A number of classical renditions and traditional paintings are inspired from the spring season.
It is official – spring has arrived. And what is more wonderful than hearing Mallika Pukhraj sing Lo Phir Basant Aayi… Of all the wonderful bandishs on Vasant, this remains my all time favourite and like almost an annual ritual I put it on loop and hear it all day. One of my first assignments as a cub journalist was to interview her. I have vivid memories of the meeting and her glittering nose pin as we stood in the sun getting her photographed.
She spoke in chaste Urdu and thanks to my father who as a scholar of Urdu and Persian, I was familiar with the words and was able to conduct a reasonably meaningful conversation with the Mallika or Queen of Ghazal. I can still hear the slight rasp in her voice and the impeccable diction and of course the music is really unforgettable. One line that remains vivid in my mind from that conversation was: “Ghazal gayee nahin jaati, kahi jaati hai (a ghazal is recited not sung).” And I tend to judge even the better-known ghazal singers with that yardstick.
I also have vivid memories of the pink bougainvillea as it flowered on the hedge close to where we stood talking. But then that is also how I relate to her memories – the pink flowers and the nosepin! I had asked her about her singing age in the context of her most popular ghazal of Hafeez Jallandhari, Abhi toh main jawan hoon… she said in a very self-deprecating manner: “Some say that they have been hearing me sing it for 30 years, some say 40 years. I don’t know how old I am or how long I have been singing it!”
I am such a sucker for seasons that sometimes I laugh at myself for believing in some of the charming little legends and stories about seasons.
The most delightful one has to be about the Ashoka tree. Traditionally, it is believed that no flowering or fruit-bearing tree should be cut for obvious reasons. But where does that leave the poor Ashoka tree? Legend has it that it should not be cut too since it is waiting for a Padmini nari (Sanjay Leela Bhansali please excuse) to come and touch it with her right foot on Vasant Panchami so that it will burst forth and flower. That is how inclusive we are culturally.
A number of folk, traditional and miniature paintings are inspired from the metaphor of spring for their leit motif as are many compositions in Hindustani classical music in raga Basant, Bahar and Basant Bahar. The beautiful bandish used in a film Aayi madhu ritu basant bahar stands out for its moving music and purity.
The colour of the season is yellow and it is so wonderful that dance and music institutions especially mark this day with special invocations to the Goddess of Learning Sarasvati.
I was in Shantiniketan once on this day and I can never forget the ambience of the place and the multitudes of young girls dressed in yellow sarees making flower alpanas and going from pandal to pandal tasting the bhog. For those not familiar with the legend, following Goddess Parvati leaping into the fire, Lord Shiva lost interest in marriage or bodily enjoyment. He renounced the worldly activities he was entrusted with and went on to perform a deep meditation. But this was seen to ruin any chance of the execution of the demon Tarkasur, whose death was believed to be in the hands of the son of Lord Shiva.
So the gods requested Madan (Kama - the God of Desire) to tempt the contemplating Lord Shiva into marriage with Goddess Parvati, who was a reincarnation of Sati. On the entreaty of Goddess Parvati, Kamadeva shot his love-arrow on Shiva’s heart. A deeply disturbed Lord Shiva opened his eyes and his fury instantly turned Kamadeva into ashes. But he calmed down when Rati, Kamdev’s wife, beseeched him to restore her husband to life. This he did and granted immortality to Kamdev, though the latter was only regenerated as “anang” (a mental image, lacking any physical form). The incident is supposed to have taken place on the day the spring season began that year.
Nature seemed to celebrate the rebirth of everyone’s favourite god, the God of Love Kamdev. In Tamil Nadu it is known as “Kaman Pandigai”. In North India it is called Kama-dahanam (the burning of lust). People offer to an image of Kamdev such things as sandalwood paste (believed to soothe his burn injuries) and mango blossoms (his favourite flower). Fire is also worshipped in several places and a betel nut tree, a castor oil plant or a plantain tree is buried in the middle of the fire once the flames die down. To me Vasant Panchami will always remain the day of love rather than Valentine’s Day, which came to be celebrated following St Valentine secretly marrying those in love. And as we know, marriage is the end of love anyway! So let Kamdev shoot his arrows…
Dr Alka Raghuvanshi is an art writer, curator and artist and can be contacted on email@example.com