Festival of Colours In Colonial Calcutta

Tarun Goswami

Holi or Dol is celebrated on the full moon day in the month of Phalgun of the Bengali calendar. It has assumed a greater significance in Bengal since it is also the birthday of the Vaishnava saint, Sri Chaitnaya. In Bengal, the two most important festivals were Dol-Durgotsav, the other being Durga Puja. Since the city had a number of Vaishnav families, Dol Purnima was celebrated with much fanfare and for the neo-rich it provided another opportunity to show off wealth and even indulge into revelling and raunchiness.

Robert Clive was once invited to the house of Raja Nabakrishna Deb in Sovabazar to celebrate Dol. Nabakrishna was enormously wealthy and wanted his European friend to view the festivities. Clive along with some of his English friends reached the house in the afternoon. They were greeted by the women members of the family. Nabakrishna had organised a musical show to entertain Clive and Rupchand Pokkhi, a famous folk singer of those days translated a song penned by him into English and sung it. The theme of the song was that Radha had gone to see Lord Krishna who was in Mathura on the day of Dol. Radha was carrying a pot full of abir (scented powder) and she wanted to smear it on Krishna’s face. The guards stopped her from entering the palace and she requested them to open the gates. Rupchand had translated the song as “Let me go ore dwari, I visit to Bangshidhari (Oh, guards allow me to go inside as I would like to see Lord Krishna).

Clive was very happy to hear the song and rewarded Pokkhi with two gold coins. But he was horrified when he saw family members and friends putting abir on each other’s face. Clive had lunch with the members of the Deb family and also attended a musical show in the evening.

But Robert Clive was evidently not the first of the Britisher to take part in the festival of colours. Job Charnock’s men were also drawn by the wild revelling of the Hindu festival and joined it, though surreptitiously. HEA Cotton wrote “The tank in the centre of our Dalhousie Square was then within the enclosure of the Zemindar’s cutcherry. Vidyadhar Roy Chowdhry, the senior member of the Majumdar family in whose jagir the three villages lay had allowed the English to acquire his own Zemindari Cutcherry building for the protection of their records but the worship of the Hindoo God Govind or Shyam Roy (Who had given his name both to Govindpore and Shyam Bazar) was still celebrated within the enclosure as of old. In spite of the removal of the image to Kalighat Portuguese Anthony’s (the agent of the Zemindar) offence lay in his endeavouring to prevent some English factors from entering the enclosure during the Holi festival of the God.” Later Charnock had him horsewhipped and after the assault he went and took his abode at in his master’s house at Kanchrapara. He was the grandfather of the famous kabial or minstrel, Anthony Sahib.

Though Cotton remained silent on the offence of the Britishers on the day of Holi, the story, according to the Sabarna Roy Chowdhury family goes that the women of the family took part in the festival and played with abir. After the festival was over the family members took a dip in the pond situated opposite the temple. The water turned red and the pond came to be called Lal Dighi. In 1691 some soldiers of East India Company tried to break the railings of Lal Dighi to see the women bathing after playing abir. They were resisted by Anthony Phiringhi who was an employee of the Roy Chowdhury family. He was a famous lathi player and he drove away the ill mannered soldiers. On the next morning Job Charnock’s men abducted him and he was whipped.

Radha Bazaar too, according to legends owes its name to this festival. On the day of the Dol Purnima, the richly decorated swings of Govindji were put on the left end of the Lal Dighi and those of Radha on the other side. Temporary shops were put up for almost a mile, selling colours of all kinds. This bazaar later came to be known as Radha Bazaar. In 1698 when the Roy Chowdhury family leased out three villages, Kalikata, Sutanuti or Sutaluta and Govindapur to the East India Company, the idol of Shyamrai was taken to Halisahar. The temple was pulled down by the East Indian Company. From 1715 onwards Dol was observed both at Halisahar and Barisha where the Roy Chowdhury family are now based.

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Oudh was exiled to the city and settled in Metiabruz. He built a huge palace which now houses the office of South Eastern Railway. He was a trained Kathak dancer. Once, he was invited by the famous Bose family of Pathuriaghata to perform on the day of Dol. The Nawab came along with his musicians. He asked the host to throw abir on the marble floor and covered it with a piece of muslin cloth. The Nawab danced on the cloth and after an hour he removed the cloth. The audience was amazed to see that while dancing he had made two portraits of Lord Krishna and Radha on the floor.

Dol was an important festival in the house of Raja Rajendralal Mitra of Beliaghata. Rajendralal was a key figure of Bengal Renaissance and his book, ‘The Antiquities of Orissa’ became very popular. There is a temple of Radha-Krishna within the ancestral property and all family members gathered there on the day of Dol and played abir. The idols of Lord Krishna and Radharani were decorated with flowers. The family members sang kirtan praising Lord Krishna and Radharani. The tradition continues even today and the members of the Mitra family gather on the day of festivity and take part in the special puja.

There was also another aspect of festivities during Dol. In the houses of rich bhang sherbet and sandesh laced with siddhi were served and both men and women became tipsy after consuming them.

In East Bengal, Dol was restricted primarily among the milkmen community where instead of abir, mud was used. However, the nature of Dol began to change with changing time and it no longer remained confined to the aristocratic families only. Dol also came to symbolise brotherhood and harmony and a day when social strictures are usually overlooked.