Parading through a warzone
“You cannot go down there.”
And who was I to argue with two uniformed policemen?
This was to be the climax of our work at Holi, a parade winding through the tight, narrow streets of Mathura with bands, floats, crowds, music and colour. Lots of colour – powder, water and pigments, both natural and industrial strength dye, some of it mixed with water from the drains.
“It is unsafe – your life will be in danger. You will end up in hospital and lose your eyesight. Play Holi in Holi Gate, it is safer.”
They were adamant. It was safer for me. They did not understand I was a photographer, working. I needed to be there. I knew they were well meaning and concerned rather than forbidding me outright, but they were wearing their uniforms and they kept holding onto my arm and dragging me away from the approaching parade. I feebly argued that my friend was already in there and that I had to go and find him. That didn’t work and I had a moments doubt as they continued to drag me away. So I did what any intrepid, brave photographer and journalist would do. I gave in, agreed with them and walked away to safety, head held high.
Then I doubled back and snuk past, entering the warzone.
And Warzone it was. It was chaos, well-meaning maybe, boisterous maybe, playful and fun, yes. But chaos. The music was loud, colourful cows, horses and buffalo stood there patiently harnessed to the floats and carts like statues as all around them people became lost in their dancing, their joy, their celebrations. Handfuls of powder were being rubbed in my mouth and eyes, down my neck and in my ears. There was laughter everywhere, musicians played throughout, DJs sung and adolescents danced. Children walked up, politely, meekly asking permission to rub colour onto my forehead. Then, emboldened they followed me around, no longer asking permission, catching me unawares, straight in my face. People grabbed my shoulder telling me not to take photos of that, but to take some of their friend, or themselves, nicely posed, or of the float and it’s effigy, or anything at all as they knew best, and I didn’t. As people danced, grabbed, pushed, beckoned, played, I entered the zone, instincts kicking in, shots framed, focus pulled, exposure adjusted, pictures taken – and all the while the need to survive, protect myself and the end of my lens from the worst of it was working away in the background. It felt good, I was where I belonged, working, buzzing.
And then the film would need changing. Time to look up, search through the crowds for a shelter, someone’s house, a doorway to sneak into where there’s another world, adults sitting in the dark watching the parade slowly pass by. A few years ago it would have been them dancing and playing with colours, but now they sit there in the dark, relaxing and enjoying themselves as they wait for the chaos to pass them by so they can emerge, as if from a shell, back into the outside world. They smile knowingly as I sit there, unwrapping the camera from its waterproof, gaffa taped plastic prison, hands sweaty and clammy. Then trying to keep everything clean, my hands away from clothes, stop them from scratching the itch on my nose, or wiping watering, sore eyes. The sweat off my forehead comes perilously close to dripping onto the new film as its loaded, or god forbid, onto the insides of my precious camera. I am offered food and asked to stay and it is tempting. The thought of going back out into the chaos scares me – the idea of another bucket of warm water landing on me, the taste of foul chemicals is enough for me to seriously consider staying put. But no. I take a deep breath and go, cast an eye around for Jim, the only other foreigner, see him in the distance, surrounded, a blur of pinks and blues and greens and yellows, immersed in a cloud of dust – he’s still there, alive and well. Reassured I enter the fray once more, switch my instincts back on, coordinate my eye and right index finger back into perfect harmony, try to find the balance between shooting frame after frame and the need to save film to avoid the hassle and risk of changing it again…
And as I wait for that next mouthful of green dye, the worst tasting of the lot, I am buzzing and grinning, memories of well-meaning policemen long gone.