Holi is a festival of colours and these colours have different shades that change with landscape, culture and ethnicity. This is what India is all about and the diversity of the country and its topography stands reflected in the manner in which the masses celebrate different festivals.

So while one often gets to hear the celebration of this festival of colours in different forms from places like Barsana, Mathura, Vrindavan, Awadh, the tribal districts like Dangs and Jhabua, and urban milieus of Mumbai, it is the hills of the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand that provide yet another tinge to the celebrations.

The unique aspect of the Holi celebration around Kumaon is the Holi baithaks where one gets to listen to thumris and other songs based on Indian classical ragas. And these baithaks continue over a span of almost three months. The baithaks start with the first Sunday of the Pausha month of the ethnic calendar and continue till the dawn of Dhulendi, the day on which people celebrate by applying ‘abeer’ and ‘gulaal’ on each other.

Holi baithaks have traditionally been an urban phenomenon where people after being through with their daily chores would assemble at someone’s house, and the singing would begin. The singing normally begins with one person starting a song and the others picking up one after the other. This continues for several hours.

“The most beautiful aspect of the Baithiki Holi is that these singers have no basic or formal training in classical music. It is something that they pick up first as listeners and then honing their skills. It is not that they learn singing after learning the finer aspects of classical music. It is the other way round where they pick up the finer nuances of music through singing,” explained Zahoor Alam of Yugmanch Nainital, a cultural institution that has played an important role in the revival of the traditional Kumaoni Holi over the last few days.

It is through this process that many people across Kumaon have become seasoned ‘Holiyars’ as these singers are called in these parts of the country. These Holiyars come from the common lot of shopkeepers, officials and other professionals including teachers. The instruments used for the rendition include harmonium, tabla, sitar and even violin. A unique instrument in the list is ‘lota’ played with a spoon.

The lure of the Baithaki Holi that this writer has witnessed senior officials even from places like Delhi taking special leave to go and sing in these baithaks. The range of thumris and other associated forms of singing is astounding.

This writer once witnessed a Sikh Holiyar from Kashipur rendering a Holi song in Pashto. To add to the spice of the baithaks is the liberal serving of dry potato and peas chaat along with gujiyas that make an appearance towards the Dhulendi.

Normally the verses that are rendered include works of Surdas, Meera, Kabir and Tulsi along with Charu Chandra Pandey and Maheshanand Gaur.

“In the earlier times the compositions sung till Shivratri were mainly spiritual in nature and thereafter the flavour would turn to romanticism,” narrated Zahoor.

There are different views on the genesis of the Baithaki Holi. Many people point out that it was in the middle of the 19th century that renowned singer and musician Ustad Amanullah Khan brought this art from Rampur to Almora.

They also state that a lady by the name of Rampyari had taken the legacy forward. Zahoor disclosed that the Baithaki Holi was a product of cultural exchanges between royalties of places like Rampur and the hills.

Maharaj Tribhuvan Giri of Hukka Club in Almora disclosed, “The Baithaki Holi was first introduced in palaces of kings and mansions. It was only later that it came out to temple premises and later to households.” Hukka Club is an institution that is more than 100 years old and has played a very important role in preserving the culture and heritage of Kumaon which also includes the traditional Ramlila that is still presented in verse with males continuing to play the role of the female characters.

Giri laments that the onslaught of technology in the form of smartphones has played a role in preventing the youth from participation in the Baithiki and other forms of traditional Holi. “Nobody has the patience to come and listen to semi classical singing. We have been trying our best to preserve and promote the traditional format but one cannot forcibly make anyone come, listen and learn the art of becoming a Holiyar. Besides, economic compulsions also prevent people from spending long hours at these baithaks,” he said.

But Nainital based Pradeep Pande who is a keen observer of developments in the hills feels that the traditional Holi has seen a revival in urban pockets of Kumaon over the last few years. “There was a time when traditional Holi celebrations were lost to hooliganism and vulgarity. But then things have taken a turn probably because the urban middle class looking for a cultural identity worked for the revival.

“As the middle class grew the question that it was faced with was that where is my identity? It is here that Baithaki Holi emerged as a tool. At a time when television and politicians have been dishing out a daily dose of hate, traditional Holi celebrations have helped bring people together.”

People’s poet Girish Tiwari had given a new dimension to the traditional Holi celebrations when he came up with satirical renditions at the baithaks. Girda as he was popularly addressed used to talk about even international issues like the United States’ war on Iraq in his renditions.

While Baithaki Holi has dotted the urban landscape of Kumaon and has earned the name of Nagari (urban) Holi, it has its counter in Khari Holi in the rural areas. Thi involves both singing and dancing. Organisations like the Yugmanch and Hukka Club have been organising this form of Holi in the towns like Nainital and Almora which is known as the cultural capital of Kumaon.

Then there is the third dimension of Holi in the region which is known as Mahila Holi where Swaang is an integral part. Swaang involves women enacting skits in local dialect while playing the characters ranging from politicians to bureaucrats to people from other walks of life to hit out at the social ills through satirical presentations. Swaang is also popular in the plains of the Terai region of Uttarakhand as well as the plains of Uttar Pradesh.

But it is the Baithaki and Khari Holi that are organic to the hills of Kumaon.