Riot of color
By Vivek Prakash
It’s one of those things that you just have to do. Ever since I moved to India, I’ve always wanted to photograph Holi celebrations in north India. As a kid growing up here, I played with colored powders and water in the streets with my friends. As an adult, I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to return with my camera. I had been looking forward to this assignment. I was expecting a riot of a different kind, a riot of color and noise – and that’s exactly what I got.
Holi is celebrated widely across India, but it is more popular in the north of the country. The epicenter of all the action is in a triangle of villages around the city of Mathura – the fun begins at Barsana, then moves to Nandgaon, Vrindavan, and Dauji before finally finishing a week of rolling celebrations in the region where the Hindu god Krishna and his consort Radha are thought to have been born and lived. It’s a festival that celebrates the arrival of spring, but in this region it also has special significance as it celebrates the story of Radha and Krishna and their love for each other. The enthusiasm of the people is unmatched – the energy combined with sheer numbers make for fantastic scenes drenched in water and color. It makes for delicious pictures. But I have to admit, after having covered it for the first time, it’s harder than it looks to get a great picture. Keeping your equipment dry and operational is a big challenge.
On my first day of coverage, I arrived at the village of Barsana early in the morning and headed straight for the main temple where celebrations would take place. I was at first disappointed as the morning session at the temple was a bit subdued. However, by the time the temple re-opened at 4pm it was a different story. There were thousands of people waiting to storm the entry doors. Inside, a sea of bodies heaved against each other, amid projectiles of colored powder and buckets of orange colored water being flung everywhere. It was hard to hold your position steady enough to shoot pictures, let alone compose something nice. At one point, there was so much powder that photographers were completely caked in it – nostrils and lungs were full of red dust. I wished I had brought a surgical mask instead of a scarf to shield myself.
In an odd tradition, as soon as the fun at the temple is over, people head out into the street for “Lathmar Holi”, in which men from the neighboring village of Nandgaon sing provocative (and sometimes really lewd) songs at women, who then use huge wooden sticks to “beat” the men as they crouch on the ground while holding a shield. I thought it would be just a little bit of fun, but the women really do go for it and I would not want to be caught under one of those sticks! This scene repeats itself the next day in the village of Nandgaon, where there is another huge temple rush – albeit a bit easier to manage as there’s space to move around at that temple. Then it’s the men from Barsana’s turn to be beaten by the women of Nandgaon.
In Vrindavan, the Bankey Bihari temple is tucked away in a small meandering alley. The crowd is unbelievable – the streets are jam packed with revelers headed there, the queues to get in are extremely long, and there is no space to move inside. Devotees constantly smash into each other and push and shove as they make their way to the front of the temple to get a glimpse of the resident deity, all the while shouting slogans and under clouds of flying powder and under torrents of water.
At a shelter for widows who have been abandoned by their families, I was lucky to experience one of the happiest things I’ve ever witnessed. The widows, who traditionally would have shunned celebrations of any kind for fear of social reprisals, threw flowers into the air as they celebrated holi for the first time. Women were crying tears of joy, laughing and singing. I felt moved enough to put down my camera and just take in the bliss for a couple of minutes.
After discussing our coverage with my Chief, Ahmad Masood, we also decided that although the temple scenes are spectacular, they present a problem because day after day, the pictures start to look quite similar. To add variety to the file, I wandered for hours in the narrow lanes around the village to try and get a sense of the mood of Holi in my pictures. My favorite picture of this entire assignment (a boy gleefully spraying blue colored foam as his friends duck out of the way) was found in the alleys of Vrindavan.
In the days that followed, I concentrated my efforts on shooting more of the action on the streets of Vrindavan to add as much variety to our file as I could. I’d decided that even though there were more celebrations in the temples and in the widows’ shelters, it was on the streets that we would find the really fun pictures.
Our coverage finished at the Dauji temple, where I wandered in the tiny village before the “Huranga” celebration which marks the end of Holi celebrations in the region.
As a photographer uninitiated in covering Holi, I was surprised by just how intense the experience is. Not only are you shooting two to three sessions of Holi every day, but you’re trying to make different pictures which add variation to the file over the course of a weeklong assignment. You’re doing that while drenched and caked in colored powder and constantly wiping your lens to keep it dry and clean.
I wore the same T-shirt for all 7 days of coverage. The color is impossible to remove, so you are saying goodbye to whatever clothes you wear for Holi. I lost a pair of slippers outside a temple (you can’t enter with footwear – my slippers were a cool pair that quickly got nicked). I walked about 3km back to the car barefoot. I wound up buying two sets of 60 rupee slippers instead, not wanting to lose a good pair of shoes to this assignment. One pair of board-shorts tore in Nandgaon (thankfully in a place that didn’t outrage anyone’s modesty) and I’m planning to throw out a pair of North Face pants when I’m done with this job.
No one has any mercy on photographers and you get as covered in color and water as anyone else. People are constantly smearing the stuff all over you. My scalp is still pink and I have patches of color all over my body. The color hasn’t come off with soap or shampoo, but I’m told by experts that caking myself in chickpea flower mixed with yoghurt and then taking a shower does the trick. I wonder if that will clog the drain at my flat in Mumbai.
I was told all sorts of scary stories about dead cameras, ruined lenses and trashed equipment. Well-prepared photographers have lost two or three bodies to Holi. I asked around and took all the advice I could about how to best “Holi-proof” my gear so that I could continue shooting without destroying it. My basic Holi coverage kit contained non-scratch cloth, cling wrap, waterproof covers, nail polish remover, gaffer tape, scarves and handtowels and a dry belt pouch to carry dry items and spare lenses in.
I prepped my cameras and lenses by wrapping them in clingfilm to protect them just in case water somehow got through the rain covers – it’s better to be doubly safe. It also makes your camera difficult to operate and it’s very hard to judge what pictures are good on the back of an LCD screen covered in food wrap and then a translucent waterproof cover. I shoot in manual only. Changing the ISO and aperture became a real issue as it’s very hard to recognize which buttons you need to push under all that wrap. I was surprised because I can usually change all that without having to look at the camera, but I found myself searching for the right buttons all the time. Luckily, as annoying as this was, I got used to it after several days and I credit it with saving all my gear. I’ve managed to walk away without having any gear damaged, except for a lens filter which smashed when I slipped and fell down a set of stairs in the hotel.
Not bad for 7 days of Holi coverage – losing just one filter, a pair of slippers, board-shorts and a t-shirt. In exchange, I’ve had one of the best experiences of my life and walked away with many very happy pictures. I’d come back in a heartbeat. But maybe next time, with a water-resistant point and shoot instead of a 5dMkIII and 1d MkIV to worry about!