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The rebirth of folk cool: Notes from a lyrical desert storm

Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur pulsated with dholak beats, Scottish pipes, European electronica and much more, as Nidhi Gupta discovered a festival that emphasises the art and traditions of those around it.

NIDHI GUPTA  10th Nov 2012

Dusk devotion: with the Meghwals of Marwar | PHOTO: Kavi Bhansali

large butterscotch moon peeked out from behind Rao Jodha's statue as people awaited the Dawn Devotion atop Jaswant Thada's terrace. Kaela Rowan sang a few Gaelic love songs in undertone, careful not to startle those deep in, or slipping into, slumber. The motley terrace bunch consisted of folks who were camping out in the desert, along with enthusiasts who arrived at the early hours to witness the delightful confluence of the scenic and the musical. Shade by shade, the sky turned pink, orange, and then red. In sync with soft guitar strums, the sun broke out, revealing all of Jodhpur in its resplendent and resolute best. The performance gained momentum as cups of chai did rounds, rescuing the bleary-eyes out of their sun-struck disquiet. Can you whisk up a better start to a day?

The sixth Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF), held at Jodhpur's majestic Mehrangarh Fort between 26th and 31st October, has now become an institution in its own right. Gaining repute as one the world's leading music festivals (Songlines Magazine has nominated it as one of 25 of the best international festivals), RIFF has not only retraced Jodhpur firmly on the traveller's map, but also provided with a platform to a distinctly under-appreciated art form – music from the roots. By simply letting 25 of Rajasthan's tribal dance and music forms share stage in series of promising international acts, this annual event has transformed into a fascinating showcase of world music.

This year, quite a few acts set the stage on fire – brothers Ganesh and Kumaresh performed a supreme recital of the Carnatic violin; Sri Lankan band 'Rakitha Wickramaratne and Naadro' had the audience on their feet, jumping and jiving to a fresh array of percussion from Africa, Latin America, besides their homeland; 'Ross Ainslie & Jarlath Henderson' band from Scotland and Ireland wove pure magic with their Uilleann pipes, guitar, and exceptional song-writing; Didgeridoo veteran Mark Atkins from Australia jammed with the Langa brothers with the khartal, bhapang, morchang, and dholak; 'Burhan Ocal and the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble' allured the listeners to some pretty bad belly dancing with exceptional middle-eastern tunes. But in this fiercely 'glocal' event, it were the nomadic tunes of the desert that took one's breath away, repeatedly.

The festival, spread over several days, was replete with memorable, marked by events both rehearsed and unrehearsed; it wove a fabric of musical patchwork, bringing together different hues and silhouettes. One remembers the festival as fractal performances, conjoined by a spirit to perform, and share. Here is the festival diary.

Lounging at the Chkelao Mahal, with the year's fullest moon looming across the firmament, one listened to Sugna Devi Kabeliya, a 45-year old widow, the only woman in her community who sings traditional songs – the rest have taken to dancing, which forms the more the more popular identity of this tribe. After the Wildlife (Protection) Act banned use of animals for performances, her counterparts were trussed up in black dresses and made to take up the whirring dance, in order to replace cobras. She on the other hand chose to sing, and as luck would have it, had a mother and mother-in-law who supported her. Today, she teaches about 40-50 girls in her community, and has travelled to over 40 countries with the band her husband instituted.

Events like this are the summation of ambitions of communities. They become occasions for people to reacquaint themselves with a different time and place altogether. ­— Jonathan Mills

n another evening, a 60 year old blind woman, wearing a plain pastel widow's suit, sang Meera, Kabir and Soordas' dohas with an earthy-charm and enviable ease. Gaura Devi Bikaneri's voice has strength, borne out of her love for music, cultivated since the age of 11. That night, she was accompanied by a group of relatives, all of whom called her Gaura bua. When asked what she thought about the place of women in music, she fired back: "If you know how to sing, you sing. Otherwise, please don't! It doesn't matter what your gender is."

Langa and Manganiyar men folk serenaded a rapt audience with a profusion of percussion instruments. The kamaycha's twang and the rhythmic beat of the nad ricocheted off sandstone walls, echoing through the crisp October air as they have done for decades. "Playing these instruments is in our blood," says Anwar Khan Langa, "we were born playing it and we will die passing it on to our children." He and his brothers too are credited with performance at over 50 countries. They make a comfortable living out of the trade, ensuring that the troubadour in them stays alive despite financial and social alterations. "My son wants to go into computers," Langa grimaces, "but I will still teach him my trade."

"It is a cultural thing," explains Divya Bhatia, "the worth, length and intensity of their music has always depended on the patron's (generally the rajas in whose courts they played) wishes." Between curating the festival, sourcing funds and ensuring that the festival runs smoothly, Bhatia is a busy man. During the festival, he introduces every artiste and patiently explains every cultural nugget, but stays strict on rule-abidance, often chastising the audience on littering and such things. "We have been presenting over 25 different traditions and have managed to spotlight most of them in the last five years. In addition to presenting them at Jodhpur RIFF, we've been able to showcase them at such prestigious places as the iTunes festival in London (2010), and at the Edinburgh International Festival (2011). Financially, the Rajasthani artists of the Dharohar Project have so far earned royalties from the sale of their collaborative recordings with Mumford and Sons, and Laura Marling. Royalties amounting to over Rs 4 lakhs, shared between 8 artists," he elucidates. Now, with a brand new tie-up with Celtic Connections, the largest folk music festival in the northern hemisphere, these statistics can only get more staggering, one hopes.

The festival concluded with RIFF Rustle, a big collaboration, featuring Rhys Sebastian on the saxophone, Jason Singh the beatboxer, the Naadro drum boys and Ross and Jarlath band on pipes.

Like everything else in the world, music too has a political and social currency. One can hope that with the patronage of two leading heritage NGOs – the Jaipur Virasat Foundation and the Mehrangarh Fort Trust – better times are at bay for these musicians, and in extension their communities and art forms, relegated to the margins. Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh Music Festival says, "Events like this are the summation of ambitions of communities. They become occasions for people to reacquaint themselves with a different time and place altogether." So be it Babunath Jogi's twangy tribute to lord Shiva, or the Colombian band 'Grupo Cimmaron's' interesting use of the harpsichord, alongside acoustic guitars and trombones, or mps Pilot's euro-beats that converted the fort into a living, breathing disco, RIFF has a little bit of something for everyone.

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