Every year, come October, a relative of ours says, “The festival season has begun.” She goes on to list every single celebration coming up over the next several months. Dussehra/Durga Puja, Govardhan Puja, Karva Chauth, Diwali, Bhai Dooj, and a gazillion smaller festivities, some which I didn’t even know about a few years ago. All the way up to Holi. “And then there’ll be a lull all through the summer and the monsoon,” we’re told, every year.
I don’t know if there’s a definitive answer for the question “Which country has the most festivals in the world?” but I could lay a safe bet that India would be pretty much among the top of the pack. Part of the reason probably is our immense diversity: we have people from widely differing regional cultures here, and following different faiths. As a result, there’s a merry mix of religious festivals, seasonal festivals related to harvest/sowing/etc, as well as secular festivals and celebrations. Some are celebrated pretty much across the country; some are so confined to a particular region that they’re rarely even known of outside that locale.
And these festivals, naturally, show up in Hindi cinema. With, almost invariably, a bonus: a song attached to the festival. After all, a festival is cause for celebration, and what better way to celebrate than with a song?
Therefore, ten ‘festival songs’ (note: I’m not calling these ‘my favourite’; not all of these are especially good). As always, these are from pre-70s Hindi films that I’ve seen (with one exception, a film on the cusp, which feels enough like a late 60s film to merit a place in a 60s list). Also, no two songs are about the same festival.
1. Rang-birangi raakhi lekar (Anpadh, 1962): Rakshabandhan. Along with the romances (and occasional bromances) that feature in Hindi cinema, another popular relationship is that between brother and sister. The brother, ready to lay down his life for his sister, and his sister eager to sacrifice all her happiness in return. Rakhi, Chhoti Bahen, Bhai-Bahen, Aankhen, Anjaana, Hare Rama Hare Krishna… there are many films that had the brother-sister relationship as a vital part of the plot, in some cases even more important than the man-woman romance.
In Anpadh, Mala Sinha’s character is sister to Balraj Sahni, the indulgent elder brother who has brought her up, and been both father and mother to her. Here, in the quintessential rakshabandhan song, she shows her love for her brother, reminding him of their mutual love. All the traditional trappings of the festival are there: the tinseled raakhi tied on his wrist, the tilak on his forehead. The sweets fed to each other, the brother’s gift to his sister. The sister’s promises of eternal love for her veer.
2. Mere bhaiya ko sandesa pahunchaana (Didi, 1959). Bhai Dooj. From the quintessential brother-sister festival to a less well-known one, but still an important celebration. Also known as Bhai Teeka, Bhai Beej (or Bhau Beej), Bhai Phonta, etc, Bhai Dooj follows rituals similar to those of Rakshabandhan, with the sister doing an aarti and tilak for the brother and feeding him while he gives her gifts and vows to protect her.
This one is the only Bhai Dooj song I’ve ever come across in Hindi cinema (or as far as I remember). A lovely song, too: Jayshree’s character plays sister to Sunil Dutt’s character. At Bhai Dooj, the brother and sister cannot meet because he’s too far away and it’s impossible for him to visit. So she entrusts her message to the moon (there’s a significance to this: the moon god, Chandra, is traditionally also worshipped on Bhai Dooj, and if a woman doesn’t have a brother, Chandra stands in for him on Bhai Dooj).
3. Arre jaa re hat natkhat (Navrang, 1959): Holi. Holi is probably the single most popular festival in Hindi cinema. Even more than Diwali, which may be the biggest highlight of the Hindu festival calendar otherwise. Because Holi, with its exuberance and its no-holds-barred rioting of colour and bhaang, lends itself perfectly to a cinema that relies heavily on romance and flirtation for most of its plot. There’s lots of scope for Holi songs, teasing ones and exuberant ones, from Khelo rang hamaare sang to Aaj na chhodenge, from Holi aayi re Kanhaai to… well, dozens of other songs.
Here’s one especially good one, which is also rather unusual. Sandhya enacts a duet, dancing as both Krishna and a gopi (Radha?) on Holi. The gopi tells the mischievous Krishna to be gone; she will curse him, she will not be taken in by him. But the irrepressible Krishna says he doesn’t care; today, on Holi, even her curses will be music to his ears. Sandhya isn’t one of my favourites, but I find her quite mesmerizing in this dance, which is so well choreographed. That tree trunk in the middle acts as a good prop to separate Krishna from the gopi, and later, her costume changes to a form in which, seen from one side, she’s a woman, and seen from the other, a man. The clouds of colour, the pichkaari, the gulaal drifting through the air: Holi, yes, and brilliantly depicted.
4. Govinda aala re aala (Bluffmaster, 1963): Krishna Janmashtami. When it comes to songs, perhaps the one Hindu deity who finds the greatest representation in Hindi cinema is Krishna. Krishna’s gaiety, his raas-leela, his mischief as a butter-stealing toddler, as a matka-phodoing child, and as a flirtatious baansuri-player, makes him a highly popular metaphor for light-hearted pranks and flirtation, both standard elements of romantic plots across Hindi films. Even when a film is otherwise pretty much devoid of any religious connotations, it’s not uncommon to find a song that refers to Krishna as a symbol of love, romance, or mischief.
Not in this case. One of my favourite festival songs, Govinda aala re aala celebrates Krishna Janmashtami, the birthday of Krishna, in a style that does justice to Krishna’s image as a god who likes fun. Shammi Kapoor is in his element as he leads his band of joyous, exuberant Krishna-worshippers through the streets of Bombay to participate in the ceremonial breaking of a dahi handi. Besides the fact that Shammi Kapoor gets totally into the spirit of things, the picturization of the song is worth remarking upon, because this is so obviously the real thing, with hundreds of spectators included in the shots.
5. Kaisi khushi leke aaya chaand Eid ka (Barsaat ki Raat, 1960): Eid. In a cinema that is dominated by Hindu-centric themes, there’s little scope for songs that centre round festivals that belong to religions other than Hinduism. I cannot recall any old songs about Christmas, for instance; or Gurpurab or Budh Purnima… and as for Eid, even in Muslim socials, there are far fewer Eid songs than I would have liked.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. The 1943 film Najma had Eid milo Eid guiyaan, which is a really frothy description of all the joys of Eid, with milk and sweet batashas and sevaiyaan, and of course the joy of celebrating the festival with all one’s loved ones. Eid ke din sab milenge (from Sohni Mahiwal, 1958), on the other hand, is a tragic song about being separated from one’s beloved and therefore unable to enjoy Eid.
This one, therefore, which really is my favourite Eid song. Shyama’s character, all bright-eyed and radiant, celebrates Eid and rejoices that it gives her an excuse to meet the man she’s in love with. Wonderful song, lovely rendition, and while the emphasis is less on Eid and more on romance, still.
6. Sang basanti ang basanti (Raja aur Runk, 1968): Basant Panchami. A festival that has more to do with the cycle of seasons than religion, Basant Panchami is a celebration of spring. In some parts of India (especially in the eastern states of Bengal, Odisha and Assam) it takes the form of Saraswati pooja, the worship of the goddess of learning. In much of Northern India, however, Basant Panchami is less restrained: kites are flown, and many people wear yellow, to symbolize the flowering of mustard, which coincides with Basant Panchami.
Aayi jhoomke basant (Upkaar, 1967) is a song about Basant Panchami; here is another. Sanjeev Kumar, Nazima, and a troupe of highly energetic dancers celebrate Basant Panchami with much verve. There’s a lot of yellow around too, everywhere from turbans to odhnis, pyjamas to artificial flowers.
7. Aayi Diwali aayi kaise ujaale laayi (Khazanchi, 1958): Diwali. Diwali is, at least in Northern India (where I live) by far and away the most popular festival, the very epitome of ‘festival’. The event for which millions of Hindus start preparing well in advance, cleaning homes, buying gifts, decorating homes, and more. Hindi cinema, naturally, also tends to make much of Diwali, though I think there are still more Holi songs than there are Diwali songs.
While there are several Diwali songs that come to mind (including ones that talk of a singer’s loneliness and separation from loved ones, as in Rattan’s Aayi Diwali aayi Diwali or Haqeeqat’s Aayi ab ke saal Diwali, my favourite Diwali song is the lovely Aayi Diwali aayi kaise ujaale laayi. The song, music as well as lyrics and rendition, is wonderful, but it’s made even better by the way the picturization evokes Diwali. Fireworks, sparklers (phuljhadis), diyas, fairy lights… it’s all there, and in abundance. Plus that brief bit where the women, fairy lights outlining them and their sticks, dance while it’s dark all round: a little cheesy, perhaps, but interesting.
8. Aaj hai karva chauth sakhi ri (Bahu Beti, 1965): Karva Chauth. Among the Hindu festivals that have become especially popular onscreen in recent times (by which I mean since the 70s or so), Karva Chauth is one (which says a lot for so-called progress in women’s rights and feminism!) With heroine after heroine gazing up at the moon through a sieve and then turning simperingly to her hero, this is one festival that’s actually begun to make inroads in communities that otherwise never even really celebrated Karva Chauth.
This is the earliest example of a Karva Chauth song that I’ve come across. Mala Sinha and Mumtaz play good friends who get married to cousins and therefore end up living in the same big joint family too. On the day of Karva Chauth, they get together with other women to celebrate the festival, and sing about the significance of the festival, the love and devotion of a wife for her husband. The fact that all these women are dancing so energetically seems a bit far-fetched to me; though I don’t fast myself, I know plenty of women who do, and none of them seem to have this much energy this late in the day.
9. Mera dil jhoom-jhoom gaaye… sabko Happy Christmas (Ek Din Aadhi Raat, 1971): Christmas. Christians, as people other than stereotyped caricatures, are rare in old Hindi cinema. There’s Mrs D’Sa and Anthony Gonsalves, or John Chacha and the many Christian femme fatales Helen played across much of her career, but Christians tend to be either slotted as the villains or the goodie-goodies, nothing in between. Offhand, I can only think of two films (Raat ke Raahi and Baaton Baaton Mein) which were primarily about Christians.
Naturally, then, Christian festivals are rarely noticed onscreen. Even here, in a song ostensibly about Christmas (ostensibly, because it really isn’t), the fact that the song mentions “Sabko Happy Christmas” is incidental. It could just as well have been Happy New Year, or nothing at all. The song is all about romance, the dance is the usual cabaret number, and besides a token Christmas tree (quite lost in all the Egyptian-themed décor of the setting), there’s really nothing to distinguish this as a Christmas song. But that refrain is there, and the tune isn’t bad.
10. De di humein aazaadi bina khadg bina dhaal (Jagriti, 1954): Gandhi Jayanti. And, to end this list, a national festival. Just how much Gandhi Jayanti is actually celebrated on an institutional level was brought home to me forcefully earlier this month, when my seven year old, the ‘Little One’ or LO, because of all the hype at her school, was busy drawing cards with India Gate, Gandhiji and the tricolour; insisted on wearing a churidar-kurta on October 2; and vigorously waved about a tricolour she’d crafted. Plus, since she’d been taught De di humein aazaadi bina khadg bina dhaal by her music teacher at school, she went on singing the first two lines over and over again in a loop… (she couldn’t remember the rest).
So, De di humein aazaadi, which actually plays out in Jaagriti on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti. There is another Hindi film song about this national festival (Aaj hai do October ka din from the 1968 Parivaar, which celebrates the birthdays of both Mahatma Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri), but I think De di humein aazaadi is far superior as a song: its lyrics, its music, and its rendition are far better.
Which other festivals have been celebrated in song? Please share!