As a photographer, you see a lot of similarities to what you do and what a soldier going into battle does. Even the terminology is the same; preparing for a shoot, loading, shooting, focus on your target in the view-finder. Even the top of my tripod is called a gun mount, but I had no idea what I was getting into when I decided to go to India to shoot the famous Holi festival.
For me, I have always been obsessed with vibrant color. As a photographer, I search for light and color. So when I learned about this festival every year in India that involves throwing colored pigment at each other, I knew I would be in the largest color war that existed on the planet and I wanted to be on the front lines for it.
I convinced three of my favorite, fearless, female photographers to be my wing women in this adventure and fly all the way to India with me for this. I knew that it took a certain person to be able to handle what has been dubbed "the most intense event on the planet" and these three ladies were ready to go.
We had researched it, googled it, prepared ahead of time to have a guide and driver, and we even bought disposable outfits and plastic covers for our cameras, but nothing could have prepared us for the insanity of the Holi festival. Even now, after living to tell the tale, it's hard to describe in words all of the emotions and sensations of being a part of the world's largest color war.
After flying 17 hours and driving three hours to get there, Jodee, Sarah, Shannon and I found ourselves In a hotel room in a small village called Vrindavan, India literally gearing up for battle. Vrindavan and nearby Mathura are rumored to have the most intense, local Holi celebrations, so we wanted to experience it full on.
We were taping our cameras in plastic and putting on protective scarves and glasses on and strapping ourselves with the necessary camera equipment and protection we would need to walk out in the streets to shoot. There was a level of trepidation and excitement about what we were about to be a part of and especially thinking about the images we were going to capture.
What we learned about Holi from the locals is that it is a celebration of life, love, and the beginning of spring. Indians celebrate the winter being over and start anew. Sometimes that means repairing relationships but most of all it is a celebration. If you ask people how the beginning of the tradition of throwing pigment started, we heard a couple of local legends.
One being that the god Krishna, the Blue-faced destroyer god, was fed poisoned milk at a young age and turned blue, but survived. In his youth, Krishna despaired whether the fair-skinned Radha and other girls would like him because of his skin color. His mother, tired of the desperation, asks him to approach Radha and color her face in any color he wanted. This he does, and Radha and Krishna became a couple.
Ever since the playful coloring of Radha's face has been commemorated as Holi and having a colored face is a commemoration of the divine love of Radha for Krishna. Others say that the colored powders, all from natural herbs and plants, have medicinal properties that would help ward away colds and viruses that would plague people in the spring; helping to usher in a healthy new year. Whatever the origin of throwing colored pigment actually is, the best meaning of all has been the lasting one carried down through generations, and that is celebrating love, life, and color which happen to be my three favorite things.
For 10 days out of the year, old and young , rich and poor, and no matter what your caste or social status is, everyone is able to play this game together. In fact, when people would see us covered in colored dye they would always ask us "Where did you play Holi?"
At first , I thought they were asking where did you "pray Holi" since it is a religious festival, but soon I realized they were really saying "play" which to me was so much better. Imagine a week where pranks and playing with color took over your entire town or country? It was amazing to behold and amazing to be welcomed into as a foreigner.
Speaking of being a foreigner and a woman, we basically were putting a bullseye on our backs walking through the streets during Holi. We ignorantly thought we would walk out and just photograph people throwing pigment at each other like the color run or something. What we didn't know was the insanity of what we were walking into. Every 5 seconds the girls and I were bombarded by people wanting to take selfies with us while simultaneously wanting to clobber us with pigment.
You were especially targeted if you were clean or in our case white women. We were sort of like blank canvases for the masses and people wanted to cover us on color and children would hide in back alleys and chase us with water guns filled with food coloring and dump buckets if water on us from balconies. What we didn't realize was the local custom is to wish someone "Happy Holi" and then smear pigment across both cheeks. At first, it was unexpected and obtrusive, but then you find yourself in a free for all of hundreds of people doing the same thing, so you have to join in or you will be defeated.
During the 10 days of Holi, each morning is intense pigment throwing in and outside of the temples. Afternoon, that stops and people rest or throw colored water at you during the hot part of the day and then have dances, bonfires and other celebrations at night. Our driver every day washed his car, which ultimately was a losing battle. The next morning the insanity happens again.
Somehow our cameras survived, my hair color did not. Everyone said that the pigment washes out of your skin and hair. They are lying. I made the mistake of covering my hair with a cloth turban to protect it from the dyes, but it had the adverse effect and acted more like a wet sponge on my head. Any bras or undergarments had the same outcome on my skin, leaving a semi-permanent fuschia bra and underwear mark for days, but Holi isn't about being cute, it's about playing and celebrating.
Jodee summed up how I was feeling very well on day two of Holi. She said that she felt every emotion out there at some point while braving the intense crowds and trying to take photos in the middle of a color mosh pit. You felt elation, frustration, fear, surprise, exhaustion, but mostly awe trying to take in all of the smells and colors around you. What made it even more amazing was having three of my closest girlfriends there to experience it with me and who were equally as obsessed with photographing it as I was. It is overwhelming and almost impossible to describe. I can still smell the pigment now days later and probably have it ingrained in my memory forever since it was repeatedly thrown into my face.
Walking around the streets of Vrindivan after noon every day was like trying to assess the damage on a battlefield. Nothing was left unscathed. Buildings and roads were littered every color, men covered completely head to toe in fuchsia or blue would be riding by on motorbikes, stray cows and dogs would be splattered in a multitude of colors, and we would be picking up the pieces of our cameras equipment and phones and head back to our hotel to scrub ourselves down and take a nap. Rinse and repeat.
So why go to Holi?
It's not for everyone. If you don't like being dirty, wet, out of control, braving intense crowds, or having everything you are wearing be destroyed, then maybe Holi isn't for you...but then again, maybe it is. The real reason I was drawn to flying all the way to India to photograph this festival other than having a week of colorgasms, was that the real reason behind this festival is to celebrate life.
Sometimes, the only way to do this is to get out of your comfort zone and just experience something crazy and unimaginable. Throw yourself into an event where you don't have any control and anything goes and you can play like a kid again and destroy public property and throw color and water on strangers, dye your hair, and laugh and wish each other well.
On our final battle of Holi I made a point of not bringing my camera with me. I just wanted to experience it for myself. It was difficult for me, because everywhere I turned was an amazing photograph I had missed, but sometimes moments need to just be for me. Maybe this is the kind of festival that we all need in our lives to remind ourselves to not take everything so seriously all the time and to just enjoy life and be present.
At first, I was going to write about Holi to give tips to everyone who ever plans to go on how to be prepared for the festival. Bring a shower cap, extra plastic and electrical tape to cover your phones and camera, bring disposable muumuus to wear over your clothing and wear protective glasses. Pay someone to be able to shoot from their rooftop vantage point to avoid the crowds and get started early, but now that I sit here and write this...I want to throw all of that advice out the window.
Just GO. Throw pigment. Throw yourself in the crowds. Don't bring anything you care about losing, be safe, be open, smile (but with your mouth closed...I say this after getting multiple mouthfuls of pigment), but most of all, be happy.
The best lesson I learned from the whole trip was something my guide said to me on one of our last days in India. He said,
Happiness is something you control. It is a state of mind. When you try to change things out of your control and worry is when you become dissatisfied. So just accept things as they happen. If you are not happy then you have not reached the end yet.
I think in a bizarre, chaotic way, experiencing Holi was life's way of teaching me that lesson.