Tuesday 16 January 2018

True colours: Photographer Donal Moloney captures India during Holi festival

A professional photographer for 30 years, Donal Moloney has always wanted to visit India and capture it in his own style. The annual festival of Holi seemed the perfect time to be indoctrinated. Patricia Louise Murphy tagged along for the journey

People ‘playing Holi’ in the town of Vrindavan
People ‘playing Holi’ in the town of Vrindavan
A saffron sunset on the Yamuna river in Vrindavan
One of the many colourful jewels in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal
Bringing in the harvest on Yamuma highway
A Sadhu, wandering holy man, rests near the Yamuna River.
A man begs in a temple in Vrindavan
The girl on the train, Agra

Arriving in India feels like passing through the birth canal all over again. First there is the expectant 24 hours leading up to the arrival and then: bam!

We are torn from our amniotic fluid lives and into the raw reality that awaits us. I'm hardly ready to open my eyes as we pass through the torn hems of broken suburbs and towns south of Delhi. Our taxi driver is taking us through the back door of the capital on our search for Krishna.

Vrindavan and Mathura are rural towns that lie along the Yamuna River - the birthplace and stomping ground of Lord Krishna and the epicentre for Holi. The Yamuna is the spiritual spinal cord which links Delhi, Vrindavan and Agra. Immediately we get stuck in 'playing Holi', as the Indians call it. It's a feast of colour and prayer and offerings at the hundreds of temples in the area; we get swept along with the joy and fun of colour-bombing each other.

Inside the walls of the Bankey Bihari Temple, Donal captures his first shimmering glimpse of Krishna. Among the frenzy of raised arms and clouds of powders that hang in the half-light, the sheer energy and distorted kaleidoscope of colours is enough to make many weep openly and honestly. Yet despite all the festivities, I am unable to find Krishna in the temples or on the streets with the throngs of followers and their free-roaming cows, goats, pigs, dogs and monkeys.

A saffron sunset on the Yamuna river in Vrindavan
A saffron sunset on the Yamuna river in Vrindavan

I am beginning to feel like a spiritual tourist, a gatecrasher at the feast of Holi. But they say miracles can be found in the most unexpected places. For me, it was on the banks of the Yamuna River. It's early evening and we take a tip from another visiting photographer to go and see Kesi Ghat, crumbling steps leading down to the holy river which have been left abandoned by all except the hordes of monkeys and Sadhus, India's wandering holy men.

The energy here feels very different, as little groups of worshippers have gathered far from the madding crowd. Outside on the steps, the devotees perform their own peaceful, melancholic rituals at the water's edge. Looking out across the river, I am suddenly moved. This is the after-party, where Krishna chooses to reveal himself to me.

Here we are, two in a billion among this mayhem yet the people we meet make us feel so special "Ma'am, I come from a very small town. We never see people like you. I am just so nervous talking to you that I am shaking right now," I am told.

Others, slowly and quietly, sit in the splendour of the setting sun. Orange and gold. Saffron and turmeric. The colours of India. The colours of Krishna. Hare Krishna.

One of the many colourful jewels in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal
One of the many colourful jewels in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal

The first two days in Vrindavan are like nursery school - weaning us in for Mathura, the Senior School of the Holi experience. Fast, crowded, harsh. It's a free-for-all and survival of the fittest. A railway track runs straight through a busy junction, and along the route we meet hordes of children who live and play here. Survival-savvy youngsters who will gently try to hustle a few rupees from tourists like ourselves.

One overzealous young lad of about 10 catches the attention of the local guard who unashamedly hits him one almighty wallop with a large wooden stick. So hard that the young lad limps down the road. And it is this scene that affects us more than anything we have seen in the previous few days. More than the cripples and the beggars who line up outside the temples. More than our view of the daily toil and hardships that we watch from a moving car. This is a child being punished for doing what he has to do to survive. An adult and figure of authority beating down on one of their own.

Lesson one: We do not choose where and when we are born. It chooses us. This is India and it moves to its own beat. Even if we don't agree with the way things are, we owe it to them to remain courteous and respectful. We are visitors. We are not here to change it.

Before you set off on a journey, your destination is just somewhere on a map. A name you probably can't pronounce, that your search engine explains by way of its proximity to some familiar landmarks. Leaving Vrindavan and Mathura behind after four days, felt like we had been in the trenches. A total immersion in an augmented Indian reality. The colours of Holi are still ingrained in the creases of our skin and stained in our hair as we arrive at our modern, upmarket hotel in Agra. We look like new-age travellers. Even our luggage has a fine dusting of pink and purple and blue. I'm hoping that we haven't swapped a full-fat, extra-sugar, overflowing cup of India for a watered-down version: India Light.

Bringing in the harvest on Yamuma highway
Bringing in the harvest on Yamuma highway

First thing I do is get to the gym and run. This is not something that is practical to do outdoors in this part of India for a variety of reasons, so it's great to get the opportunity. I start to think about microbes; those billions of microscopic organisms that can kill or cure us. How, for example, do I remain symptom-free for the whole trip, while my travel companion does the Indian shuffle from the bedroom to the bathroom for two days? Microbes, the gift of Mother Nature, which on this occasion give me the advantage. Similar microbes protect the local population who quite obviously live in poor hygiene and safety conditions. Open sewers, discarded waste and faeces of all kinds flank the roadsides. But, as Sebastian Barry writes in On Canaan's Side: "Its filthiness has only been a humorous coat to hide it gemlike brilliance." This is the Indian experience in all is charm, chaos and colour.

As I run, I'm also trying to find the union between the sanitised version of yoga that I practise back home with the origins of its birthplace. My cherry-picked postures and philosophies stretched out on a deluxe yoga mat that could not be any further from the realities of India. I practice my designer yoga, hoping that by showing up once a week, I'm cooling down my karma and getting closer to enlightenment. So it's a hybrid, I reason. A practice that has mutated as it gets handed down from one teacher to the next. And I'm happy to align myself to this new DNA, and it's OK that it's not perfect.

It's OK to go with the flow and anything that values our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual growth is worth pursuing. What we need to do is remove the need for specific outcomes and for perfection.

Donal is, once again, eager to get stuck into photographic action, so it's off to the train station in Agra. The brightly coloured dust of Holi is replaced by the dust of marble and industry and urban urgency. It's bedlam and a great spot for people-watching.

The girl on the train, Agra
The girl on the train, Agra

Many look as if they are camped here in the hope that their train will soon come in.

Schedules are not always the most reliable. It's humbling to see the reaction of people when Donal stops to take photos of them. Suddenly they have become the centre of attention. Perhaps they are seeing themselves through the eyes of a stranger for the first time and wondering: what is so special about me?

Their reserved nature and feigned obscurity is refreshing compared to the overexposed world that we inhabit, in which visibility and profile is everything. Yet those big brown eyes, when they look at us, they really look at us. They look inside us, they connect with us on a level that we as westerners have difficulty reciprocating. It takes practice.

Lesson two: Variety is the spice of life and a little bit of dirt and disorder is healthy.

Lesson three: Our bodies and our minds are the gateways to our temple. Visit often, stay open.

It takes a village to raise a child but a woman to build a city. We meet women in Agra carrying bricks five high on their head on building sites, mixing mortar and crouched by the side of the road in tented encampments making the daily bread.

This is India. And of course no trip to Agra would be complete without visiting the Taj Mahal, the pearl in India's crown. But somehow this ancient wonder is of little consequence to the litters of pigs that jostle for space around the laneways that lead to its grand entrance. Pearls before swine.

Delhi is our final stop and thankfully the Metro allows us to travel in and out without too much trauma. This is the second biggest city in the world and feels every bit of it. Traffic is chaotic and it can be frustrating to get around. Tuk-tuks fly about erratically and it's hard to feel a connection to anywhere or anything. Not a good option if you are looking for a leisurely stroll through the sprawling markets. Once again, the whole dynamic has changed. The people are more cosmopolitan and less traditional in their dress and behaviours. But as our mission has already been accomplished in our search for Krishna, we are only passing through. We bid farewell to a country that has welcomed us with open arms, albeit briefly, and leave with a knowledge and gratitude that can only be gained by experiencing it. This is India and we vow to return.

Photography by Donal Moloney

Sunday Independent

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