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During one of my first trips to India in 2002, I arrived in Delhi expecting to see throngs of people bustling about the city. Instead the streets were empty with almost no one around. As I walked around in disbelief, three young men on a bicycle came pedaling around a corner, their faces and clothes covered in brightly colored powder. “Happy Holi!”, they shouted, throwing red powder on me, laughing and yelling and riding away. I had arrived on Holi, a Hindu festival celebrating spring and the triumph of light over darkness. It celebrates the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
This spring, the streets of India are once again empty, only this time because of a coronavirus lockdown, where the government has ordered 1.3 billion people to stay inside their homes.
My wife is from India, but grew up in Canada, California and India and her parents live in Delhi. My first trip to India was in 2000, two years before I met my wife in Vermont. Our most recent trip to India was a few weeks ago just before the coronavirus pandemic forced social distancing measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Now people around the globe are sheltering in place, not allowed to leave their homes except for essentials.
Over the past two decades I have traveled to India about fifteen times, from the foothills of the Himalaya to the tropical beaches of Kerala. In India, life is lived on the street. The sheer multitude of people can be exhilarating and overwhelming. Colors are everywhere and moments of lyrical street poetry abound. One morning I went to the Yamuna River in Delhi at sunrise to make pictures of India’s water problems. Heavy fog hung in the air. Just as I was walking along next to the polluted river, the sun broke through the fog and down below, a man was feeding seagulls from a small boat. The birds exploded into my lens and I got a vibrant picture. A few years ago I went with a group of photographers in a workshop to photograph the Holi festival in Nandgaon and Barsana. The advice from lead photographer Sanjay Nanda was invaluable – wear old clothes, Crocs and cover your camera with a special protective cover. Once inside the temples, we were covered with colored powders and splashing water. It was chaos and a total blast for a photographer. Although I love making photographs in crowds, I am also drawn to the quieter moments of life in India– a man rowing a boat at sunrise on the Ganges River, a vendor sorting flowers in Kolkata or families strolling along Marine Drive in Mumbai at sunset. I hope soon the streets of India will be full again.