From Natural to Synthetic: Exploring the Changing Hues of Holi
Holi is a festival of vibrant colours and festive celebrations that has inspired rich artistic expressions throughout India's history. While the earliest literature reference to Holi comes from the works of poet Kalidasa in the 4th CE, it was in the medieval courts, from Rajasthan to Vijayanagara and the Mughals, that the festival came into its own and developed into what we know today.
In his poem and play, Kumarasambhava and Malvikagnimitram, Kalidasa mentions the celebration of Holi. The festival is also mentioned in religious texts like the Vishnu Purana and Mimamsa Sutra, dating back from the 2nd century BCE to 2nd century CE. However, it is during the medieval period, starting with the 15th CE, that Holi makes its way into art and sculpture.
Interestingly, the first reference to someone playing Holi comes from South India, in the Vijayanagara city of Hampi. Here, you can find a sculpture panel depicting revellers celebrating with music, dance, and a primitive version of the pichkari or water gun. While earlier artistic or sculptural references may be absent, Holi is celebrated in vivid color in the artists' studios of the Rajput, Mughal, and hill states' courts. This festival was celebrated with great enthusiasm by Hindus and Muslims alike, leading to various depictions in art throughout time and place.
Rajput paintings have captured the essence of Holi celebrations in India through the ages. From couples celebrating the festival in Mewar in the 17th century to women enjoying unrestrained merriment in a mid-17th century miniature from Bikaner, the festival has been a major subject of Indian miniature art. The Lord of merriment, Krishna, is also a popular muse, and one can see him playing Holi with Radha in an 18th century painting from Nathdwara. Another painting from the 19th century depicts Gokul Rawat Das, one of the minor chieftains of Mewar.
When it comes to celebrating Holi, Mughal rulers, particularly Jahangir, were renowned enthusiasts. Numerous depictions of Jahangir partaking in the festivities have been found, including this posthumous painting from Lucknow.
In the Mughal courts, not only the major but also minor royals participated in the revelry of Holi, as illustrated in this painting of a prince with his harem in Farrukhabad in 1780.
Krishna playing Holi remains a favorite subject in art, and the Mughals continued this tradition with paintings like this one from 19th century Lucknow.
Holi celebration and its portrayal in art were not limited to just one region in India. It spread across various courts including the Deccani courts in South India and the Pahari courts in the North. These paintings, from collections all over the world, are a testament to that.
The Deccani kings and princes took immense pleasure in celebrating Holi, and the paintings from the 18th century Shorapur and Hyderabad predominantly depict royalty engaging in the festivities.
On the other hand, the Pahari schools, known for their use of brilliant colors and depiction of people, feature numerous images of Radha and Krishna playing Holi. Two of the most exquisite examples are these two 18th-century paintings from Kangra and Guler.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the influx of Europeans in large numbers to the Indian subcontinent gave rise to Company Art. Despite their Victorian morals and Catholic upbringing, Europeans were fascinated by the vivid colors, food, dance, music and joy of Holi, and depicted the festival in their paintings.
The celebration of Holi transcends religion and ethnicity, drawing everyone in with its infectious joy and unity in diversity. This has always inspired artists to capture the festival in their work, and these paintings only offer a glimpse into the exuberance with which it has been celebrated over time.
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