Creating a fantasy

Folk Festival

Jodhpur is a clean quaint town, packaged for tourists but really dealing in ubiquitous enchantment. Mehrangarh Fort stands guard over its twinkling lights and blue wash. That work of angels, fairies and giants, as a smitten Rudyard Kipling once proclaimed it, is now a beacon of preservation, restoration and the grit of former Maharaja Gaj Singh, who could go on undaunted by the unexpected hands dealt to the royalty post independence. Last week, it played host to the second Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) and cradle to a music movement the fest is waiting to spawn.

Rajasthan is home to thousands of groups of musicians with a strikingly diverse range of styles and instruments. Like most folk and classical arts, they are struggling to survive, elbowed out by the homogenised cultural invasions of a globalised world, that no longer makes room for unique or individual expression.

Jaipur Virasat Foundation, headed by the irrepressible Faith and John Singh, devised the festival to provide these artists with a platform to showcase their genius. The opening concert at Fatehpole, where the fort meets the old city was an un-ticketed event, an ode to the city that is the bedrock of inspiration. Hundreds gathered from the neighbourhood, or looked out from windows as an eclectic band of outsiders huddled together on the floor, around the man they still deem their Maharaja. An improvised stage brought together Meghwals, Kamars, Bhopas, Bhavai, Mevatis and qawwals singing and performing in turns, topped by Dharohar, a collaboration of Rajasthani artists led by UK based musician Jason Singh, mashing it up, as he puts it, with incredibly precise tuning of high voltage music strung together by Jason and his Rajasthani counterpart, Rais’s rip-roaring beatboxing.

In the days to follow, the venues were decidedly more upscale — tasteful and highly advantaged by the inimitable aesthetics of the fort enveloped by a generous autumn sky. Rekha Bhardwaj worked with Maand and Bhopa singers, Rehana Mirza and Bhanwari Devi on a rare Jugalbandi, while Ustad Sultan Khan returned to his roots singing to the tune of local musicians. Sivamani, after his histrionic and hysterical solo, called on stage native percussionists and Jason Singh to rustle up improvised music that took along the already quivering crowd to a new high. American folk artists from Chicago’s Old Town School and Bangalore’s Swarathma had the audience up and gyrating when folk artists joined them on the dance floor. The grand finale of the Flamenco gala performance, arguably the most breathtaking of concerts, had the lead dancer pair up with a wild Kalbeliya dancer to the rush of their guitar and taps.

The chief patron, Maharaja Gaj Singh, sat firmly among a shifting crowd of dignitaries through each concert, partaking most enthusiastically, proud and clearly an ardent lover of music. The electricity of the fest is hard to encapsulate in words — the wine, the food, the exquisite backdrops, and music that pushed at the limits of its greatest potential, transformed by the coming together of a secret list of ingredients of an ancient recipe for magic.

The Rajasthani folk musician remained at the heart of it all, majestic and modest. Juma Khan, a Muslim performer of the Mevati clan is one of them. He plays the Bhapang and sings of the Mahabharata and Lord Shiva. His people keep an ancient temple of the Lord that attracts devotees from afar on Shivratri. Juma Khan Jogi sees no contradiction in his art and faith, in the dissolution of boundaries between religions so rigidly demarcated in other parts of the country. He is also a spontaneous poet, composing verses about female foeticide, philosophy of life and death, even questioning the very epics he sings of. Ask him about the difficulties of sustenance and the strong winds of communalism, and he replies resolutely, “Art will fight it out.”

Ashok Padiya got sucked into Bhavai at an early age. He dons on the garb of a woman and dances for hours to mostly devotional folk. Married as a child, he grew up to find his wife disgruntled at his passion for dancing as a woman so sensual and captivating, it could put real women to shame. Ashok unable to give up on his passion often lies to her about having given it up. Ask him about the social stigma of his work, and all he says is, “There is something about those of us boys who do this. We have a bit of Krishna in us and we are never deceitful.” The engaging sincerity of his eyes would have you believe he is right.

The road ahead is hardly smooth for hundreds of musicians like Juma and Ashok, but Faith’s optimism is flawless. “I believe in vikas and virasat,” she explains hoping RIFF will encourage development and sustenance of tradition among the artists. But sustainable development is not easy to achieve. Local audiences need to get involved and many more organisations that understand the music at its roots and can intervene against exploitation need to come in. Faith believes that certain communities cannot be easily seduced by the greed of the modern world. All they need is security and they will carry on in their traditional ways. “My dream is to turn Rajasthan into India’s first creative economy,” she says with an ingenuous smile, her eyes twinkling with the audacity of her, well, faith.

On the very final day of the fest, a dark wiry man with impossibly sunken eyes walks up to me shehnai in hand. He points to his name, Hemraj, tattooed on his forearm and begs me to listen to his rendition of a raga. He is a Maand exponent whose grandfather played with Kumar Gandharv on stage, but Hemraj is visibly disturbed, even desperate to find a way out of the miseries of his existence. He tells me he has figured out that he must get to Bombay if he wants to succeed. I struggle for words to explain to him that the tragedy of his dream is crueler than that of his reality. It is only when he starts to play, that one’s faith is restored — a faith that endorses this endeavour wholeheartedly along with all things sublime that cannot find easy explanations in a logical world.

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