Lucknow is a city that is steeped in legends. One of the loveliest legends is recalled every Holi. During the reign of Wajid Ali Shah, the last ruler of Lucknow, Muharram the new year of the Islamic calendar, observed as a period of mourning by Shia Muslims had coincided with the Hindu festival of Holi. Leaders of the Hindu community met and had decided that year not to celebrate Holi in solidarity with the sombre sentiments of Shia Muslims during Muharram.

When the news reached Wajid Ali Shah that Holi celebrations were cancelled, he was touched to the core of his heart. He had declared that Holi should be celebrated by all those who wished to do so while those engaged in the rituals of observing Muharram were given the freedom to perform rituals they preferred to.

Those were times when the concept of live and let live was actually practised in the city, and the population was not encouraged to divide itself with slogans like ‘Ali tumhare aur Bajrang Bali humarey’.

There was a time when community leaders and the head of state had made sincere efforts to encourage citizens to appreciate, and not to hate each other. This was not surprising as all the Muslim rulers were born in the region called Avadh which after Independence was renamed Uttar Pradesh (UP).

It is true that the founder of the Awadh dynasty of rulers came to India from Iran and he was a Muslim. But his descendants married local women and they grew up studying Persian and European languages but their mother tongue remained the local dialect of Avadh.

Wajid Ali Shah who ruled between 1847 and 1856 was also a poet. He recited in Avadhi that “morey kanha jo aaye palat ke, abki holi maiin khelungi dat ke... unkey peeche maiin chupke se jaake, maiin unhein bhi doongi rang… (now that my beloved is back I will play holi this time without stopping. I will silently attack from the back and drench my love in colour.)”

Asafudaulah the third ruler of Lucknow sat on the throne between 1775 and 1795. During his reign the god of poets Mir Taqi Mir had visited Lucknow from Delhi. The poet was delighted to watch Asafudaulah soaked in the rainbow colours of Holi.

The extreme exuberance of Asafudaulah made the poet burst into verse “holi khelein Asafuddaula wazir, rang saubat se ajab hain khurdopeer, kumkume jo maarte bharkar gulaal, jiske lagta aan kar phir mehadi laal… (Asafudaulah the head of state plays Holi with the young and old all drenched in colour. The water guns fire red powder that paints the target in the hue of henna)”.

Mir eventually came to enjoy the festival of Holi and every year he reminded others that when Spring dawns countless weddings take place and games are played, converting the city into a spectacle. This is the time when tray load of countless wheels in different colours are mixed with rose petals and scattered away playfully, “aao saathi bahaar phir aayi, holi mein kitni shadiyaan laayi jis taraf dekho marka sa hai, shahar hai ya koi tamaasha hai, thaal bhar bhar abeer latey hain gul ki patti mila udaate hain”.

The 12th century Sanskrit poet Jayadev who lived in Orissa had bewitched the entire country by the sensual relationship portrayed by him in his verses. In ‘Gita Govindam’, the song of Govinda, Jayadev had introduced erotica into the Holi celebrations in the Braj region of western UP.

Initially a festival celebrating the end of winter and the start of new beginnings Jayadeva gives birth to the idea of Radha the soul mate of Krishna, and the love games they play especially during Holi.

It is believed that Radha and Krishna had lived in Braj in two different villages. Krishna grew up in Brindavan and Radha in Barsana and as lovers they met on the banks of the River Jamuna. Although written originally in Sanskrit, the ‘Gita Govindam’ went on to inspire a host of literature on the love between Radha and Krishna and their frolics during Holi.

Later poets too played with popular beliefs that Krishna was a dark skinned boy whose charm was irresistible. Krishna fell in love with the fair skinned Radha.

One Holi, Krishna had asked Radha to apply any colour on his face. Radha chose to smear her love in the colour blue. In return Krishna had soaked Radha in all the colours of the rainbow.

Jayadev’s own life was full of devotion, love and romance. According to legend he married Padmavati, a temple dancer at the Puri Jagannath temple where the tradition of the devadasi dance continues.

For the poet his verses were his worship and the passion found in the verses of the ‘Gita Govindam’ caught the imagination of people. The poem had touched hearts. Within a few decades its message of love had spread to different parts of the country and it became part of the landscape of Brindavan in the Mathura region of western UP where Krishna spent his childhood.

Jayadev’s poem is a glowing example of how open society was at that time. The charm of a happy relationship between woman and man was ruined by Victorian values imposed upon Indian society in the 19th century by the British. Ever since society has been unable to shed off its bad habit of frowning upon citizens in love with each other.

Jayadev’s work had inspired citizens to celebrate the love between Radha and Krishna in verse written in different languages and in different dialects. In eastern UP a folk song has Radha pleading with Krishna to step aside from her path.

Radha is on her way home with a mud pot on her head that is filled with water, “jayat re mohanwa jayat re mohanwa pania bharan jait re mohanwa…”

In the 14th Century Amir Khusro, Persian poet had described in his mother tongue Khari Boli, “aaj rang hai hey ma rung hai ri… moray mehboob kay ghar rang hai ri… sajan milaavra, sajan milaavra, moray aangan ko… aaj rung hai… (how colourful, how radiant is the day of Holi... The colour is different in the home of my love who was discovered in the courtyard. How colourful, how radiant is the day of Holi).”

Amir Khusro was born in Patiyali, near Aligarh on the banks of the River Ganga. His mother was Indian and father a Turk. Khusro was tutored in Persian but he spoke the Khari Boli dialect taught to him by his mother. A great part of Khusro’s poetry is written in Khari Boli.

However, the 20th Century Lucknow poet Nazir Khayyami describes Holi and its message of togetherness best when he asks that faith be allowed to meet faith, knowledge be allowed to meet knowledge, human beings be allowed to meet human beings, Gita be allowed to meet the Quran, let there be no violence before the doors of temples and mosques, come play Holi with me: “iman ko iman se milao, Irfan ko Irfan se milao, insaan ko insaan se milao, Gita ko Quran se milao, dar-e-haram meiin ho na jung, holi khelo hamre sung”.