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Shutter Stories: Documenting Holi Experience Through the Eyes of Photographers

The festival of colours sometimes ignores the monochromatic side of the people involved in capturing it. Here is documentation of the Holi experience of photographers filming in different states and conditions. 

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Hitanshu Bhatt
New Update
Holi experience of photographers

The vibrancy of colors flies in almost every corner of India. The spectacles of hues, emotions, and devotion are spread from the crowded lanes of Vrindavan to the serene backdrops of Himachal and the bizarre rituals of Varanasi. Holi is celebrated in various places with countless rituals and traditions, making this vibrant festival even more exhilarating. To capture the essence of this festivity and bring some breathtaking visuals from across the states to our feeds, photographers work tirelessly. Through the lens of these photographers, we delve into the kaleidoscopic world of Holi, exploring the challenges, triumphs, and unique experiences they encounter along the way, treating our eyes to a feast of colorful photographs.

UP Mein Ude Re Gulal  - But is it always merry?

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Capture by Saurabh Shukla

Starting with the streets, lanes, and temples of Uttar Pradesh - one of the most celebrated places in India for Holi. These spiritual places nest the childhood home of Lord Krishna - Vrindavan, the birthplace and home of the Hindu goddess Radha - Barsana, and the home of Lord Krishna's foster father Nand - Nandgaon, where Holi is celebrated with utter vigour. The Holi saga in Mathura and Vrindavan starts 10 days prior to the actual Holi. There are various types of Holi played at these places - the Laddu Maar Holi, which happens in Barsana, where women playfully hurl laddoos at men, representing the playful teasing of Lord Krishna by the Gopis. The Laath Maar Holi is a kind of Holi where traditionally the men from Nandgaon village visit the town of Barsana every year, only to be greeted by sticks (aka lathi) of the women there. The ladies hurl sticks at the men, who try to shield themselves as much as they can. However, the scenario has changed with time; this is not taken as a mere ritual but as an act of violence where people hit each other with sticks and even get badly injured. Visitors, especially travellers and photographers get attacked by the local people in front of the blind eye of government officials, says Saurabh Shukla - a travel and street photographer from Jharkhand who experienced this last year. “Surprisingly, the lathis and sticks are not enough so the people here even celebrate Kapda Faad Holi, which literally translates to ripping off clothes until one’s body is not naked, an experience encountered and shared by Rishab, a travel photographer from Delhi. 

After the violent rituals of this Holi are exchanged for 4 days, there is a little innocuous form of Holi which is played here and is called Fuloon ki Holi. This Holi is only played with flowers in the Banke Bihariji Temple in Vrindavan. “The experience with this Holi is usually gentle for everyone as it doesn't involve much water or colours,” says Shubhayu Dasgupta, a travel and festive photographer from Kolkata. 

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Photo of celebrations of Vrindavan Holi by Shubhayu Dasgupta

But as merry and happening as it may seem, there is a lot that goes behind capturing any form of this Holi in Uttar Pradesh as it involves a lot of rage and rampage. Amidst the chaos of flying colours and enthusiast crowds, photographers face the challenge of preserving fleeting moments of beauty and chaos. Technical hurdles such as capturing the perfect shot amidst fast-paced action and ensuring equipment safety are few of the greatest challenges.  Sharing a few tips to protect equipment Rishab says, “To save the equipment and gears from colours and water we put various types of protective films, rain covers, cellotape and cellophane paper.” Despite all the protection, there is always a chance of colour or water penetrating the camera and spoiling some part or the other. Sharing her recent experience while covering Holi this year, travel photographer Samata Nayak expressed, “I had covered by Fujifilm camera with layers of cello tape but the censor still got damaged due to water penetration.” 

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Photo showcasing crowd in UP by Samata Nayak with Fujifilm camera

If you think protecting the equipment is the only challenge these photographers face, you are yet to come across other hurdles they need to overcome while shooting Holi. When in Barasna and Nandgaon, these photographers have to pass from the crowd of thousands of people visiting the narrow lanes. Firstly they travel from various places across India to cover the festival by spending money from their own pockets. “Later our day starts with getting up early in the morning, struggling to get vehicles to reach the destination where the festival is happening, getting the right spot to shoot, standing the whole day among thousands of people pushing and splashing colours and water on you, going back to the hotel after shooting, transferring the photos, editing them and posting them at the right time” expresses Swarnali Chakraborty - a travel and festive photographer. Joining the conversation about the daily experience during filming in Barsana and Nandgaon, Akshay - a travel photography and silhouette specialist from Lucknow says, “Even though these places are so famous for their Holi celebrations and witness numerous visitors not only from India but all over the world, there are no proper arrangements made by the government and local authorities.” The local people are also not cooperative and some of them lack the basic sense of civil conduct. They even charge thousands of rupees from the photographers to film from the upper spot and even after paying so much there is not even a tank of water kept to drink in any of those areas. 

Bura na Mano Holi hai - But does this give a free will to misbehave?

These struggles are still acceptable, but every photographer we interviewed mentioned safety concerns about female photographers, or for that matter, female travelers in Nandgaon and Barsana. Swarnali was already prepared for some unhealthy encounters, as she was warned by a few friends. But even if she was prepared for misconduct from the local people there, she felt that the temple premises, where the samaj - the assembly of men folks, mostly priests who recite the holy texts during Holi celebrations, sits, would be safe. To her shock, she saw the temple priests misbehaving with women. “They were deliberately throwing water and colors at women and pushing them amongst the crowd, which was very disheartening to see," she says. Samata said that she also experienced a few bad encounters while she was filming for Holi this year. “I was taking a drone shot and despite the warning from a policeman, one guy splashed a bucket full of water on me. I had to save my drone’s remote control while maintaining my body balance in the rush,” she adds. “Despite all the hurdles, if a female photographer captures those beautiful pictures, your respect for them and their art increases immensely,” says Saurabh. These experiences are very common in these places, and even the police and local authorities do not take any action against these acts. All the photographers feel a strong urge to implement a strict code of conduct, maintain basic decorum, and not misbehave with females or any visitors, for that matter, in the name of the festival. This also creates a wrong impression of a holy land like India in the minds of foreign travelers, so there is an urgent need to channel things and make proper arrangements to celebrate the festival in a safe and secure manner at these sacred places.

Masan ke Rang - Holi with Ashes

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Photos from Rangbhari Ekadashi by Swarnali Chakraborty

From a mix of holy and frightening experiences, let's move on to the place of scary (not literally) experiences. We are talking about the revered place of Varanasi, Banaras, or Kashi, where Holi celebrations are a bit different. Swarnali’s experience with Masan Holi literally started on a dubious note when she had to struggle to get her bag, which had all her belongings, from the airport and was mishandled by the airline. Amidst all this chaos, she was able to shoot the Rangbhari Ekadashi, which is the official start of the festival of Holi in Varanasi. According to mythology, Lord Shiva brought Goddess Parvati to Kashi after marriage and applied gulal on her. After Rangbhari Ekadashi, devotees of Lord Shiva in Varanasi partake in a unique tradition known as Masan or Bhasma Holi. Rooted in ancient cultural norms, this event takes place at the Manikarnika Ghat, where attendees participate in a unique festival that is said to see Lord Shiva playing Holi with ashes from fire pits.

Pahadon Vali Holi - Sangla Holi of Himachal Pradesh

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Captures from Sangla Holi by Laksh Puri

Another unique form of celebration that happens in the North is the Sangla Holi in the Sangla town of Himachal Pradesh. The Sangla Holi is a myriad of cultural significance, dance, music and colours. Laksh Puri - a travel photographer from Amritsar who doesn't miss a chance to cover this Holi shares, “This Holi lasts for 4 days with celebrations for 3 days by the Kumaoni people which starts with a play in the Nag Mandir where some of the men get dressed as characters from the epic Ramayana, folk music and dance by the local people and a lively Holi with dry colours and snow amidst the backdrop of Himalayas. The fourth day is the day of Faguli Mela where different kinds of delicacies are served and cultural activities are performed." Swarnali says "This is one of the safest Holi celebrations I have covered till now and the people of this village are very warm and welcoming and make you feel at home."

Howrah ki Holi - The Rolls Royce Holi of Kolkata 

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Photo by Suprotim Nandi that is framed in the Rolls Royce showroom

It might come as a surprise to many people that Kolkata has a unique Holi celebration known as the Rolls Royce Holi. Yes, the iconic Rolls Royce cars are involved in this cultural celebration. This event is not widely talked about, but it's quite distinctive. "During this celebration, a vintage Rolls Royce Phantom emerges from the iconic Howrah Bridge and parades through the bustling streets to Barra Bazar, a prominent business hub in Kolkata. Raja Katra's family, believed to be the owners of Barra Bazar, play a significant role in organizing this extravagant event, adding to its charm and allure, says Suprotim Nandi, a travel and food photographer from West Bengal. Shubhayu who also documents the Holi here has some amazing experiences with this festivity. "People are very polite and understanding here, if you are not comfortable playing with colours, you will pass out clean from the procession. They even understand the value of artists like us. I got a 20 rupees note once as a token of appreciation while filming the Rolls Royce Holi and that was such a sweet gesture." Sharing his unforgettable experience with the Kolkata Holi Suprotim said, One of my Rolls Royce Holi pictures went viral and the authorities wanted to frame that picture in the Rolls Royce Showroom in Delhi which is still there." Moments like this make this vibrant festival even more colourful especially for photographers who struggle a lot to document it for us. After seeing such recognition and appreciation all the struggles and difficulties vanish and we feel proud of ourselves and our art form, says Saurabh on behalf of every photographer. 

Kolkata Holi Holi in Varanasi Holi in Uttar Pradesh Bhasma Holi Fuloon ki Holi Kapda Faad Holi Laath Maar Holi Laddu Maar Holi vrindavan nandgaon Barsana Sangla Holi Sangla Holi of Himachal Pradesh Rolls Royce Holi of Kolkata Masan Holi