Thursday, March 24, 2011

The God of Color

The voice was loud, insistent and authoritative; and though I don't understand Hindi, I knew at once that we were in trouble.  As I turned to see who had ordered us to stop, I became painfully aware of the long, sinuous bale of concertina wire that stretched along the shoreline.  Bhim looked down at the sand and whispered to me to keep walking, but our meek attempt to ignore the order was met with an even louder barking retort which was impossible to disobey.

I had met Bhim in Delhi just a few days earlier, and he was assigned to drive me to Mathura to photograph Holi, the "festival of colors."  I had only one morning to photograph the Taj Mahal in nearby Agra, but the Yamuna river was very low, and the places I had previously photographed it from were a marshy wasteland of scrub brush and debris.  

While viewing one of those sites, I noticed a group of boys across the river, on the north side, and they appeared to be playing soccer.  The sun had already risen, but we drove to the other side and were faced with what looked like a bale of barbed wire, that seemingly had collected every wind-blown shard of paper and plastic the world could throw its way.  Then, Bhim found a small rabbit-hole in it that, if we were careful, we might be able to squirrel our way through.  He went first, and just made it, his left leg fully outstretched as he hurtled down the embankment.  There was a loud "twang," but the thin, rusted wire held.  I followed, and neither of us gave any thought as to why the wire was there, nor did we realize we had just breached the perimeter security along the river, for the Taj.

As we rounded the bank of the river, a scene unfolded that I will never forget.  In the warm, soft, hazy mist of the afterglow of sunrise, a small group of boys were kicking a soccer ball back and forth, as they did every day, with the Taj as their backdrop.  I shot exactly 7 frames, and on the last one, a boy on the left side of the frame kicked the ball into the air, and then...

Apparently we had been spotted from a tower, and now, I listened with no small amusement to the argument going back and forth between Bhim and the guards.  I knew where this was going, and turned my back, as I watched Bhim pull out his wallet to give them his guide card.   After 5 more minutes we we told to leave, and I looked back one last time at a view of the Taj I had never seen before and never would, again.  Of all the images I have made in India, it remains my favorite.

Boys playing soccer in front of the Taj Mahal

Just a few days before, I had collapsed in a chair, exhausted from an afternoon of photographing Indians and foreigners in the throes of exuberant joy, throwing colored powder at each other, and laughing at the fun of having themselves doused with one color after another until they themselves were walking canvases of modern art.  Now, as I took  off my I.C.P. hat hat and threw it on the ground, I had some sense of how I must look. I had been the target of several children and adults, all them them gleefully pouring handful after handful of powder on me, until my eyes, my ears, my nose, my hands, my mouth, and every other part of my body had some spectral value assigned to it.

My I.C.P. hat, post "Holi"

I was only one of several photographers drawn to Holi who subjected themselves and their equipment to a daily ritual of wrapping camera gear in various layers of protective plastic, some jury rigged and some far more elaborate.  Yet no matter how carefully the gear was protected, a number of cameras and lenses fell victim to the onslaught of giggling children with plastic water "cannons," and adults who might be under under the influence of "Bhang".  Along with the revelers, I was one of those who received a direct hit to my eyes, of a handful of color; and it would later take hours, and several showers, to begin to wash the color off my skin.

Victim of a Holi color dust storm tries to get it out of her eyes

Imagine being thrown into a mammoth blender, along with several tons of colored talcum powder, and the switch is thrown to "high." Even the silvery steps leading up to Lord Krishna's throne were spattered with color, and the more you got with the program ("Happy Holi !"), the more you were accepted as a bona fide colorista.  

Lord Krishna's staircase

The conditions for making images could not have been worse—it was very hot, and the temple courtyards were filled with relentless, raw, mid-day sunlight. Add to that the constant dust clouds of colored powder, children squirting powerful jets of colored water, add in constant, loud, raucous music, and it was impossible to imagine making any images, let along finding places to shoot. Yet if one looked, there were many images to be made, and I found a haven underneath the walkways which surrounded the temple courtyard.  I was not the only one trying to escape the onslaught to my senses, and it was here that it was possible to make some startling portraits, and abstract close-ups of color spattered shirts and faces.  What I found interesting was not the spectacle, but the way in which Holi became a manifestation of "man as art," in which the human body became a canvas.  When I went to India in 2007 to make photographs for my book INDIA: In Word and Image, I made my first images of Holi, and became aware that Lord Krishna is India's "God of Color."
Colored water cannons for sale on the streets of Mathura

Likenesses of Lord Krishna for sale in a stall, Mathura

Portrait #1, Holi

Portrait #2, Holi

Shirt #1

Shirt #2

Back of Black Blouse

The crowd filling the temple in anticipation

Yet Holi, and the celebration of color, was a world apart from the man I had photographed just the day before at the Jama Masjid—India's largest mosque—in the old part of Delhi. Quietly, in the large, open prayer hall, the man cupped his hands to Allah, the only sound the echo of my camera's shutter off the sandstone walls.

Praying to Allah, in the Jama Masjid, Delhi

Day after day of photographing Holi took its toll on my gear as well as my lungs.  By the end of the third day I was coughing spontaneously, in a deep, uncontrolled need to get the dust out of my lungs.  I spent hours each night using Q-Tips to clean my cameras, and rewrapped each camera in a clear plastic bag that I tied tightly around the lens, which had a high quality UV filter on it.  I was drained—from the dust, from the ritual of cleaning the cameras, and from the need to take 3 showers each night before all the color was washed off.  So we drove to Agra and Jaipur to "recharge my batteries, and went to places I hadn't been to before, such as Sikandra, near Agra.  

Woman in red sari walking in hallway, Sikandra  (near Agra)

Marble detail, Sikandra 

The last time I had been in Jaipur, the Palace of the Winds was in scaffolding, and the lake surrounding the Jal Mahal was completely dried up.  Fortunately, the scaffolding had been taken down, and heavy rains had filled the lake.  I also went to the City Palace, and spent an amusing twenty minutes watching tourist after tourist bend down and photograph the courtyard from an intricately carved arch above the entrance.
Tourist with point-and-shoot camera, City Palace (Jaipur)

Detail of Peacock, City Palace (Jaipur)

Palace of the Winds (Hal Mahal), Jaipur

The Jal Mahal, on the outskirts of Jaipur

On the outskirts of Jaipur, I photographed large, hanging bolts of freshly dyed cloth.  And on the banks of the Yamuna, I found hundreds of freshly washed saris drying in the sun.
Freshly dyed cloth drying in the sun

Washed saris, drying by the side of the Yamuna river

At my hotel in Agra, I photographed this large, intricately engraved brass door, as well as the large, open vases of fresh rose petals that were placed everywhere.  And little by little, I absorbed the tranquility.  I needed it, because India can be overwhelming, and the celebration of Holi is an opportunity for Indians to abandon all restraint.
Detail, Brass door

Rose petals floating in hotel vase

Detail of cloth adorning an elephant, Jaipur

Star Spangled Blue Elephant, Jaipur

I went back to Mathura for one last day, but this time I photographed on the streets—from a rickshaw, and on foot.  A man standing in a doorway, with magnificent light bouncing off his cheeks. Another man asleep in the shadows of an archway. Marigolds and rose petals sprinkled on a floor.  And, in the late evening light, a man that everyone seemed to know, the "cloak room" man—who called out to everyone and, in his easy banter, seemed to be everything that India is about.  

It was getting time to head back to Delhi, to get on a plane for a fifteen hour flight to JFK.  Yet I couldn't stop thinking about those boys playing soccer in front of the Taj, and the serendipity I had in finding that place, and in making that image. I wanted to be there right now.  I wanted to see it all, again. I looked at Bhim, coughed, got in the car, and we started on the long ride back to Delhi.

The Man in the Doorway, Mathura

Man sleeping in shadows, Mathura

Marigold and rose petals on a floor, Mathura

The "Cloak Room" Man, Mathura