Palash: the Flame of the Forest flower

‘Palash’ has many names in many languages. It’s a very popular, loved and revered flower which sets forests on fire during late February and March in India. It is also known as the ‘flame of the forest’ or ‘parrot tree’ in English, ‘tesu’ ‘dhak’ and ‘parasu’ in some Indian languages. It mainly blossoms in the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia. It’s botanical name is Butea monosperma. It’s timber is apparently used for making spoons and ladles for some Hindu rituals, the gum from the tree also has multiple uses, the entire tree is beneficial. Palash is also the state flower of Jharkhand – did you know each Indian state has it’s own bird, animal, tree and flower symbolising that region? What a lovely idea!

It’s believed to have been immortalised by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and if you visit Santiniketan, then you will be blown away by its stunning grace and splendour. The Holi festival (written about in the previous blog post) was celebrated in Santiniketan by its students and faculty using colours extracted from the dried Palash flowers. This practice has been banned in recent years keeping in mind the importance of conservation of these trees and flowers. Else, the Holi in Santiniketan, known as ‘Dol Utsav’ or ‘Vasanta Utsav’ was unimaginable without Palash.

Some songs written and composed by Tagore where his love for Palash comes through are:

‘Khol Dwar Khol’ – https://geetabitan.com/lyrics/O/ore-grihobasi-khol-daar-lyric.html

‘Ektuku Choan Laage’ https://geetabitan.com/lyrics/E/ektuku-chhnoa-laage-lyric.html

‘Ogo Bodhu Sundori’https://geetabitan.com/lyrics/O/ogo-bodhu-sundori-lyric.html

‘Aakash amar bhorlo aloye’ https://geetabitan.com/lyrics/A/aakash-aamay-bhorlo-aaloy-lyric.html

I have tried to source these songs rendered by eminent Rabindrasangeet exponents who are no longer with us but immortalised through their melodious voices.

Below are two paintings by two stalwarts of the Bengal School of Art, Benodebihari Mukherjee and Ram Kinkar Baij respectively. So enamoured by the Palash that Tagore was, that it’s presence must have rubbed off on these artists too!

Abundance of Palash trees lent their name to a place called Palashi in Murshidabad royal state. It was pronounced by the British as Plassey which witnessed the brutal bloodbath during the Battle of Plassey in 1757 when Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, with a large army and help from the French forces lost independence to the small British force of 3000 led by Robert Clive. This Battle changed the fate of the Indian subcontinent and we are still reeling under its devastating impact. One wonders if Tagore found more than an artistic symbolism to the flower ‘Palash’ when he fell in love with it!

In this video, my mother is singing the Rabindrasangeet by her Guru Suchitra Mitra, the one sung by her is in this link: ‘Tumi je amare chao, ami se jaani’ https://geetabitan.com/lyrics/T/tumi-je-aamare-chao-lyric.html

Succumbing to the allure of this enigmatic flower, I decided to collect them and try dyeing fabric with their extract. Early mornings, my mother and I would set out to gather them from the ground and tried out dyeing from whatever I knew about dyeing fabric. Due to the lockdown, it was difficult to get much practical information and basic chemicals for fastening the colour but I made a small attempt as seen in the video below. The colour might not last on the fabric but the whole process was exhilarating!

The painting and song references with Palash have been provided by my parents, Syamali and Asok Das. The sari that I have dyed is a white cotton handloom sari which was purchased for my grandmother but she left us before wearing it. She would have had no objection to it being coloured into the organic, sustainable, bright ‘gerua’ (saffron).

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