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In Session: Festivals, Celebrations, and Their Representation in Early Modern and Colonial South Asia
1: Playing (with) Holī: The Construction of an Indian Festival in Word and Image, 1500-1800
Thursday, March 25, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Nicolas J. Roth
Harvard University, United States
Among the myriad holidays that punctuate the Indian calendar, none were celebrated by the poets and painters of early modern North India as extensively as the spring festival of Holī. While the appeal of Holī, with its carnivalesque atmosphere and emphasis on color, is easy to understand, its marked preeminence in the artistic record vis-à-vis other festivals reflects a complex intersection of historical and literary developments. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, powerful Kr̥ṣṇa bhakti movements and their development of the god’s mythical homeland of Braj as a pilgrimage center, the flourishing of the Brajbhāṣā dialect nominally linked to that region as a medium of both devotional and courtly poetry, the development of Urdu poetry in conversation with the former, and Persian poetic traditions of celebrating spring converged to make Holī an essential, ecumenical subject for North Indian artists and writers, irrespective of religious background or language. Tracing these dynamics highlights historical links obscured by later communal and linguistic divisions, as in the connected literary histories of Urdu and Brajbhāṣā. Yet it also sheds light on the construction of identities against which such boundary crossing becomes notable in the first place, and the historically contingent ways in which an event or practice comes to be represented – or not – in the record created by literature or the visual arts. To interrogate these processes ultimately offers a productive exploration of how to read carefully and comparatively across the incomplete and uneven archive of the everyday in early modern South Asia.