Hundreds of men and women covered in orange, blue and gold powder climb over and around each other, chanting and singing as they surge through the interior of a Hindu temple; a man, eyes circled in darkness with kohl, his head and neck wrapped in colorful fabrics, stares and smiles malevolently as if possessed. Meanwhile, on a dusty street, a playful battle with water guns and buckets of paint turns ugly, nearly escalating into a brawl.
These are just a few of the breathtaking images captured by director Prashant Bhargava in his 2014 film Radhe, Radhe: Rites of Holi, which screens at the Wortham Center's Cullen Theater this Friday, May 5. The screening, presented by Da Camera, will feature live music by pianist and MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant award-winner Vijay Iyer and the International Contemporary Ensemble.
Directed and edited by Prashant Bhargava, an Indian-American man born in Chicago and raised in New York, Radhe Radhe documents the Holi festival, a Hindu religious celebration known as the "Festival of Colours" every spring, as it unfolds in chaotic splendor in the Braj region of Uttar Pradesh. This region is the mythic birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna and the earth-born Radhe, an older, married woman who seduced him. Interwoven throughout the footage of the festival is a staged retelling of the myth of Krishna and Radhe, played by Indian-born actress Anna George.
Originally commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s groundbreaking Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), which premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913 with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, both the film and its score are inspired by Iyer and Bhargava’s relationship to the folklore and legends of India.
“I felt it would be an interesting way to engage with the same transformative experience that The Rite of Spring was trying to address and celebrate,” says Iyer about the project. “Stravinsky, Nijinsky and Sergei Diaghilev [founder of the Ballets Russes company in the early 20th century] were all Russian immigrants living in Paris. So there was a sense of representing their heritage or some aspect of their identity for a Parisian audience.”
Iyer pauses for effect, then laughs: “It didn’t go over so well!”
Indeed. By all accounts, just moments after the curtain rose, and Nijinsky’s dancers began to jerk, pogo and otherwise frug to Stravinsky’s bestial beats, the audience went berserk. People yelled obscenities, stamped their feet and apparently even honked car horns to show their outrage at what they were seeing and hearing. Given all the noise, one wonders if anyone actually heard Stravinsky’s score, which one Parisian critic described as “having no relation to music at all as most of us understand the word.”
Like Stravinsky and his Russian collaborators, Iyer and Bhargava were also interested in how legends and religious stories resonate as earthly experiences.
“We thought we could deal with something real, that’s happening now, and go and film this set of rituals and practices and chaotic interactions of all kind,” says Iyer. “The Holi festival seems ancient, but it also seems like today. You see people in T-shirts with cell phones, wearing sunglasses and all of that.”
While the Holi festival is celebrated in cities across the globe (including Houston), Bhargava, whose highly acclaimed feature Patang (The Kite) was filmed in Ahmedabad during its kite-flying festival, insisted on traveling to film the festival in Uttar Pradesh.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we go shoot in Queens?’” says Iyer laughing. “No, man, he had to go to the source.” Sadly, Bhargava died in 2015 at the age of 42, though he did live to see Iyer and ICE perform with his film several times.
Like The Rite of Spring, Iyer’s score is broken up into 12 short sections across two parts: “Adoration” and “Transcendence." The instrumentation includes woodwinds, two trumpets, violin, viola, cello, percussion, drum set and two pianos, one of which is played by Iyer. The influence of Stravinsky’s musical language bubbles underneath much of music, perhaps most clearly in “Intoxication,” where Iyer’s ghostly electronics accompany an extended solo for bassoon. In the film’s climatic montage, which includes shots of a massive bonfire, Krishna’s hands caressing Radhe, whose face and bosom end up covered in blue powder, and a gang of women with sticks beating the crap out of a man with only a shield for protection, features what Iyer describes as “a massive drum solo” performed by his longtime collaborator Tyshawn Sorey.
“It’s got joy in it, and it’s got danger in it,” says Iyer of his music for Radhe Radhe, “and you see all of that in the film. You see people in pretty dangerous situations, and in rapturous joy, experiencing some of the happiest moments of their lives.”
Vijay Iyer’s Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi featuring International Contemporary Ensemble. May 5 at 8 p.m. $37.50–67.50 Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-524-5050. dacamera.com