गरल पिचकारी
पीतैं प्रेत-धकोरी दिगंबर खेले मसाने में होरी ।।

भूतनाथ की मंगल-होरी, देखि सिहाएं बिरिज कै गोरी
धन-धन नाथ अघोरी दिगंबर खेलैं मसाने में होरी ।।

Can you imagine the scene? Shiva plays Holi in the cremation ground with ghosts and ghouls. There is no colour here – not even in his mind, for he plays Holi with the ashes of the dead. There is no Krishna, no gopikas, no lovers where Shiva plays Holi. He dances and sings, and the water-squirt in his hand is a snake which squirts venom. This Holi of Shiva is unique, isn’t it?

Listen below to the Maestro in this intimate singing with no instruments.


Filed under Channulal Mishra, Hindustani Classical Music

11 responses to “The Colours of Holi

  1. jay

    Lovely post, good idea for the meditation. Happy holi to you too.

  2. Ramesh

    Just a marker to wish you Happy Holi and compliment you on yet another lovely post. I am travelling with patchy internet connectivity – so will listen to your song recommendation when I’m back to base and then comment again.

  3. Due to system break down i could not log on to your site. Though computor suave for my age(i am aged 65) i could not access the basic problems of computor. Coming to Holi I expected you to write about all time great holi song from film Navrang.

    • Sorry to hear about your computer, hope that your problems are solved now. I like to have a little variety in my blog, last year it was about Filmi music so I decided to choose some folk-classical music this year 🙂

  4. vineet kumar


    i have read your comment on the film DEVDAS (1955) on the blog . you wrote that you have seen the old version of devdas (1935) starring K.L SAIGAL. could you please upload this movie for me. i’m dying to see it.

    • Hi Vineet, Sorry, I don’t have a copy. I saw it on Doordarshan many many years back. Have you checked all online sources? surely someone would already have loaded it?

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