Celebrations marking the Hindu festival of Holi stretch across cultures and continents in 2017, the coming of spring announced by cosmopolitan crowds playfully throwing brightly coloured dyes at one another. But few Hindus or Indians, even, will ever experience Holi with the intoxicating intensity or carnalistic force as the residents of Mathura, a town in Northern India known as the birthplace of Krishna.
For eight days and nights the town's residents are locked in a furious fervour of cacophony and colour, as evidenced in Prashant Bhargava's documentary film Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, which was screened at NYU Abu Dhabi on Thursday, with a live musical accompaniment from New York's leading International Contemporary Ensemble and pianist Vijay Iyer. The performances marked only the second time Iyer, the work's composer, has presented Radhe Radhe since Bhargava's sudden passing in 2015, and it was introduced with a heartfelt dedication.
Conceived as an artistic response to Stravinsky's earth-shaking ballet The Rite of Spring, this multi-medium collaboration is introduced as a "ballet of sorts", yet the natural process is reversed — instead of human movement reacting to music, Iyer's intricate, ecstatic score is an answer to the primal bodily energy on screen, a soundtrack to a party which already took place.
Screened in silence, the 35-minute film would make compelling viewing, Bhargava’s incredible, fly-on-the-wall footage edited in a thoughtful tonal arc, splicing snapshots of entranced, dye-stained bodies clashing in the temples and on the streets. We witness crowd psychology in motion, individual inhibitions and responsibilities shed amongst the teaming mass. In the ritualised beating of lecherous men by circles of women with sticks, there is a symbolic, collective response to year-round domestic abuse and objectification.
While Iyer's score is equally gripping, it remains happily subservient to the footage. The strings lurch with the crowd's violent intensity, braying woodwind signals their intoxication, hand claps and insistent percussion drives these dis-individualised bodies forward. In a tribute to the opening of Stravinsky's Rite, a bassoon announces the appearance of mythical goddess Radhe in a series of sensually staged, symbolic scenes. At reflective turns, two pianos, played by Iyer and Corey Smythe, unleash spiralling, interwoven improvisations of dazzling dexterity.
At the piece’s frenzied close, as house-sized bonfires break out on screen, a recorded sample of crowd chants slowly drowns out the 11-piece ensemble, this real-life collective catharsis resisting any attempt to tame Holi into the concert hall.
Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi repeats again Friday night, 8pm at NYU Abu Dhabi. Register for free tickets at nyuad-artscenter.org