For thousands of years in India, the onset of spring has been heralded by the Holi festival, an assortment of celebrations that spans the length and breadth of the country. People sing, dance, distribute sweets among neighbours and friends, and playfully throw coloured powder at each other. They embrace a few weeks of glorious weather before the grip of summer and the deluge of the monsoon season.
These glorious days of sunshine and cool evenings have inspired sweet music about love and devotion, represented in distinct colours by the states of India. Traditionally, the dry powders and wet paints were made from organic colours of flowers and vegetables such as turmeric, margosa and indigo. In India today, the colours are mostly synthetic and the revellers wear white clothes so they can be bleached and starched once the two-day festivities are over.
In Dubai, these disparate celebrations were woven into a common thread by a musical choir group called Malhaar. Comprising of expatriates with a training in Indian classical music, the group was formed last year by individuals who wanted to address the lack of awareness of non-Bollywood music. They perform original classical and folk compositions. Altogether there are more than 20 members,but six men and 11 women will perform tonight.
"The idea of a choir group came from the idea of bringing together people who are passionate about Indian classical music. It was to unite the expatriate Indians through chords of music and present the new face of India to the world through the unified voices of her youth," says Jogiraj Sikidar, the director of Malhaar. Today, the stage will be set up with as much colour as the members can muster, plates stacked high with gulal, a coloured powder. A slide show and a narrative will run throughout the show, with the narrator explaining a bit about regional Holi traditions before the music from each region is introduced.
"There is a classical form and Holi is part of this. There are intricate Indian classical compositions to colourful folk and inspiring patriotic songs in different Indian languages," says Sikidar, who grew up listening to the Calcutta Youth Choir. "It was always somewhere there at the back of my mind. Later when I was doing my graduation from Delhi University, I received exposure in Indian choral music. There I learnt the nuances of a choir group."
Apart from its association with the season, it is also largely attributed to the success of the last planting season for India's vast agrarian society. Indian mythology also dictates that the celebrations are a tribute to Lord Krishna. The evening will start with a tribute to him and his birthplace. The compositions are based on several Raags, a tonal system with a prescribed framework of progressions of melodic and rhythmic patterns.
"It serves to illustrate the linkage between classical music and folk traditions," Sikidar says. The group will then take the audience east to Bengal, to the heart of its cultural foundation - Shantiniketan, where a university for liberal arts was founded by Rabindranath Tagore, India's only Nobel laureate in literature. It is called Vasat Utsav (the festival of spring), and on this day since the 1900s students have traditionally dressed in saffron or yellow-coloured clothes along with garlands of spring flowers.
"They sing and dance on the road till they approach the main courtyard," Sikidar explains. "We wanted to recreate some of his [Tagore's] compositions." Noted alumni members, such as Amartya Sen, a graduate of the university and a Nobel laureate in economics, are said to attend the festival and sing "Ore griho bashi, khol daar khol" (Open your door, spring is here). Next comes Punjab, where Punjabi Sikhs celebrate Hola Mohalla. People light bonfires, and grains from the fresh harvest along with fragrant wood are put into the flames.
They will sing Khushiyan Karan Sringaar ki Holi Aayi ("The joys of Holi are here"). This will be followed by songs from Gujarat, Maharashtra from the west and the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, with songs inspired by the Banjara gypsies. On Holi, children collect money and wood to make a bonfire. Although the group typically shies away from Bollywood, the night will come full circle with several renditions of chart-toppers that the Indian film industry has mashed from classical and folk songs. Over the years, no Holi street celebration has been complete without shops and homes blaring classics from the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
"Any Holi concert would be incomplete without Bollywood," says Sikidar, "so we picked up some of the famous and unforgettable renditions of Holi." The concert takes place from 9pm tonight at the India Club in Dubai. Entry for members is free, and for members' guests is Dh25. See www.indiaclubdubai.com.