Last year, I ran 5k called the Color Run, where runners were doused from head to toe with an a rainbow of colored powders in the tradition of the Holi Festival that is celebrated in India every spring. To pass every mile marker, we would run through a gauntlet of volunteers who would throw colored powder, in the form of food grade corn starch, at us. By the finish line, our faces and bodies had been transformed one kilometer at a time into a finished work of art in the Jackson Pollock style.
It was fun, but I wanted to be a part of the real thing. Flash forward to 2013 and I’m in Pushkar, a small holy town in the Indian state of Rajasthan, to experience Holi and get colored up again, but this time all the way to 11.
We had just arrived from Jaipur, where we went to an Elephant festival without any elephants. Thanks PETA, but that’s another story. The Holi Festival, also known as the festival of color, is celebrated throughout India, but the traditions and festivities vary from region to region. Arriving in Pushkar just hours before the festival would begin, the town was eerily quiet as our rickshaw pulled up to the hotel. My fears that we would be disappointed was literally wiped away as a group of children ran up to us and smeared wet colors on our faces. I wish I could have freeze-framed that wide-eyed moment right before we were “attacked.”
Where Is That Sound Coming From?
From the 7th story rooftop of our hotel, we could see down and across the rooftops of all the buildings in the town. In the distance, there was a rhythmic thump and sound that emanated towards us. This must be where the celebration was taking place. Using the direction of the noise as my guide, I left the girls to get ready, and went out to scout the situation and to take some photos before we joined in on the fun. Small tangent. I feel like there’s a time and place to carry your camera and capture your trip. This was not one of those times. I had to separate the two things. Photograph first, put everything away, and then play without worrying about my equipment getting stolen or damaged in the friendly fracas.
Am I In India Or At A Rave?
As I got closer to the center, that thumping noise earlier was now the distinctive sound of techno music pumping at full volume through an array of mega speakers. I was blown away by what came next. In the town square, flanked all around by restaurants and shops, a palette of color was exploding in the air from the hands of people flinging it upwards and outwards. At a least a thousand people packed and completely covered in blues, pinks, greens, reds and yellows were dancing freely and madly about to the heavy beats of electronic music. In this intimate space, revelers young and old, locals and tourists formed a sea of undulating bodies laughing, jumping, hugging, smearing, spraying, and splashing each other with dry and wet powder. I quickly hugged the edge of the crowd and made my way up to the top of a restaurant, safe and high above the crowd below. Where the hell was I?
I knew it would be playful and spirited, but I didn’t expect a full blown electronic music party in the middle of a small town square. Hundreds of shirts were hanging from a power line above, most likely separated from their owners forever. Blended together, I could hardly make out the foreigners from the locals.
Shooting The Holi Festival
For photographers, this is a dream scene to shoot, but unfortunately it’s not the most camera friendly. I followed the same basic rules I use when shooting in extreme environments. Protect your camera and don’t change lenses unnecessarily. Cameras that are weatherproof will handle a splash of water or colored powder. It won’t keep it clean, but it’s designed to seal away the electronics. If you are shooting with most other non-professional cameras, consider putting it in a ziploc bag and wrapping a rubber band around the lens. If you need to change lens, try to do it quickly and in as clean of an environment as possible. Even though the area above the crowd looked clean, it was full of microscopic colored particles floating around. I planned my sy shots and changed my lens once inside my bag. Once you’ve got all this under control, it’s time to be patient. There’s so much going on that you’ll feel like snapping away. While the colors and bodies make for a naturally interesting shot, I took my time to look for moments that tell a story. Below, you can see two boys packing up the colors tightly in their hands and waiting to unleash it onto an unsuspecting person. In the next shot, I waited for a man to toss the powder in the air, capturing it mid-action just as the powder begins to spread.
Staying Safe During The Holi Festival
Everyone just seemed to be having a good time, possibly too good of a time even. It’s common for people to drink bhang, a lassi yogurt drink mixed with marijuana, during the festival. While our experience was friendly on the whole and I didn’t hear of any assaults, people can get carried away when they are high on a substance that isn’t consumed on a normal basis. There’s the whole When In Rome mentality, but partake at your own risk. This is also a physical type of celebration. If you’re not comfortable with strangers throwing and rubbing colors over you, be a little more careful or avoid the crowd. I was told that many people also celebrate privately amongst friends or within the confines of their hotels. With some of the recent incidents of sexual assault in India, it is not paranoia to watch your back and be aware of your surroundings, even during a fun and religious festival like Holi.
Believe or not, I spent only about 10 minutes shooting. We were hear to experience Holi, not just to photograph it. I ran back to the hotel to get changed into my all white outfit. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get back unscathed.
Armed with our own bags of colors, we headed back into crowd. As much as I love being a photographer. It’s always so much more being a part of a scene like this than just documenting it.
Party…And Clean Up Like A Local
One last bit of advice. Rub baby oil all over yourself before heading out. While the dry powders are relatively easy to get off, a lot of people were using water based powders that really stained. I’m glad I have pictures of this because I paid for it over the next few days. We forgot to the put on the baby oil and I spent the next 7 showers rubbing my skin raw and still coming out with a painted face. It did not look pretty. They locals have been doing this for a long time. Take their advice.