In east India, the winter months are more inviting than those in the summer. Between December and February, the typically oppressive heat relents, and those looking to enjoy the outdoors travel to one of the region's many rivers or miles of coastline for a day of dancing, eating, and drinking.
Groups of friends and entire families hire buses to take them long distances in search of the perfect picnic spot, along with copious amounts of food and alcohol. Once they establish a camp, the groups—sometimes joined by a professional chef—will blast Hindi and Bengali pop music and cook freshly slaughtered chicken with rice over an open fire, accompanied by whiskey and rum. On the riverbanks and beaches, the schedule for the day tends to be little more than playing games and dancing to exhaustion.
Photographer Arko Datto is from Calcutta and observed these festivities early in life, though his family never participated. His work photographing this annual tradition was a four-year-long endeavor that took him to popular river destinations around Calcutta.
His interest in these picnics was sparked after observing a tragic incident in which a boat carrying a group of revelers capsized. As Datto tells it, the boat was transporting more people than it could carry through a deep part of a river when it suddenly buckled under the weight. While he doesn’t remember how many people drowned, the event pushed him to more actively immerse himself in documenting winter picnics.
For an event so rooted in revelry, Datto also wanted capture what he saw as the events’ "dark underpinnings." He hoped his images would reflect some larger social issues, such as the gender disparities in a culture where crimes against women have steadily risen in the past five years.
"In public spaces, it's very difficult for men and women to come together even for something as simple as a picnic," said Datto. Groups of young adults, most often men, spend the full day drinking. Drunken brawls can become common as a result. "The idea is to get trashed," Datto observed. Women who attend without their families tend to tread lightly as a result.
Datto himself also walked cautiously while he photographed. One of his biggest challenges as a photographer was that his camera occasionally attracted the attention of inebriated men who were looking for a fight. In one of his photos, a group of men can be seen engaged in a drunken brawl over a woman. In another, a crowd restrains two men alleged of assaulting a woman.
Datto's photographs also put environmental issues on display. The beaches and riverbanks that host the mid-winter parties are “beautiful and pristine”—at least for now. Months of relentless picnics can degrade fragile riverbanks, accelerating their erosion. And the rivers themselves are also left contaminated.
Despite the impurities, at a picnic spot on the Ganges River located near a brick factory, picnickers cover themselves in mud. In one photo, men can be seen blanketed in the murky river sludge from head to toe. After hours of letting it cake and harden onto their skin, they pick it off, revealing softer skin underneath.
"It's meant to be a therapeutic, but the irony is that it's polluted," remarked Datto. Mud bathing is a common form of therapy, practiced around the world, but when mud is sourced from polluted waters, this form of therapy can do more harm than good.
In fact, the Ganges, India's most revered river, is also one of the world's most toxic. Years of contamination from human sewage and industrial waste have left the waters sullied with dangerous bacteria and carcinogens.
Datto didn’t intend to portray the event as good or bad, joyful or concerning. The tradition of letting loose can be enacted in many forms, and Datto hoped to capture this diversity of behavior in his photos—brawling men, family bonding, children playing outside. Altogether, Datto finds, it's a portrait of incredible chaos.