Thursday, April 7, 2011

Holi Mesquite Drum

Taking your eyes off the road while driving in Delhi is a dangerous thing, but if you did take the chance and looked around a bit, the odds are you would see a mesquite tree somewhere close by. (For those of us not from Delhi, mesquite trees are the ones with the twisted branches and long thorns. For those of us from Mumbai, trees are tall wooden things with green leaves.)

The mesquite (vilaiti keekar in Hindi and Prosopis juliflora in Botany) is a very hardy tree. History tells us when forest officials were tearing their hair out trying to find a species that would grow in Delhi’s arid conditions, the Central American mesquite happily obliged. It’s not a fussy tree at all – a little soil (even a thin layer will do) and a few drops of water occasionally, and that’s all the mesquite needs to lead a happy and fulfilled life.

‘Simple living, high thinking’ would pretty well sum up the mesquite if you’re a Gandhian; or you could say ‘excellent ROI’ if you’re a manager. Basically, it’s a survivor, and quite good at it. The problem is, it doesn’t know when to stop.

A couple of years ago, the Bharatpur bird sanctuary had to spend a lot of money chopping down hundreds of Prosopis juliflora trees because they had simply out-competed all other species and had pretty much taken over the entire sanctuary.

So, what does the vilaiti keekar have to do with celebrating desi Holi?

A few of us went Holi-hopping this Holi. It’s a nice thing to do if you have an open jeep and a strong liver. Not having either, we still infested several bashes – eating lots of sweets, drinking by the barful, getting thrown into tubs of colour and dancing to the beats of the dhol before moving on like a gang of marauding locusts.

We were well into our fourth maraudment when it suddenly struck us that we hadn’t yet sung Rang barse even once! The first place had had no music, the other three had had dhol players banging out the bhangra beat. Till a couple of years ago, the done thing on Holi was to get soaked and sozzled and then sing songs while the sun dried the clothes on your back and caked the colours on your face. But of late, the dhol is becoming more popular.

Like the mesquite, the dhol is an unfussy thing. You don’t have to spend years under the tutelage of an accomplished guru to learn how to play it. A single dhol can replace an entire band. You don’t have to book a dhol player in advance – one will come wandering along at the right moment with unerring instinct, and a hundred-rupee tip will keep him going till you drop. And there’s no hassle about choice of music; in Delhi, the dhol works whether you’re eight or eighty.

And so the dhol is marching. From baraats it has moved into birthdays and Lorhi bonfires, and is now annexing other occasions like India-wins-match, ladies sangeet and Holi.

Like the mesquite, the dhol is not blame. It’s just a simple music instrument with a pleasing and energizing sound and intends no evil. The problem is that other stuff is getting killed off. Like ‘Rang barse’ and ‘Aaj na chhodenge’ on Holi, and ‘Yeh desh hai veer jawaanon ka’ in baraats. And the question is how far will it spread? Will it conquer the Goa carnival? Will it oust the chenda drums in Kerala? Will it find a place in the Army's marching bands?

And is there anything wrong if it does? After all, survival of the fittest is Nature’s way. Think about it.

I, for one, like variety. And the sense of occasion that comes with doing specific things on special days, like singing Christmas carols on Christmas. One-beat-fits-all doesn’t really cut it for me. So the next time you see someone hiring a dhol player for a party, could you please hit him on the head with a stout branch of Prosopis juliflora?


  1. Please leave a comment if you like the piece - it's very encouraging.

  2. HEy! The dhol infested the Sula wine fest at NAshik too. HEre we were all listening to bands like Something relevant and Sha'ir and funk etc doing their thing and sipping our wines, when the dhols came out. In a second the amphitheatre was crowded with EVERYONE and their plastic wine glasses jumping and dancing and finally letting on how drunk they really were. But had to be said the dhol was the icing on the cake or the champagne rather that day :)

    So though I agree with you on specific things for special days, what can you do? Maybe a dhol beat for 'deck the halls?"

  3. There's lots to be said for the dhol - lively, energising etc. Good for a change. It's just that when you live in Delhi, you get to hear it a lot more; and other music a lot less. Sheela, Munni and the dhol seem to have got the party music scene pretty well stitched up.

  4. music has always been better in B'lore, Bombay and even Hyderabad! delhiites can't look beyond popular bollywood numbers which is usually punjabi!

  5. Loved the dhol and vilaiti keekar analogy. Drives your point home so well.