“Oh Radha, you are voluptuous, pure and always forgiving, the source of life itself, our beloved, delightful as a blossoming lotus.”
An art piece bridging Vijay Iyer‘s newest energetic composition as played by the International Contemporary Ensemble and stunning footage of Holi celebrations in the Braj region of India, RADHE RADHE: Rites of Holi proves an invigorating experience of cultural tradition. Inspired by the centennial of Stravinsky-Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Iyer and director Prashant Bhargava looked to explore their own heritage’s demarcation of the season’s change through song as well. The region’s eight-day performance honoring the transformational ritual of goddess Radha at the hands of Krishna is thus captured in a visually gorgeous lyricism as Iyer’s melody mirrors the physical rhythms and excitement unfolding before our eyes.
Split into two movements—”Adoration” and “Transcendence”—we’re shown the preparation for the festivities and the joyous aggression of the act respectively. Citizens of all ages pour into the streets knowing they are about to be doused with colored powders and water until their skin is covered and the air heavy with pigment. Dancing commences and each gyration begins to take on a sexualized bent when Bhargava splices in Anna George‘s staged portrayal of Radha soaking in the unrestrained acts of those frolicking in her honor. Everyone’s shown losing their inhibitions to the visceral, emotional, and pleasure-filled state of communal gaiety until things turn moderately violent with revelers throwing paint into the hidden faces of those trying to escape as though salvation lies in cooperation.
As the chaotic movements increase in kinetic energy, George’s Radha is found to no longer be alone as a male presence only shown by arms and hands arrives. Her static voyeurism transforms into communion as she writhes in ecstasy, paint suddenly marking her face like those in the Uttar Pradesh crowd. From the calm serenity of nature awakening after winter to the reclamation of the outside world by Radha’s followers to the no-holds-barred acts of men painting women and women beating men in wholesale liberation, RADHE RADHE: Rites of Holi depicts this release of nature through fire. And all the while Iyer’s composition fills the air as silent screams of pure adulation and ecstasy are captured by Bhargava’s lens.
It’s an awakening of spirit for mankind and gods—a sprawling ensemble of freedom through the deified example Holi has embraced as rite. The ballet crescendos until its mass of people erase any beginning or end from one participant to the next, their self-induced trance enticing Radha to let Krishna in. A giant, cathartic wail of the senses, the film captures the insanity of an Indian tradition you simply cannot witness here in America. There’s a courage and confidence needed to enter the fray, a trust in Radha to protect you and empower you to rise once more into a new year of rebirth. By watching and listening to the animalistic act as it’s performed, we’re provided universal meaning that a straight narrative adaptation never could.