Civilisations live longer through their cultures and cultures are enriched by folk traditions, be it music, arts, story telling, textiles, architecture, myths, legends or folk festivals. The greatest civilisations like Nile, Mesapotamia, Chinese, Native American, African, European or Indian found ways to break the monotony of mundane, day to day, life of the people through celebration of life and what better way to do it than indulge in merry making together. Wherever you look at the world map you find that people come together to celebrate their festivals. If Africans have their dances and rituals, Latin Americans have their carnivals, Europeans celebrate at the sight of sunshine, Chinese will leave everything for their Spring festival. The Indian sub-continent has a festival for almost every other day of the year. The remotest corner, the most unconnected village or a kasbah has a festival to brag about. If nothing else, we have a festival for a Gram devta, a village diety. There are festivals that are confined to a linguistic group or a community but there are others that are celebrated all over the sub-Continent and beyond. Vasant Panchami, or Basant, is one such festival.
It would be impossible to put a date to the beginning of Vasant Panchami in the Indian sub-continent—ancient civilsations cannot be slaves to calendars that came much later. Celebration of Basant is part of mythology and as Saraswati Puja it is even mentioned in Rigveda. According to the lunar calendar, Basant falls on the fifth day of month of Magh. Basant is celebrated to welcome the Spring season when cold and depressing days of winter come to an end. There is a saying in North India, “Aaya Basant Pala Udant” (Spring arrives and the dew vanishes). It is celebrated not only in India but also in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, China and Japan. The British and the Spaniards have their own versions of Spring Festivals like the famous Tomatina festival when several thousand tonnes of tomatoes are crushed and thrown at each other, like we sprinkle colours on Holi. Every region in the Indian sub-Continent has its own way of celebrating Basant. While in North India, especially undivided Punjab, it is a festival to welcome the onset of brighter sunshine after the winter and ripening of mustard fields resulting in a landscape full of gold showered by mother Nature. It uplifts the spirits. In a tribute to this bounty of nature, people wear yellow clothes and celebreate freedom, from a depressing cold weather
Most assertive expresssion of freedom is to let some thing lose in the open sky and let it soar or drop. Kite flying on Basant is one such expression. It is a symbol of freedom literally, also metaphorically. The brightness of golden yellow in the fields, yellow attire of the populace and even saffron in the food encourages one to assert one’s free spirit. Punjab is a land that has always celebrated Basant as a folk festival that does not differentiate between followers of different faiths. As children I remember we used to get Yellow turbans or yellow kurtas to wear, but it was kite flying that was most attractive part of the festival. No village, town or city of Punjab wanted to be left behind in this celebration… somewhere in the sub-conscious of a Punjabi, through kite-flying he expressed his natural urge to be free.
During Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s rule in Punjab the festival was celebrated for 10 days. Other States like Mahrashtra, Gujerat, Rajasthan and Haryana also celebrate it with kite-flying but the fervour in Punjab is intoxicating. After partition, West Punjab, in Pakistan now, kept celebrating the festival despite opposition by some conservative politicians. One of the most glaring examples of love for freedom within a Punjabi was displayed by that courageous singer Iqbal Bano, who when asked to hold a public concert in a public square in Lahore on Vasant Panchmi during Zia-ul-Haq’s oppressive rule, defied the conservative dictator by wearing a Sari and singing Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s hymn for Freedom…“Hum Dekhenge… Laazim Hai Ke Hum Bhi Dekhenge”. With this one act of defiance, Iqbal Bano made this nazm (Urdu poetry) an international hit and proved that cultural traditions can defy any oppressive regime. This was the victory of a civilisation and not of Iqbal Bano alone.
Just three days ago, I called up singer Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan, son of the most respected name in classical and semi-classical music Ustad Amanat Ali Khan Sahib, to ask him about the celebration of Basant in Lahore. Shafqat was most unhappy that celebration of Basant has been banned by Pakistani government on frivolous grounds like some deaths due to use of chemically treated Chinese ‘Dor’ (string/Manjha) and a few injuries or deaths of over enthusiastic young bikers.
He mentioned the tradition of bull fights and Tomatina, two Spanish festivals in which some people get injured or even killed but Spain has not banned these festivals. Shafqat nostalgically narrated how Basant was celebrated in Lahore, especially in the walled city, with such passion that not a single roof was available for outsiders. As a matter of fact the residents of posh colonies of Lahore outside the walled city used to hire roofs for kite flying at phenomenal prices running into lakhs of rupees. Even corporates like Pepsi and Coca-Cola were sponsors of these events. The women folk of the old city observed purdah, and, therefore did not participate in kite flying but young modern women from colonies of Lahore joined and celebrated with gay abandon. Shafqat Amanat Ali also shared with me his own love for the festival and narrated how the festival meant elaborate feasts, parties and mehfils of music. He mentioined that on one Basant night he himself sang at sixteen venues.
A festival like Vasant Panchami became popular because it does not merely announce the change of seasons from winter to spring and blossoming of trees and flowers but also has a strong religious acceptance. All faiths interpret it according to their own convenience. Hindus celeberate Vasant Panchami as Saraswati Puja; Saraswati being the unqiue Goddess of things creative—art, music, education—and as a consort of Brahma, she is also a boon for fertility. Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, South India celeberate Vasant Panchami as Saraswati Puja.
In gurudwaras, all the singing of Guruvaani, from Vasant Panchami, is based on Raag Basant. Sikh Gurus were practitioners of Hindustani classical music and Guru Granth Sahib clearly defines the Raag and Taal in which a hymn should be sung. Till Holi all Gurudwara musicians sing compositions in Raag Basant.
And we Dilliwalas are lucky to have the patronage of that unique Sufi, Mehboob-e-Elahi Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and celebration of Basant in Dilli starts with traditional walk to his Mazhar by the devotees and singing of Qawwallis. Legend has it that Hazrat Amir Khusro, Mureed (disciple) of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and a Sufi himself, saw some Hindu women on Basant Panchmi wearing yellow clothes and carrying flowers going to a temple. He asked these women why were they carrying flowers and wearing yellow. The women explained to Hazrat Amir Khusro the tradition of Basant. Hazrat Amir Khusro dressed as a woman in yellow garb and danced his way to his Murshid’s Chilla (guru’s place of penance). Since then, in Delhi, Basant is first declared at Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia’s Dargah and his benign gaze confirms his Mureed’s conviction that Basant is a season of blossoming of gold, of mustard. No wonder that all classical musicians in the country, irrespective of their faith, pay tribute to the two great Sufis on Basant with Amir Khusro’s composition, “Sakal ban phool rahi sarson.”