“We too, as generations before us have done in literature, compared the strange shape of the flower to a parrot’s beak, a tiger’s claw, a new moon”

Says Nina Bhatt, in this beautiful retelling of a spring afternoon spent in the canopy of the Flame of the Forest tree – the celebrated spring-maker, also known by a myriad other names, from palaash to dhak among many others.

It was when we were in college. An excited whisper from a classmate drew my attention, “Something I’d like you to see. Grab your bag, we’ll go by cycle.” No questions asked if there’s even a slim chance of bunking class. And never on a fine spring morning. In no time at all we were paddling at top speed away from our Art ‘Practicals.’

As soon as we rode into the Girl’s Hostel complex and clattered into its cycle stand, my friend threw her head up and spread her arms wide, “Here are all your trees, the ones you spoke of the other day!”

The ground was littered with flowers. A rangoli of tesu blossoms – that celebrated spring-maker, also known as the Flame of the Forest. Flickers and flags in every shade from saffron to white lay around us. Yellows, whose names we have never found in any paintbox. Not only gamboge, ochre, lemon, Indian yellow but other, unnamed hues. All these brilliant dyes powdered underfoot by the comings and goings of five hundred hostel girls.

The university where we studied and its many departments squat along the banks of the Vishwamitra river which itself slices through the heart of the city. These banks are thickly wooded and support a variety of flora and fauna. Among other trees are some rare, slow-growing natives. Among these, the broad-leaved kesuda (what we also refer to as tesu, palaash or dhak), so dear to our city and state.

You can see a path lined by trees on both sides, and on the ground, you can see yellow blossoms scattered about...
Photograph by Prerna Shah. A part of the road adjacent to the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) campus. The blossoms scattered on the roadside pavement are not palaash flowers though.

Not just in Vadodara, but also at the other extreme of the country, in West Bengal, the palaash has been a pet of other university towns such as Shantiniketan. Gathering its flowers for Holi celebrations came to be a very important tradition in that institution, in keeping with its ideals of reviving Indian art and aesthetics, of re-looking at the use of natural dyes.

As we collected flowers the pile grew to the size of an anthill. Then, as there was still a hint of winter chill in the air we also felt the need to toast our hands over that imaginary bonfire.

We too, as generations before us have done in literature, compared the strange shape of the flower to a parrot’s beak, a tiger’s claw, a new moon. But how soft the petals felt when we held them, even the leaves and seeds seemed warm to the touch as the fur of an animal does, the single seed a pod, long, and incredibly soft, like the ear of a little calf.

Unlike us, high in the canopy, the birds had eyes only for the nectar bearing hearts of the blossoms. The annual nectar festivals of the dhak attracts every kind of creature, but I love to pick out three mischievous mimics among them, the drongo, the tree pie and the leaf bird.

For a birder it is fascinating to listen to the leaf bird make drongo-like calls, which are again an imitation of the shikhra, a bird of prey. All this in a bid to scare other competitors and predators. A case of one thug borrowing the tricks of another to outwit a third!

My own theory, uncorroborated by science of course, is that the sweet drink loosens the tongue and makes these three scoundrels even more inventive, more raucous.

But the dhak seems to turn a blind eye to all this. It pretends to be a symbol of renunciation. It also prefers to give the saffron dye it yields that same connotation. This is the uniform that men and women of learning put on, as if to disassociate themselves from worldly ways, from the mundane pursuit of wealth and fame.

Standing a little askance, a little crooked, on the margins of towns, in scrub and in wasteland, the kesuda wears its wisdom very lightly. This in spite of the fact that without its official seal of lac wax confidential documents would fail the test of authenticity. Lac is a red resin produced by insects reared on the tree and harvested on an industrial scale. Every single part of the plant lends something to the field of herbal medicine, its gum, bark, root and seed, not just the flowers and leaves.

For us classmates, the trees certainly proved to be the best antidote to bookish learning. The more time we spent under the flame trees, the more distant and unimportant seemed Art School. There was just so much at hand to study and exclaim over. The size of the leaves for instance. Trifoliate, as the botanical term says, each twig bears three leaflets, round and wide and slightly heart shaped. The khakhro, as tribals refer to the tree, points to a large roasted roti, it also hints at the fact that the fresh leaves are stitched together to make eco-friendly recyclable dinner plates.

As the afternoon advanced, the glory of the flame thrower grew. The sun shone its own powerful torch on the petals and the topmost blossoms seemed to shimmer in the heat. We were a little worried our trees might start a forest fire. So strong is the tree’s affinity with open space and sunlight, that it is said to be an indicator of disturbed forests. But where nothing survives, the tesu not only thrives, it soon starts a little jungle of its own kind.

There were tesu trees everywhere we looked that day, carrying the flame and passing it on, across the landscape and down the generations.

Yet, how few and far between the faculty members of the college of butea have become. They are immeasurably slow to mature, unkept in appearance and unwilling be called mere shade-givers. Instead, they delight in shedding leaves at the height of summer. Sadly, the tesu is a social misfit and couldn’t care less. It has forsaken our cities and is fast abandoning even small towns. Can this be because it is a tree that speaks about creativity, about the slow rumination and assimilation of knowledge, as against speed?

If ancient palaash trees could talk they’d tell us about the battle of Plassey (from Palaash), they would enact better versions of the Ram-Lila having done cameos in both epics, Ramayana and Mahabharat. They would sing to us about old tribal civilizations.

Verses of a Gujarati garbo (a song sung during the nine nights of the folk festival celebrated in Gujarat) telling of Radha and Krishna’s matching orange outfits certainly owe their origin to the flower’s dye, so much so that both Krishna and the tree under which he played share the same name. Listen to any Hindi film song and it will bear echoes of the Sufi sentiment of being ‘dyed’ in the colours of one’s beloved.

The tree envelopes us in colour, making us party to its affair with vasant ritu. It draws us into the sphere of dance that some call the circle of life, and others, garbo:

Mara kesuda no rang che, kesariyo,

Mari chunari no rang che, kesariyo,

Mara kesuda no rang che, kesariyo!”

About the author: Nina Bhatt writes, paints, and makes leaf compost as garden produce from her home in Vadodara. Her poems can be found in Wasafiri, The Caravan, IQ, La.Lit, The Hopper, Hakara, Antiserious. You can also find her writings at https://hedgecaper.wordpress.com.

This piece first appeared in 2018 in Chakmak, a popular monthly magazine for children, and has been republished here with due permission. It is a part of our series celebrating trees, and welcoming the summer. Read more about it here, and you can also find out how you can contribute to the series.

The lead/main photograph is from a painting by Nina Bhatt, titled ‘Khakhra ni khiskoli’, a watercolour on paper. (Khakra – another name for the Flame of the Forest tree, and particularly the one that people in tribal regions use. Khiskoli is the Gujarati term for a squirrel.)

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Prerna Shah

Love conversations, anecdotes, stories, books and the little things in life. Always happy to hear how your day was, travel tales, what you ate for lunch, and what you are making for dinner, and who you met on the bus today!

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