The Music of Holi - Ragas, Thumris and Dhamaars

Holi is a very old festival. The first mention of Holi in literature comes from Kalidas' poem Kumarasambhava and his play Malvikagnimitram, dated between 4th and 5th centuries CE. Personally holi is one of the two most memorable festivals that we celebrated when I grew up in Delhi (the other own being Diwali). Holi marks the end of winter and beginning of the spring season in India and often turns into a mad playful celebration of color and love. It is a celebration that includes playing with water and color with everyone, whether it is a friend or stranger, rich or poor, man or woman.   Truth be said I didn't like being all drenched in water and colors on holi.  But on the occasions and gave in to the celebrations I fondly remember. Especially a holi we celebrated in Ajmer which involved being drenched in water filled with flowers. 

This season I hear the raags and compositions of Holi.  Every year at Holi I come back to some of these raags and bandishes. Here are some of my favorite ones: 

Raags and Songs of Holi

Of the raags that are played most often at holi, my favorite are Raag Kafi and Raag Pilu. Additionally Raag Pahadi, Maand, Des, Khamaj, Gara, Bhairavi and Tilang are also often played. Among Sikhmat raags there are Raags Maajh and Asa that are also sung in addition to the ones above.  I would add Raag Hindol and Basant to this list although some of these compositions can be in the more serious category. 

Of special mention are Hori thumris, semi-classical songs based on holi often exploring flirtation, love, jealousy and romance. Taal Deepchandi and dadra are often preferred, but several other taals are also used in these holi songs. While these are all playful songs, they are at the same time very metaphorical and spiritual. 

Udat Abeer Gulaal

Artist: Savita Devi
Raga Kafi, Taal Deepchandi

The lyrics describe the red color of Abeer/Gulaal (abeer is what gulaal is called in Bengali and Odiya) flying around. The red color flying around turns everything red from the sky to the yamuna to Krishna's white pearls and even the dark colored Krishna himself.  This is a beautiful song of oneness where everything turns red: there are no perceived differences and everything is covered in one shade.

Laali chhayi re
Udat abeer gulaal 

Laal bhaya amber laal bhayi jamuna
laal gaaye gopaal

Mor chandrika laal bhayo re
murli laal vishaal

Laal shyam laal bhayi radhe
laal laal brijbaal

Udat abeer gulaal 

Gulaal is flying in the air
Redness has spread around

The sky has become red, Jamuna has turned red
The cows and the cowherd is red

The peacock is red, the moonlight is red
The massive flute is red

Krishna red, Radha red
all the kids of Braj are red

Gulaal is flying in the air

Hear the beauty at 4:53-4:58.  It reminds me of Guru Ramdas' shabad Sai Hathaan Vich Gulaal.  We can't even hold color on land and you make plants colorful under water; amazing is your color scheme! Also reminds me of Kabir's doha: 

Laali mere laal ki, jit dekhoon tit laal
Laali dekhan main gayi, main bhi ho gayi laal 

Look at the color of my love, everywhere I see its red
I went to see the redness, and myself became red

If you seek love, you become love!

Aisi Holi Na Khelo by Girija Devi

Raag Pilu, Taal Dadra

Raag Pilu or Peelu originates from the word peela or yellow. I wonder if its the same root as the word "pale" which is off-white.  It reminds me of genda phool - the yellow flowers that are used in playing Holi.  In this playful song Radha says don't play with in such a way. You have drenched my whole saari with your water gun.

Aisi Holi Na Khelo Kanhai 

Bhari pichkari more mukh par maarat
bheej gayi saari saari

Tan man rang sab shyaam tum jaanat
jaa jaa banwaari 

Don't play such a Holi dear kanhai

You hit on my face with a full water gun
my whole saari is drenched

You have colored my body and mind
Go away go away banwaari!

That last line reminds me of Guru Arjan Dev's Laal Cholana Tai Tan Soheyaa

Akhiyaan Na Daro Ji Gulaal

Shobha Gurtu
Raag Maand

In this hori Radha complains Krishna of putting gulaal in her eyes and playing all kinds of games with her. 

Akhiyaan Na Daaro Ji Gulaal

Akhiyaan Bachaa-oon to 
bahiyaan gehat ho
bahiyaan bachaa-oon to
choliyaan takat ho
main jaan gayi tori chaal

Don't put gulaal in my eyes

If I try to save my eyes
you get my arms
If I try to save my arms
you get my clothes
Now I know your motives

Don't put gulaal in my eyes

Kaisi Yeh Dhoom Machaayi

Begum Akhtar’s famous Hori in raga Zila Kaafi, Kaisi Yeh Dhoom Machaayi, Kanhaiyya, has Radha (or maybe a Gopika) addressing Krishna, describing his Holi revelries.

A longer & live version of the same Hori, with an introduction of Begum Akhtar by Pt Jasraj.

A similar Hori in raga Zila Kafi rendered as a duet by Pta Girija Devi and Ustaad Amjad Ali Khan (on Sarod).

3. Krishna approaching Radha
A personal favorite is this Hori by one of the stalwarts of the Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana, Surashree Kesarbai Kerkar’s elaboration in raga Khamaaj. Aaye Shyam Mose Khelan Holi, where Radha talks about Krishna approaching her to play Holi with a Pichkari.

4. Radha wants to go to Krishna’s Home
Begum Akhtar’s Hori Khelan Kaise Jaun based on Raga Piloo has Radha wondering to a friend if it would be appropriate for her to join the Holi with Krishna.

Pta Shobha Gurtu has a different version of this Hori.

In Pta Shubha Mudgal’s Hori, Kanhaiya Ghar Chalo Mori Guiyaan, Radha tells her friend, let’s go to Krishna’s house to play Holi.

5. Radha plays Holi with Krishna
Pt Chhannulal Mishra of the Banaras Gharana sings Rang Daarungi Daarungi Nanda Ke Laalane Pe, describes Radha’s excited participation, challenging Krishna in the Holi revelries.

The same Hori rendered by Malini Awasthi

6. Radha is soaked in Color
Pta Shobha Gurtu sings this lovely Hori based on Raga Pahadi, Rangi Saari Gulabi Chunariya Re, where Radha describes herself being colored pink and is wary of being eyed by Krishna for more.

The amazingly talented, Kaushiki Chakraborty, also has a beautiful rendition of this piece, on the same Raga but with a completely different flavor.

Malini Awasthi’s version is folksy.

Shujaat Khan accompanies his own rendition of the piece on sitar in this live recording.

7. Radha Krishna Play Holi
Pt Ajoy Chakraborty sings his guru, Pt Gyan Prakash Ghosh’s bilingual composition based on raga Khamaaj. Saari Daar Gaye Mo Pe Rang Ki Gaagar, where Radha-Krishna’s mutual play with colors continues. Unfortunately, the recording ends a bit abruptly.

And the Bengali version, Keno Bhijaale Ronge, of the same Hori.

8. Radha Pleads Not to Color Anymore
Radha has had enough now and pleads with Krishna to not spray color on her any more!

This melodious Hori by Mehboobjan of Solapur was recorded in 1936. Na Maaro Pichkaari, Gopal is based on raga Khamaaj. Radha has had enough and pleads with Krishna to not spray color on her anymore.

Pta Siddheshwari Devi sings on a similar theme, Jee Na Maaro Pichkari Rang Ki.

And so does Pt Kumar Gandharva, but with very different lyrics and melodic structure in raga Bhairavi, Na Maro Bhar Pichkari.

9. Mohan Plays Holi
The late Pta Veena Sahasrabuddhe of the Gwalior Gharana has an electrifying Hori in raga Adana, Hori Hori Hori Khelat Nandalal.

Mewati Gharana’s Pt Sanjeev Abhyankar, possibly Pt Jasraj’s most famous disciple, sings another descriptive Hori based on Raga Tilang, Mohan Khelat Hori.

10. Hardcore Classical Hori Thumris
Ustaad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib, a doyen of the Patiala Gharana was as brilliant with his Thumris including Hori Thumris as with his Khayals. Listen to his amazing meandering taans in this brilliant Hori in Raga Des, Hori Khelan Jaaun.

Pt Bhimsen Joshi of the Kirana Gharana is known to everyone with the slightest familiarity with Hindustani classical music. His Hori Khelat Nandakumar is based on Raga Kaafi.

Bonus: Different Types of Hori Singing
Pt Chhanulal Mishra demonstrates different kinds of Horis in this video

There are many many more lovely Horis, but one can only list a few. Many aren’t even available on YouTube.

Listen to Pt Chhanulal Mishra sing Khele Mashane Mein Holi Digambar – Shiv ki Hori 

Tell us about your favorite  Hori Thumirs or renditions in the comments.

If you like this collection of Hori Thumris, please share them with your friends & family.


Raag Pilu

Raag Kafi

Begin forwarded message:

From: Preet 
Date: February 28, 2010 9:08:18 PM PST
To: Shivpreet 
Subject: Holi 'Ragas'

In the early days of the Indian republic, the end of February and beginning of March would usher the humming of Kaafi (also Kafi) and Piloo (also Pilu) on the radio, in the temples, in parks and auditoriums. For as long as one can remember, the two ragas have been associated with the singing of perennially magical Holi songs, which celebrate the romance of the impish god Krishna and his beautiful consort Radha. Some musical experts would throw in a dash of Raag Tilang to decorate the songs but generally, as a rule, no other melody would be tapped for this very exclusively traditional moment.

preet mohan

Holi Ragas

These four Hindustani ragas carry with them the whiff of spring. Though they are sung throughout the year, compositions set in these ragas often describe the onset of this much-awaited season. More fundamentally, the movement of the ragas themselves – their characteristic phrases and the way these are linked to each other as the raga unfolds – are also thought to melodically evoke images of freshness, colour and joy, all characteristics of spring.

The artistes in this selection are all khayal singers, not practitioners of dhrupad, the other north Indian classical idiom. The list consists of two men and two women, two contemporary singers and two who are no longer living.

Raga Alhaiya Bilawal
Vidushi Kishori Amonkar (born 1931)

The contemporary queen of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, the Mumbai-based Kishori Amonkar studied under her mother Mogubai Kurdikar, who in turn had learnt form the founder of the gharana, Ustad Alladiya Khan. In this clip, Amonkar sings a traditional composition of her gharana, Kavan Batariya.

Raga Bahar
Pandit Gajananbuwa Joshi (1911-1987)

Gajananbuwa Joshi is a giant who deserves to be much more widely heard and known. He not only imbibed the best of three great gharanas, but passed his knowledge on to numerous students, including top contemporary singers Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar and Vidushi Padma Talwalkar.

Joshi first learnt from his father Anant Manohar Joshi, a khayaliya who sang in the Gwalior style, going on to learn from Ustad Vilayat Hussein Khan of the Agra gharana and Ustad Bhurji Khan from the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana. Joshi was also an excellent violinist and could play the tabla to a high degree of proficiency.

Raga Basant
Ustad Abdul Karim Khan (1872-1937)

Ustad Abdul Karim Khan was the founder of the Kirana gharana. He was born in Kairana village, after which the gharana takes its name and which is located in Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh.

He borrowed from Carnatic music the practice of singing sargams, or improvisatory combinations of notes sung within a rhythmic cycle by enunciating the names of the notes. He was influenced by musicians of the south Indian classical form whom he heard when he visited the Mysore court, to which he was regularly invited.

On the way to Mysore from Baroda, where he was based for a time, he often dropped in on his brother in Dharwad. There he began teaching Sawai Gandharva, who became his most famous student and went on to teach a whole generation of singers, such as the late Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and late Vidushi Gangubai Hangal.

Raga Hindol
Noopur Kashid (born 1992)

A contemporary artiste at the other end of the age spectrum from Kishori Amonkar, Kashid, who is in her early 20s, learnt from Madhukar Joshi, the son of Gajananbuwa Joshi, the great singer and violinist who is featured in the first clip singing Raga Bahar. Based in Thane, Kashid has also trained under various experts of natya sangeet, a genre of semi-classical songs that carry the narrative in Marathi sangeet nataks, the rough equivalents of musicals or operas.

Raag Basant Hindol

Holi and Hindustani Classical Music

Written by Chaitra Sontakke on 10 March 2020

Spring arrives and in its wake brings Holi - the festival of riotous colours, food and music. Indian tradition has music at the epicentre of all its traditions and festivals - from Kirtans sung in temples or Bhajans at gatherings - the colours of music are spread across every aspect of life. Holi is no exception - and in parts of India - it is nearly a month long celebration beginning with Vasant Panchami (onset of spring) and ending with Baisakhi. 

Hindustani Classical Music and the Bhakti Tradition

While all festivals in India are traditionally celebrated with music, Holi and Hindustani Classical music have always shared a special connection. The presence of classical music in the temples of Northern India can be traced back to the Bhakti movement that reached its peak during the 15th to 17th century AD. Even now, the temples of Braja tradition in Northern India perform their everyday ritual worship (Pooja Vidhi) with Kirtans. These Kirtans are sung in the Dhrupad style with compositions in different Ragas. These compositions typically weave stories of the Lord Krishna and his consort Radha as they frolic and play with the Gopis (milkmaids) in Vrindavan (the birthplace of Krishna). 

Holi in Dhamar, Thumri and Khayal singing

Dhamar is a style allied to Dhrupad in Hindustani Classical music. Dhamar compositions written in Brijbhasha (the Brij language) are set to a 14 beat cycle (Taal), also called Dhamar. The composition begins in a slow rhythm and then picks up pace as the singer doubles, quadruples the speed. 

Here’s a Dhrupad-Dhamar depicting Holi ‘Chori Chori Maarata  Kumkuma’ in Raga Kedar and Dhamar Taal followed by a faster composition in Sooltal by Pandit Uday Bhawalkar

Music is such a central part of the celebration of Holi, that it has inspired an entire subgenre in folk and light classical - Hori (the rural spin on the word that denotes the festival itself). 

There are folk styles which have evolved in the same region of Braj. These forms have evolved into Thumri which is a lighter form of Hindustani classical music. This form is lighter in terms of the flexibility allowed in the Raga structures, though this form demands immense vocal skills and dexterity in voice. Thumri includes other forms like Dadra, Hori, Kajri, Chaiti and Jhoola - each depicting a variety of themes. Hori is a form which describes Holi played by Krishna, the lyrical content of Hori is similar to Dhamar and the musical form is allied to the Khayal form. 

Listen to this beautiful rendition of the Hori by Shuba Mudgal ‘Kanhaiya Ghar Chalo Mori’ in her powerful voice.

Common Ragas and Taals in Hori

The Raga commonly used for Hori or Khayal with descriptions of Holi is Kafi. Thumris are also composed in other Ragas like Khamaj, Des, Pilu, Pahadi, Bhairavi and Tilang. 

Shobha Gurtu, often known as the Thumri Queen, has popularised this Thumri - “Aaj Biraj Mein Holi Re Rasiya Rasiya” sung in her husky yet melodious voice.

A Hori composition would be set in the beat cycles (Taals) that are also used in the Thumri style. These are Deepchandi, varieties in Keherwa, Dadra, and Addha. Deepchandi, like Dhamar, is also a 14 beat Taal. 

Listen to Girija Devi , of  Seniya and Banaras Gharana fame singing Aisi Hori Na Khelo (Raag Piloo Hori) in her ethereal voice. Girija Devi’s disciple Malini Awasthi has been instrumental in popularising folk music in India. She’s a  torch bearer for continuing the rich tradition of Holi songs.

Holi and Bollywood

Of course, no discussion of music in India is complete without Bollywood which has borrowed heavily from both classical and folk songs to bring songs of Holi to the masses. 

Here’s a Thumri - Baat Chalat Nayi Chunari Rang Daali - from the movie Ladki (1958) originally sung by the versatile Geeta Dutt. Our student Anupama Roy presents it beautifully here

The popular “Rang Barse” sung throughout India during Holi was also inspired by a Meera Bhajan. The poet Harivansh Rai Bachcchan penned the lyrics which have since then been popularised by the movie Silsila. 

So this Holi, play with colours, feast on sweets, and dance to the rhythm of the myriad tunes of India.