Vijay Iyer takes ‘The Rite of Spring’ to India

dmenconi@newsobserver.comMarch 22, 2013 

Pianist Vijay Iyer.


  • More information

    What: “RADHE RADHE – The Rites of Holi” with Vijay Iyer, Prashant Bhargava and International Contemporary Ensemble

    When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

    Where: Memorial Hall, UNC-Chapel Hill

    Cost: $10-$39

    More info: 919-843-3333 or

Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” is a broad canvas, and one of its more intriguing recastings happens on Tuesday with “RADHE RADHE – The Rites of Holi.” Commissioned as part of Carolina Performing Arts’ “The Rite of Spring at 100” series, the piece is inspired by the Holi Festival in India, a holiday that composer Vijay Iyer likens to a cross between a Hindu rite of spring and Halloween.

Iyer, an American-born pianist of Indian descent, says he wanted to use “Rite of Spring” as a point of departure for something well beyond the music. That led him to ponder spring’s transformative aspects, and its notions of change.

“In that context, I realized I knew quite a lot about this one thing, this practice from India of celebrating spring with a holiday that’s a very chaotic ritual,” Iyer says. “To some people it’s a big party, to others it’s an occasion for austerity, for others it’s catharsis. It’s a moment when you can express a lot of things you otherwise can’t in everyday life, about sexuality and power relations. It has a certain kind of freedom and chaos, which brings its own problems. It’s also a moment to reflect on your relationship to the environment, history and myth. You basically see people re-enacting myths to the point that they seem real. The boundary between myth and reality is lifted and myths are made flesh.”

One of the myths that Holi celebrants re-enact centers on Krishna, the dark-blue Hindu avatar of Vishnu, who Iyer describes as a “flirtatious trickster figure.” In one courtship ritual, Krishna tries to darken the fair skin of the goddess Radha by throwing colored water on her, which figures into Iyer’s composition as well as the visual side of “RADHE RADHE.”

Iyer’s collaborator on the program is filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, who went to the mythic birthplace of Krishna to capture footage of Holi festivities. Those images will accompany the music onstage.

“Holi is eight days, and a lot of things happen,” Iyer says. “Daytime is partying, throwing colored water and powder, and drinking this hallucinogenic drink people have. There’s also a lot of cathartic ritual stuff happening. There’s a moment where the men crouch down and women beat them with sticks, and Prashant said you could see in their eyes that at some level this was not a game – more like a moment of revenge. Gender rules are very circumscribed, and this is a moment where women are able to fight back.

“The other side is a lot of nighttime rituals of austerity having to do with fire, like walking through flames,” he adds. “It’s darker and more mysterious. There are two very profound and vivid aspects of the holiday that are expressed.”

Sounds like a heck of a party.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or

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