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.