Holi – the festival of colours; when India drenches herself, wears the colours of her diversity, of her soul, on herself as a plume; when the hues of happiness and gaiety makes her forget every other thing, as she celebrates – with ceaseless abandon, if one may.
Like almost everything else in India, including her festivals, Holi too has different layers. The narrative surrounding the festival changes from place to place, at some taking deeply religious roots, while at others unfolding as a message of profound spirituality; a mere social event in some, while at others a festival of huge cultural significance. Equally diverse are the colours and the rituals that have developed around the festival – the music that is drenched in passion, the food that is as exotic as the hues and the intoxicants that are imbibed as deadly as the knock-out punch that they deliver.
While it would take a lifetime to visit every major centre where Holi is played in India to learn about the local highlights, feel the nuances and drench the soul with the colours of the land, such is the diversity involved, given a chance, I would sample it all in Kolkata. For one, in Kolkata, mostly (read thankfully) devoid of the shrill religious fervour, Holi is largely a socio-cultural event that is colourfully inclusive, traditionally pouring water on all that seeks to create barriers of caste, creed, colour or sex. Secondly, true to the spirit that is typically Kolkata, there are pockets where the festival is celebrated in all its uniqueness, often with the neighbours participating with reckless abandon, adding newer, more varied dimensions.
That is why Holi in the Sudder Street region – known as a haunt for backpackers (Hippies if you may), is as distinct in its celebration as is the Holi that is played out in the rarefied atmosphere of the colonial Clubs of the city, where the well-heeled congregate to down their drinks in designer drapes and sprinkle colours with measured fervour. The Holi in the serpentine lanes and by-lanes of North Calcutta, especially in the havelis of yore which housed the Marwari Seths and Zamindars of a time gone by, is way different in the ways they are played than the Holi that is played out in the multi-storied complexes that have sprouted in the near past, and the streets of the city, though the spirit may be delightfully the same.
The Bengali version – if at all there exists anything like it – which draws heavily on the tradition of Basanta Utsav, Dol Yatra – as has morphed in Shantiniketan, the abode of peace established by the poet laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore and Rabindra Bharati University, again is way different in its approach to the festivities, using song, dance and the shower of flowers to celebrate the event as a harbinger of spring. If that is culture personified, then so is the blaring microphones in Kolkata, dishing out the Harivansh Rai Bachchan chart topper from Silsila, where the poet’s son, superstar Amitabh Bachchan acted out an inebriated dance ditty of innuendoes about unrequited love in the presence of the respective spouses. Point is Kolkata does not play moral police and is as united in this diversity as it is, perhaps, in everything else. And that, I guess is what makes the city’s Holi unique in itself, where there is something for everyone to enjoy.
And it is precisely this spirit that Sandipa Malakar has so poignantly captured with her camera. She has the rare ability to freeze frames, to capture the moment that becomes representative of the event – her pictures alluding to the fact that she was there, perhaps even a part of the gaiety that her pictures depict so colourfully, or was she? Do we detect, just a tinge of sadness, regret even, of being there, being a part of the moment and yet not participating, content as she perhaps was, only reporting and capturing the moment for posterity?
She takes us on a journey of joy, drenched in colours through the streets of Kolkata as the city sprinkles herself with colours – not the kind that a bride-to-be drapes herself with, but the kind that a child applies on its self and its immediate surroundings when it accesses a palate to play with. The colours are vibrant and the application mirthless and innocent, of a type that only the pure souls of children can muster. For Kolkata may be more than three hundred years old, but she still bears the heart of a child, the soul of an innocent who is above everything that we create to erect the walls of divisiveness around us.
If you are looking for a holiday like no other, come to Kolkata. Come, play Holi with us.
All Photographs Copyright Sandipa Malakar.