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One of the most brilliant and exciting commemorations of the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is a new work that references the Russian composer's music — but in an entirely new cultural framework. It's a pairing of film and music called Radhe, Radhe: Rites of Holi.
Created by two Indian-American artists, pianist and composer Vijay Iyer and filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, and played by Iyer and members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Radhe Radhe transports Stravinsky's semi-mythological tale of mysterious primordial Russian rituals with an actual religious festival that takes place each spring: the Hindu festival of Holi. The duo's work was commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, which dedicated its entire 2012-13 season to examining and celebrating The Rite of Spring from an enormous variety of vantage points, including several world premieres of pieces inspired by Stravinsky. One such work is Radhe Radhe, which was debuted in March.
Bhargava's footage comes from the city of Mathura in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Mathura has special prominence in Hindu tradition: It's claimed as the birthplace of Lord Krishna, one of the most important deities of the Hindu pantheon and who is especially tied to this springtime holiday, and so the city becomes a place of pilgrimage for Holi celebrants. In Mathura, Holi is a celebration of the goddess Radha's and Krishna's love for each other, a love depicted throughout Hindu poetry, religious ritual, music and art as feelings that are at once divine and deeply human. (The reference to Radha is what gives this project its name.) Holi is also known as "the festival of colors" for the brilliantly shaded powders that people throw on each other during the festival.
Iyer and Bhargava's Radhe Radhe picks up upon Stravinsky's musical and conceptual ideas in smart and subtle ways. Bhargava, a filmmaker whose previous credits include the feature-length Patang (The Kite), has an extraordinary eye for small gestures and visual details — no small thing, given Mathura's overwhelming whirl of brilliant hues and pressing crowds. He captures the upending of social norms during Holi, when women have free rein to beat men with sticks — playfully, but with the undercurrent of society experiencing a temporary respite from rigid gender roles during a time of magic.
Bhargava also captures the simmering menace inherent in the Stravinsky. The shots move deftly from pre-festival preparations to exuberant celebrations to far more unsettling scenes. Bonfires roar; in Hindu tradition, they symbolize the triumph of good over evil, but here you're highly aware of fire's destructive power. And Bhargava witnesses how the good-natured tossing of colored powders — the quintessential Holi activity — sours into ugly bullying, particularly of women, on the street.
Similarly, Iyer uses the spark of Stravinsky in creative and dexterous ways that may not be immediately apparent. Just as the original Rite opens with a solo bassoon traveling a strange and lonely melodic path, the music of Radhe Radhe begins with Iyer and fellow pianist Cory Smythe, spinning in their own musical galaxy before opening up to the ensemble. And just as Stravinsky seized upon Russian folkloric musical ideas though not directly quoting them, Iyer occasionally transforms ICE into a band of Indian musicians playing devotional-sounding creations of his own devising. (And that's not even to touch upon the long history jazz musicians have had with Stravinsky's Rite; for more on this, go to our colleague Patrick Jarenwattananon's excellent survey of these relationships, past and present.)
Radhe Radhe is both a testament to Stravinsky's continued influence and a richly successful creative expression on its own terms, well apart from the Rite centennial. Bhargava and Iyer are planning that their visually and sonically dazzling collaboration will get wider exposure through the film festival circuit and potentially a DVD release; here's hoping that many viewers and audiences get a chance to experience Holi through Bhargava and Iyer's eyes and ears.