The Indian spring festival of Holi is best known for its celebratory explosion of color, as crowds of people take to the streets to douse one another with brightly hued powder. There is, of course, much more to Holi than an ecstatic, rainbow-tinted recognition of the vernal equinox, and jazz pianist-composer Vijay Iyer and director Prashant Bhargava explore some of those things on Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, a unique collaboration of film and music.
Commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as part of the arts group’s season-long celebration of the centennial commemoration of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, this new work does, of course, have its fair share of bright colors – Bhargava’s expert cinematography captures the street celebrations with all due splendor – but it tells a much more intense story. The film subtly shifts between the progression of rituals throughout a day of Holi celebrations and a slow-burning visualization of the erotic relationship between Krishna and Radha, an aspect of Holi that isn’t celebrated throughout India, but is particularly resonant in Mathura, the claimed birthplace of Krishna and the place where this footage was shot.
Much like Stravinsky’s Rite, Iyer and Bhargava’s Rites is a work that’s steeped in dissonance and dashed expectations. As the day unfolds and societal strictures are loosened, the music and filmwork intensifies, immersing the viewer in the dizzying, suppressive chaos of celebrations that gradually turn threatening, especially to the women taking part; meanwhile, the coupling of Radha and Krishna follows a similarly pulse-raising path, with Radha’s sly smile turning ominous and imposing. This mirroring seems, on one hand, somewhat on the nose, but by contrasting Radha’s power (and control) with the threat of violence facing the seemingly helpless women on Mathura’s streets, the artists make a powerful statement that echoes and expands upon the fate of “the Chosen One” in Stravinsky’s ballet. It’s a powerful approach and deeply resonant, and while the film itself clocks in at just over a half-hour (the DVD/Blu-ray tacks on an additional “making of” segment), the strength of this collaboration easily imbues viewers with the sense that they’ve experienced the entire cycle of the day.
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