A jazz musician and a filmmaker bring together Stravinsky and Holi, says Lavina Melwani.

Stravinsky’s controversial masterpiece “The Rite of Spring” and the colour-drenched Hindu festival of Holi — a match made in Heaven?

This unlikely pairing will be seen in a work commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in North Carolina and will premiere on March 28 on the day of Holi. “Radhe Radhe: Rites of Spring” is the name of this new work, and the two noted artistes bringing it to stunning life are New York jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and Indie filmmaker Prashant Bhargava.

They will be in esteemed company, for as this famous composition, probably one of the most well-known in classical western music, celebrates its 100th year, CPA has commissioned 11 works from such acclaimed artistes as choreographer Bill T. Jones and director Anne Bogart, puppeteer Basil Twist, and composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky to create their own interpretations of “The Rite of Spring.”

This almost year-long centennial celebration (September 2012 to May 2013) will also feature the world premiere of “Radhe Radhe” which Iyer will perform live with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) interwoven with a multimedia work by Bhargava in which Holi in Mathura explodes on the big screen in North Carolina.

Vijay Iyer and Prashant Bhargava, who have collaborated in the past, are approaching this work from two very different shores. Iyer is the acclaimed jazz musician and composer who has performed with his Grammy-nominated trio and ensembles in many parts of the world. His trio album Historicity was nominated for a 2010 Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Album, and won the Echo Award for the Best International Album. Next month he’ll be performing at Carnegie Hall and also touring in Europe.

Prashant Bhargava is a filmmaker from Chicago whose wonderful first feature Patang premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, among others. It has received critical acclaim, including four stars from Roger Ebert of Chicago Suntimes , and has been a New York Times Critics Pick. It is awaiting release in India.

“I’m a big fan of his work,” says Iyer. “In Patang , Prashant shot in the midst of this major kite festival in Ahmedabad and yet he was able to capture real intimate and personal moments — it’s not a voyeuristic or ethnographic kind of approach to documenting a festival in India. You get the sense that the person behind the camera is of that community. That’s something which really appeals to me about his work — it can have this amazing grand sweep but still have this real detailed intimacy of individuals going through their own processes, their own transformations.”

So, last year Prashant Bhargava and his crew of six headed out to Mathura, Brindaban and Braj, the mythic stomping grounds of Krishna and Radha, to capture the real essence of the festival. Holi is an all-consuming fever there since there’s almost a continuity between myth and everyday life during those eight frenzied days of the celebration. It is immersive, unsettling, chaotic and very beautiful, as Bhargava discovered.

Indeed, it was an overwhelming journey for him, and he came back with 60 hours of powerful footage which was later distilled into just 35 minutes. He worked closely with the original Stravinsky piece as a kind of structural background. Since it’s divided into 12 episodes, Iyer and he traced the episodes to see how they could tell the story.

“Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ is a piece which caused riots when it was performed in 1913 because there was a dissonance between the music and the subject matter of the ballet,” says Bhargava. “The purpose was almost to incite. It was based on a Russian folk tale about the coming of Spring when a woman was sacrificed by her community and we didn’t want to focus on the darkness initially and chose to focus on the festival of Holi.”

Nawaz Siddiqui, who is a longtime collaborator with Bhargava and stars in Patang , accompanied him to Mathura. Says Bhargava, “He was the spirit of Krishna”, and one will see him in glimpses in the final distilled version, a power-packed 35 minutes multimedia work which accompanies the live rendition of Vijay Iyer’s composition.

The entire shoot was memorable, pulsating as it did with religious fervour and sweet reverence of Holi, yet with overtones of sexual energy and bhang fervour. Bhargava and his crew became one with the multitude, and the colour would come hurtling right at the camera lens, dousing everyone. He recalls of the chaotic, colour-drenched days, “It was wild — everyone was possessed by the spirit of Holi and the energy between Krishna and Radha. It is about spiritual awakening, but it’s also very sexual, visceral, primal.”

Indeed, while the film captures the avalanche of colour and joy where everyone gets to be Krishna and Radha, it has shadings of darkness and violence too. One incident was particularly memorable, recalls Bhargava, during Natwar Holi where men from Krishna’s playground troop to Radha’s playground, high on bhang, chanting and taunting. The village women in ghunghat in an age-old ritual hit the men’s shields with seven foot poles with ferocious strength. It was playful but there was a violence and sense of aggression on the part of the women, almost a reversal of roles.

In creating his original work, Vijay Iyer also drew inspiration from Bhargava’s video footage of the multitudes in ecstasy, arms flailing, the devotional, earthy and physical energy, and incorporated some of the folk rhythms.

“Vijay has done so well as a pure jazz musician — he’s one of the world’s finest at what he does,” says Bhargava.

“He’s in the process of bringing together all the orchestration — he will be leading the 10-piece orchestra as well as playing the piano. Things are really going to happen on set. It’s going to be a piece that finds its own shape and really challenges the audience.”

Bhargava adds: “We are bringing something so raw and real, an uninhibited India — it will make audiences uncomfortable, repulsed and deeply drawn at the same time. I am excited about it because that’s the spirit of the original ‘Rite of Spring’. When Ballets Russe presented it in 1913, the audience stood up and almost stormed the Theater des Champs-Elysees — and I will be happy if that happens with the audiences here!”