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Traditional Holi Festival – Color photography redefined

In this blog post epa Chief Photographer for the Indian Subcontinent Harish Tyagi tells the story of covering this year’s traditional Holi festival in India.

Barsana village in Mathura, India is famed for its unique and colorful display of the traditional Holi festival. As I left my home on the 9th of March in the early morning hours to catch this festival, my imagination was already busy weaving colorful imagery of the festivities I was to encounter. There was anticipation in the air as I pulled through the four-hour rough drive on Uttar Pradesh roads post, with another hours/1/2 hour walk finally bringing me to my destination. My cameras and gear had been well packed though I was to realize later that this was probably a good protection from rain but certainly not from the onslaught of water and color that was to greet me that day.

Traditional Holi Festival: Indian women beat men with wooden sticks as they shield themselves during the annual Lathmar Holi festival in Barsana village, Mathura, India, 09 March 2014. epa / Harish Tyagi

Traditional Holi Festival: Indian women beat men with wooden sticks as they shield themselves during the annual Lathmar Holi festival in Barsana village, Mathura, India, 09 March 2014. epa / Harish Tyagi

Narrow lanes finally led me to the square of the village proper where the traditional Holi festival is celebrated in an altogether different way. The connotations and symbolism of the unique ‘Lathmar Holi’ celebrated in Lord Krishna’s and his consort Radha’s home, is altogether different from the Holi celebrated anywhere else in India. ‘Lathmar’ literally means beating someone with sticks which is what the feisty women of Barsana (known as the birthplace of Lord Krishna’s beloved Radha) do when the men of the neighboring village, Nandgaon, believed to be Lord Krishna’s village, come calling to put color on them.

Traditional Holi Festival: Indian widow load their pump guns with colored water and spray at each other while participating in the Holi festival in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, India, 14 March 2014. epa / Harish Tyagi

Traditional Holi Festival: Indian widow load their pump guns with colored water and spray at each other while participating in the Holi festival in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, India, 14 March 2014. epa / Harish Tyagi

In fact this festival of plastering people with color and water stems from Lord Krishna’s antics from centuries past which are well embedded into Indian mythology and lore. Known as a mischievous and flirtatious god he is given the credit for being the first to put color on a woman, Radha, his beloved in this case. He and his friends would come to Barsana and as a symbol of protecting themselves from the Lord and his mischievous friends the women charged at them with large bamboo sticks. Though it sounds playful the festival is anything but that.

Just as I entered the village a bunch of local men came towards me and with little regard for my expensive gear smeared me with color and water from their pichkaris (little hand worked water canons). Their chants of Radhe, Radhe rang through the air and after a satisfied appraisal of my now coloured and wet clothes they proceeded to ask which TV channel I worked for. In rural India, people still believe electronic media to be quicker than print and assume anyone with a somewhat big camera is from television. Now that I very much looked a part of the celebration I was left to myself to proceed with my work, which was just as well.

Traditional Holi Festival: Two Indian widows sit surrounded by petals while participating in the Holi festival in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, India, 14 March 2014. epa / Harish Tyagi

Traditional Holi Festival: Two Indian widows sit surrounded by petals while participating in the Holi festival in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, India, 14 March 2014. epa / Harish Tyagi

I spent a good six hours in the midst of a packed crowd, often squeezed for space, often inching up very close to people who were so immersed in the gaiety they scarcely noticed my presence. This kind of an event is challenging and draining as hyper activity rings through the air and continuously one is being shuffled around. I kept myself well hydrated with the local drink Lassi, a cool soothing drink made with sweetened curd, which kept my energy levels also in check. The festival only slowed down by evening by which time everyone including me was fairly drained and exhausted. However the rainbow of colors that had dotted the air and the water canons rung thru the village even after all went home.

Traditional Holi Festival: Indian men shield themselves from women beating with wooden sticks during the annual Lathmar Holi festival in Barsana village, Mathura, India, 09 March 2014. epa / Harish Tyagi

Traditional Holi Festival: Indian men shield themselves from women beating with wooden sticks during the annual Lathmar Holi festival in Barsana village, Mathura, India, 09 March 2014. epa / Harish Tyagi

My next experience of covering the festival of Holi was even more memorable. On 14th of March 2014, I proceeded to cover a unique event in Vrindavan, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which is 180 kilometers from Delhi and is also infamously known as the city of widows. The tradition of widows seeking refuge in this town harks back to centuries ago when they were more or less ostracized by society and left to lead a life of penance far removed from the joys of daily life. A second lease in terms of re-marriage was unthinkable then and even now this tradition carries on in many ways. So upon hearing that the widows, who were not allowed to earlier partake in religious festivities, would now be playing Holi I wondered what really lay in store for the day.

epa photographer Harish Tyagi covering the traditional Holi Festival in India

epa photographer Harish Tyagi covering the traditional Holi Festival in India

On reaching the place I was pleasantly surprised to see the widows laughing, joking and brimming with joy at having given this rare chance to partake in a festival. I heard many of them remarking that they had not held a water gun in their hand in years. The beautiful site of these women playing with color (they are normally banished to white clothing only) and water was a rare privilege. Though some still fought shy of participating they told me they would definitely take part next time. I was very over joyed to see an unnecessary and harsh tradition of India loosening its shackles around women destined to an otherwise grim and sorrowful fate. For me this was the ray of hope or should I say ray of color in the celebrations of Holi that marked this year.

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1 Comment so far

  1. Pinaki Das

    Nice Harishji but worried about camera and gears. Well you became a part of Holi and enjoyed it which we journalist most of the time are not able to do as because of work pressure. Happy Holi.
    Pinaki Das

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