Colours They Own

For centuries, widows of Vrindavan knew of only one colour: white. It set them apart. Perpetually mournful, they had to beg and die nameless in a city where their gods were sought to be living. But life is not same each day, nor is it meant to be seen in emptiness of white. So, they chose colours. The Tribune’s photographer S. Chandan visits Vrindavan and shares some of the most beautiful human aspirations

THE crowded Gopinath Bazar of Vrindavan became a moving canvas on March 9: over 2,000 people were splashed with colours of Holi. Ordinary people — sadhus, Sanskrit scholars, pundits and about 1,000 widows — entered the Old Krishna Temple courtyard barefoot and threw colours on each other. An age-old tradition disallowing widows to participate in joyous celebrations was thus broken — again in five years in a row.

The widows, a few of them barely able to move with the support of a walking stick, burst into songs. The scene looked like this: Gulal — over 1,500 kg of pink, yellow, green and red — was placed in the middle of the large courtyard as over 1,500 kg of rose and marigold petals added to the rich fragrance. They all danced.

The colours of Holi were not only meant to be seen. You could also hear the joyous strains of phag being sung in chorus. The atmosphere reverberated with traditional singing of dhamar on the accompaniment of dhol, pakhawaj, majeera, cymbals and harmonium, gradually moving on to more contemporary 'holis' like, aaj biraj me holi re rasiya. No recorded music, everyone sang.

“Bahut kuchh badal jaata hai (so much changes),” says Aruti Nath, her face brimming over with radiance of joy, her eyes moist. She is among hundreds, all draped in white, a stark remnant of traditional patriarchy that robbed them of their basic right to partake food of their choice and wear colourful clothes. They were treated as inauspicious and untouchable. A few of them were widowed when they were hardly 18 years. They were shunned by their family members who feared the women might stake their claim on property. So the widows went to Vrindavan or Varanasi, to spend the rest of their lives in the ‘service of god.’

Will a day-long celebration make any difference?

In 2012, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International, learnt that bodies of widows in Vrindavan were taken away by sweepers at night, cut into pieces, put into jute bags and disposed of as government-run institutions lacked facilities for a decent funeral. This was done only after the inmates gave money to a sweeper. The widows begged on the streets. After the facts were confirmed by the National Legal Service Authority, his NGO was approached by the Supreme Court to help the destitute women — over a thousand living in four government-run shelters in Mathura. Most of them came from West Bengal, where ‘devi’ is worshipped.

When Dr Pathak came to Vrindavan to hear them out, the widows cried: “ham jeena nahi chahte (we don't want to live).” He cried with them. His consistent efforts first focused on their mournful white robes. Slowly, the stark whiteness started giving way to coloured polka dots. “Hope has colours, too,” he had said.
Sulabh today arranges Rs 2,000 for each widow per month so that they can cook their own meal, make some agarbattis, dresses, garlands and ornaments for idols, and have a healthcare support plus a respectful burial. They also have TV sets and fridges. Festivals now evoke a simple celebration, with its essential theme: “We want to live.”

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