Discovering the lost music of Rajasthan – Oct 2015

I am flying into Jodhpur on a long pending trip and with a specific agenda – to experience the Rajasthan International Folk Festival 2015 (“RIFF 2015”) , an annual cultural festival held around the full moon night to primarily celebrate the unsung musicians of Rajasthan with a spattering of international artistes who collaborate with the local folk artistes.

The Clock Tower

The rather democratic venue of the festival’s Opening Ceremony at the Clock Tower in the old trading areas of the city meant that local Jodhpur residents from all walks of life could watch the opening acts. Of course, this did not hold true for the rest of the festival which was attended largely by Indian and foreign tourists, but the festival still managed to be inclusive and not a pseudo-elitist offering by keeping free entry to several acts. The opening ceremony began with a well-curated set of acts, proving a good teaser of what to expect from the rest of the festival. The father-son duo setting the stage alight with a rather scary fire dance, the “Agni Bhavai” – pouring kerosene over their body, spitting fire out left, right and center like a dragon. The troupe of “Dhol-Thali” dancers – over 60 years of age, but energetically moving around the stage in solemn steps invoking the Snake Deity”, Gogaji. The high-pitched vocalists, the haunting tunes of the Algoza players, the quick glimpse of Papa Julius with his reggae act and the cross-dressing male dancers. A perfect start to the festival!

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Jaswant Thada
Jaswant Thada

A beautiful dawn in the company of stars – the pole star shining bright, the Ursa Major standing out in the profusion of stars. An equally beautiful setting on a sandstone pavilion against the backdrop of the Jaswant Thada, a cluster of cenotaphs for the rulers of Marwar. The dawn was broken by the serenading of a group of Meghwal singers, led by Malaram Meghwal from the deserts of Jaisalmer. A satsang-like atmosphere created instantaneously with their devotional songs. But, alas, an audience not as rapt as a traditional satsang baithak! We didn’t pay as much respect to the singers as we should. Busy chasing the sunrise with our selfies and photos! In the words of the singers (who themselves borrowed Kabir’s poetry) –

  “Aao Satsangat Amar kadi

Jisko laabh mila satsangva, usko khabar padi”

The benefits of a Satsang remain hidden from everyone, except those who immerse themselves in it and reap the joys of it. Not a large number that morning, unfortunately!

The chirping of the birds waking up to a new morning, the garam chai ki pyaali and the comfortable gaddas all added to the experience that would happily draw me back to the festival year after year.

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Over the 3 days that I spent at the festival, I got glimpses of several forms of music and dances from various parts of Rajasthan.

The strong voices of the two women manganiyar women – singing songs of valour and happy ocassions – but, purdah-less, also strongly declaring their defiance of rigid customs that prevent them from singing to a mixed audience.

The bhopa and bhopi pair that read and sing tales by the light of earthen lamps and to the gypsy-like rhythms of Ravana hatta strings which to me seemed to be strummed with a tambourine-like instrument. The bhopi’s energetic and unabashed dance was mesmerising – twirling like dervishes, swirling plates like a warrior practicing with shields, heaving bosoms moving with the tak-tak of the khartal and the trance-inducing chants of the bheel songs. Bhopas are typically from the nayak community – bard priests who move from village to village with phads – portable, multi hued scrolls depicting the heroics of Pabuji, a Rathod chief worshipped as a God Incarnate. I felt elated to have witnessed a jhalak of this old tradition, albeit outside of its spiritual context.

One of the most fun acts to watch was the Chang dancers. These men are not professional dancers. Instead, they are peasants, leather workers etc who dance typically during the spring festival of Holi. Swaying to the tune of only a flute and a Chang drum, the dancers were clearly dancing for their own joy and the audience was incidental!

Another brilliant act was yet another RIFF dawn act at the Jaswant Thada. The musicians included Wouter Kellerman – a Grammy award winning Flautist, Mahesh Vinayakram – a carnatic singer, Dilshad Khan – a Rajasthani folk artiste playing the sarangi and 2 African vocalists along with some other accompanying artistes. The troupe was an unlikely, but brilliant fusion of the East and the West, the North and the South – accompanied by a motley set of instruments – the guitar, flute, sarangi, drums. The spontaneous jugalbandi between the various artistes created a unique experience for us and the artistes themselves who seemed to be loving this experiment.

What also made the festival inclusive were the various “Insight” sessions, providing for interactions with specific groups or communities of musicians in smaller settings – helping the audience get a sense of the history of the music, its origin and its traditional setting. For example, after having heard several groups of Langa singers, a community of professional musicians, it was interesting to learn that until the “Song & Dance” department of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting insisted that the Langa performers include the Dholak players in their act in the 1970s, the Dholak was alien to the singers who would traditionally perform only with the sarangi!

I was also surprised to hear that the Manganiyar Khans have rajputs as patrons and the sindhi peasants were typically the jajmaans for the langas. Both of these communities happily sing Bhakti geets and bhajans and no happy ocassion be it a wedding, a birth or a death in their patrons’ families can begin without the Manganiyar / Langa ritual songs. What a beautiful case of religious integration that the media rarely dwells on!

One of the most “hope-arousing” moments was seeing the young Langa and Manganiyar children performing under the guidance of the adults from their respective communities – several of the kids were actually performing for an audience for the first time. The kids with all their adult like harkats, the child-like restlessness and beautiful unbroken voices that hold the promise of a bright future for the music of their soil. The septa generians – living legends whose time has passed – grooming young kids from their villages. Keeping alive the stories of their musical youth; at the same time, keeping alive their great oral traditions. At the end of the session, I couldn’t help but rush out to meet the kids and express my sincere hope that they keep up their musical inclinations well into adulthood. I was surprised to speak to the youngest kid (merely 7 years old and already a confident performer!) and find out that he was keener to dance to a Salman Khan song than to speak about his folk songs! Looks like no one’s immune to Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s charms.

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The festival to me was a big eye-opener. While I spend crazy amounts of money to seek new experiences abroad, I don’t know why I have been this lax about exploring the cultural heritage of my own country? If one state has such diversity in its music and dance, what a repertoire lies hidden in the hinterlands of India? So much to see in India and so much to preserve and protect!

The festival is a lesson for all other states of India – lessons in destination marketing from a humble king and queen who still seem to be much-respected by their erstwhile subjects and play a gracious host to the festival. Kudos also to Jaipur Virasat Foundation, the organisers of the festival, who have carefully hand-picked and nurtured a variety of artistes and have created this prestigious platform for them to perform. The festival seems to have completely achieved its objective of preserving old traditions and cultural gems – instilling a sense of pride in the artistes and the locals alike.

What was sad was how the media coverage of the run-up to the festival focused on the 2 grammy-award winning performers and Mick Jagger’s patronage of the festival. To my mind, the festival is only and only about the folk artistes. The rest of the performers were incidental.

It was also a novel experience to see Rajasthani music outside the prism of Bollywood – as the extras to an Ila Arun, the backdrop to an item number or a desert dance. The festival projects and positions the artiste solely as the algoza flute player, the dhol drummers, the nagada wallah, the khartal player, the kalbeliya dancer, the Mand singer, etc. Basically, as a complete act by themselves, not needing the glamour of Bollywood to give them center stage.

The majestic setting of a royal living fort showcased cultural gems that are very much alive today in the village ecosystems of their practitioners. These artistes are not museum exhibits – rather they are torch bearers of a living heritage who will continue to light the flames of their music only if they can earn an honest living from it as their families have in the past. I pray that these unique singers of songs and tellers of tales continue to multiply and make music that strums our heart strings.

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