Commodification of widows taking sheen out of Holi in Vrindavan

Written by Sandeep Datta

As a lot of people are turning keen to watch emotional scenes of Widows’ Holi in Vrindavan, there seems to be a disturbing trend creeping in — widows’ commodification. It happened this time to cater to the demands of photographers looking for that ‘perfect shot’.    Though the organisers deserve appreciation for initiating such a process where the women dejected by families have been given an occasion to celebrate joyful moments, they need to watch out against these women becoming ‘objects of practising widow photography’.

From readers or audience’s perspective, it may sound an overwhelming ‘Human Interest’ story that evokes compassion and a feeling of ‘change’. But the actual story behind the ‘great shots’ was different this time.

The much-needed move of Sulabh International aimed to trigger a rethinking on centuries’ old social practices went haywire on February 27. Two days ahead of Holi, about 150 widows were brought in at the historic Gopinath Temple of Vrindavan. A lot of them were widows or deserted women from Nepal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab. Each one of them had their own tale of sorrow. However, to the photographers, they just had one thing to say – ‘We are happy here. We are happy because of Bindeshwar ji (founder of Sulabh Internationa). We get 2,000 rupees. We get food and clothes.’

These women were in their late 70s or 80s. They were supposed to celebrate Holi with petals and dry colours together. But a number media persons, tourists, and youngsters were also present loaded with their cameras and mobile phones. After a brief spell of hesitation, several over-enthusiastic photographers started selecting their favourite women and made them pose in different ways. Organisers kept watching without intervening for the sake of ‘media requirement’.

For a section of photographers, this is how it was to be done to trigger that ‘wow’ feel in a ‘human interest’ story. After all a lot of them were assigned to evoke that feel of ‘pain, sorrow or ultimate discovery of ecstasy’ in the lives of so many widows of Vrindavan. But for a few, it is called ‘staged photography’.

For some, it may be a matter of how you look at things. For others, it’s leaving the widows unguarded at the mercy of some crazy photographers as just another piece of object or subject to practice for ‘wow shots’ in the famous Vrindavan. Many of the widows appeared attending the event with a compulsion and not joy.

Visualise a grandma in her 80s repeatedly being asked to pose in different ways or suddenly about 20 to 30 photographers literally pouncing upon two wrinkle-faced women, leaving them bewildered. Some photographer suddenly throws a handful of petals over their heads to make them appear enjoying the moment.

In another corner, a woman was asked to remain still and the photographer had put some petals on her head to show that an old woman’s head got covered with petals during the ‘rain of flowers’.

Two-three women were given a pitcher and a big plate to place it on their heads and pose as a ‘village women lost in ultimate joy of Holi’. In another instance, a widow was asked to remain still like a statue with her cheek pressed against the cheek of another widow, till all the portrait-crazy photographers were done with the clicking.

In yet another instance, a woman in her late 70s or 80s was made to lie down on a small heap of petals while keeping her hands and legs wide open. To any slightly researched photojournalist, it was a stupid practice session for copying legendary photographer Steve McCurry’s 1996 shot of a green coloured man being carried by a crowd in Rajasthan on Holi.

The otherwise well-organised event went haywire soon after it started and a group of over-enthusiastic media persons went overboard. About three to four public announcements by organisers for vacating the veranda fell on deaf ears. None bothered and soon they crowded around a woman who danced beautifully like Lord Krishna’s beloved Radha lost in thoughts.

But who actually danced at the ‘big show’? It was the visiting photographers, foreigners, and some rowdy youths. It soon turned into a scene where almost all preferred getting swayed by the feeling of Holi and started dancing in small groups in their own style. Hardly anyone bothered about the presence of so many old widows and, especially of the fact that it was the widows’ moment of festivity and not of the visiting foreigners’ or photographers’.

With the visibility turning zero and colours covering the viewscreens, it was impossible for many to click anything. However, the smarter professional photographers still managed to capture their finest of the day.

Today, days after the event one can view it as turning ignorant to the repercussion of ‘giving in to media’s requirements’ or ‘just highlight’ the ‘Widows’ Holi’ event at any cost of feeding media.

A journalist while coming out of the temple remarked, “Widows se zyada journalists ki Holi thi ye” (it was more of journalists’ Holi than  widows’ Holi).

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Sandeep Datta

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