The Rachel Papers

April Is Not the Cruellest Month

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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Spring is also a season of love and romance amid the blooming flowers

THE SPRING EQUINOX seems a more logical time to begin the New Year than January 1st. Indeed the New Year in England was March 25th (Lady Day or the Feast of the Annunciation) from 1155 to 1752 when the Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750 brought in the Gregorian calendar in line with the rest of Europe. The only vestige in Britain is our tax year which starts on April 6th, which is Lady Day in the Julian calendar, lagging 11 days behind the Gregorian. Perhaps we could suggest, if Brexit ever happens, that we revert to the old calendar and start celebrating New Year in spring.

Many other traditions have their New Year in March: the Iranian calendar marks Nowruz usually on March 21st while some Indian calendars have their New Year in spring (Ugadi, Gudi Padwa, Poila Boishakh), others in autumn (Nav Varsh).

However, Easter is the major spring festival in the West, one of the most moveable of feasts, coming on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox, the latter also being a marker for Passover. The Orthodox Church celebrates it a week later this year as it follows the Julian calendar.

Easter follows the 40 days of Lent which are traditional fasting days, but now post-Christmas guilt is a secular fast and Easter is the time for eating Hot Cross Buns, Simnel cake and chocolate while also celebrating the peculiar biology of the Easter Bunny bringing eggs.

Even during Lent the festivals continue, with St Patrick’s Day (March 17th) now a major international event, not least due to the massive Irish diaspora and an international fondness for Guinness and the charm of the Irish.

Whatever the festival, spring is the time of newness and birth. For those of us in more northerly regions, the days are noticeably longer and it’s a great pleasure to get up when it’s light and leave work before it is dark. The spring bulbs replace the snowdrops and the crocuses, and daffodils, though ubiquitous, never fail to delight. The flowering trees, cherries, magnolias and camellias put on their magnificent displays. The weather is wildly unstable with sunshine and hail in a day, snow or summer temperatures, rain and sunshine at the same time, and plenty of wind.

It’s time to eat my favourite fruit—though it’s really a vegetable stalk growing out of a rhizome—rhubarb. The forced rhubarb, grown in the dark, is bright pink and tender. There is a famous ‘rhubarb triangle’, a cluster of forcing sheds in Yorkshire, between Wakefield, Rothwell and Morley, where the rhubarb is traditionally harvested by candlelight. Rhubarb crumble, rhubarb pie, steamed rhubarb pudding (aka pig’s bum), rhubarb fool, rhubarb and orange, rhubarb and stem ginger; with cream, custard or yoghurt. And if that’s not enough, Khoresh Rivas, Persian rhubarb stew.

There are other passions too in spring: I enjoy spring cleaning as the light shows up dust and cobwebs. Never mind Marie Kondo, when you have as much stuff in the house as I do, it’s an endless task to keep it in order.

The most famous passion of all is romance. Spring fever, the mating season, rising sap, the time for love and romance amid the blooming flowers. However, the season is sad if lovers are separated; so in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98 ‘From you have I been absent in the spring’, the lover cannot appreciate the beauty of spring in the absence of the beloved: ‘When proud-pied April, dress’d in all his trim/ Hath put a spirit of youth in everything.’

Spring is a time of renewal and associated with pagan rites, most famously in Stravinsky’s masterpiece, The Rite of Spring, written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, choreographed by Nijinsky with costumes and sets designed by the great Russian folk expert and artist Nicholas Roerich. (Roerich lived in India during World War II and his son married Devika Rani, filmstar and founder of Bombay Talkies.)

The fear of renewal and its association with pain is seen famously in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, ‘April is the cruellest month’, and Philp Larkin saying of the trees, ‘Their greenness is a kind of grief’.

I much prefer the optimism, fun and spirit of adventure of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where people welcome spring as a happy time and go on holiday in the guise of going on pilgrimage:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote/The droghte of March hath perced to the roote/And bathed every veyne in swich licour,/Of which vertu engendred is the flour;/Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth/Inspired hath in every holt and heath/The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne/Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,/And smale foweles maken melodye,/That slepen al the nyght with open eye-/(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages); /Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages/And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes/To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;/And specially from every shires ende/Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,/The hooly blissful martir for to seke/ That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

Although we often think of the monsoon as the romantic season, Sanskrit traditions in much of India also have poems of spring—Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara, Collection of the Seasons, ends with Vasanta, Spring himself as the God of Love, having a bow of kimshuka flowers, strung with bees, firing arrows of mango blossom into tender hearts.

The season of Vasanta is celebrated as Basant even today. This happens especially in North India and across Punjab, when colour is celebrated, yellow being seen everywhere not least in the famous mustard fields, as in films from Mehboob Khan’s 1952 film Aan (‘Aaj mere man mein’ goes the song as Nimmi rides her horse singing of love), to Manoj Kumar’s Upkar (1967), to the most famous romantic location of Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), where the father dreams of the mustard fields of home from a grey Trafalgar Square while his daughter romances her beloved once the family returns to Punjab.

While Basant is one of the names of spring, bahaar is the usual word in Hindi and Urdu. Nigar Sultana plays the wicked Bahar (‘Springtime’) in K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960) who, seeking to be the empress herself, seeks the downfall of Anarkali (‘Pomegranate Blossom’). Bahar was called Dilaram in Imtiaz Ali Taj’s play (1922) on which the film is based, so the significance of her name as the one who brings winter to the court is striking.

There are so many songs of spring in Hindi cinema that it’s hard to choose 10, and my criteria are my own—some reference to spring in the lyrics and/or in the visuals of the song. In chronological order they are:

1) ‘Basant ritu aayi aali phooli khili daali daali’ from Nitin Bose’s Chandidas (1934): A beautiful old song from one of the early films to challenge caste.

2) ‘Saanwale salone aaye din bahaar ke’ from BR Chopra’s Ek Hi Rasta (1956): One of the happiest songs, a charming duet between Lata’s Meena Kumari and Hemant’s Sunil Dutt on a cycle with their son in a basket over the front wheel.

3) ‘Dil tadap tadap ke’ from Bimal Roy’s Madhumati (1958): Shot in the forest, the longing between the young couple in a song of perfect freshness and spring, though the season is mentioned only once, ‘Tu nahin to yeh bahar kya bahaar hai? Gul nahin khile to tera intezar hai.’

4) ‘Dekho mausam kya bahaar hai’ from PL Santoshi’s Opera House (1961): Not really much about spring but a delightful song about romance and the feeling of spring.

5) ‘Aaja aayi bahaar’ from K Shankar’s Rajkumar (1964): Possibly the greatest picturisation as well as a brilliant song, as Sadhana (Lata singing) and her friends dance on huge water lilies and frolic in waterfalls while Shammi Kapoor and Rajendra Nath snorkel around them.

6) ‘Din hai bahaar hai’ from Yash Chopra’s Waqt (1965): The song doesn’t seem to show spring as it’s set on Nainital Lake but Shashi Kapoor (Mahendra Kapoor) in his cashmere sweater and Sharmila Tagore (Asha Bhosle) in a pink lace- trimmed outfit and sing this lovely song while their friends dance rock-and-roll on a floating pontoon.

7) ‘Aayi jhoomke basant’ from Manoj Kumar’s Upkar (1967): Sung by Asha Bhosle, Shamshad Begum and Manna Dey (Manoj Kumar), praising the yellow mustard flowers of spring before moving to a mela.

8) ‘Baagon mein bahaar hai’ from Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana (1969): Rajesh Khanna (Mohammed Rafi) teases Farida Jalal (Lata Mangeshkar), trying to trick her into saying she loves him by asking her questions about the spring. Charming.

9) ‘Yeh kahaan aa gaye hum’ from Yash Chopra’s Silsila (1981): Shot in the famous Keukenhof Gardens in Holland, the flowers show it’s spring although the lyrics don’t mention it. Amitabh recites poetry while Lata sings for Rekha.

10) ‘Jashn-e-bahaara’ from Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008): The song (sung by Javed Ali) seems to be sung by Akbar (Hrithik) as he sees Jodhaa (Aishwarya) and her friends dressed in the colours of spring, green and yellow. It is a sweet but sad song, saying that love is surprised by the nature of spring as it sees fragrance hiding from the flowers and the hidden sorrow in the veil of the wind.