Life | Sunset Ragas

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Sunset Ragas
Text by Supriya Nair
Published: Volume 17, Issue 11, November, 2009

Supriya Nair experiences the heady energy and spiritualism of local folk artistes collaborating with a host of different musical traditions at the annual Rajasthan International Folk Festival, Jodhpur

We have 84 million lives in our cycle of incarnations, before we can attain one as humans – the only time during which it is possible for us to be in touch with the divine. It is a significant thing to hear at the Jaswant Thada, the memorial of a long line of Jodhpur’s royals; testament to the fact that a name may abide long after a body and its deeds have fallen into dust. As the sun sets over Mehrangarh fort, the listening audience seems to sink into contemplation of the words of the invocatory folk bhajan that resounds in the pure, cooling evening air over Jodhpur. Sufi sounds, maand and the bhakti raas of the bhopas, the devotional bards of Rajasthan, make themselves felt as much as heard.

Over the five days of Jodhpur’s Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF), the spiritual strain resounds over and over again. Common refrains emerge through the work of a variety of performers. Begun in 2007, RIFF pays tribute to folk music from all over the world, but its raison d’être, in a sense, remains its commitment to the folk arts of Rajasthan’s musical communities. The voices and instruments of the Langa and Manganiyar desert communities resound often and impactfully over the days of the festival, now in conjugation with beatboxers, now with the intimidating classical pedigree of Ustad Sultan Khan. RIFF captures the right vibe for this quest: esoteric, quirky, sometimes contemplative. Within the honey-coloured walls of the fort, the blazing light of day automatically softens. Dusty international travellers dance their way through the silks and pearls of the Indian half of the audience. The courtyards where the concerts are held are compact affairs by Rajasthani standards. Yet, there are performances – like that of crossover band Dharohar, held in the walled and terraced courtyard of the old zenana deodhi – that transform the mood into that of a stadium affair. Perhaps the travelling performers of yore had similarly rapturous receptions.

Dharohar is a veritable orchestra of folk artistes, a feast of morchang and khartal, ghungroo and bhapang, coming together with the sound of UK beatboxer, Jason Singh. It’s also RIFF’s first home-grown production, a collaboration seeded in time for last year’s festival, which was cancelled in the wake of an accident at the fort’s Chamunda Devi temple. Singh agrees about the vibe. “The confidence of the collaboration came through,” he says, the morning after the performance, still buzzing. “People were literally jumping off the walls!” Guitarist Kirk McElhinney, the other UK-based contributor to the outfit, has clearly enjoyed this first visit to India. He says the most difficult thing about creating their layered, spontaneous sounds was “learning everyone’s names. Good music is good music everywhere. It doesn’t need words.”

RIFF follows a lunar calendar – it coincides with Sharad Poornima, the brightest full moon of the year. There is an exceptional thrill to watching it rise to the music of Anwar Khan and Lakha Khan Manganiyar, who pay obeisance to the old Hindu celebration, even as time hangs in the balance for the third presence on their stage, a collaborator who travels not merely across the country, but the greater gulf of artistic discipline. “I have come here out of love,” says Ustad Sultan Khan, who has cancelled his last 19 engagements straight, owing to ill-health, but has come to Jodhpur to fulfil the twentieth. “Love for Rajasthan, for my folk music – I take pleasure in this.” Just as he might in recording with, say, Carlos Santana. “Everyone is a friend,” he says wryly. His ties to his native country and a native music – so to speak – are complex. How does a classical musician, no less than ‘perhaps the world’s greatest sarangi player,’ in the words of festival director Divya Bhatia, feel about jamming, which is what he does to the sound of Lakha Khan’s Sindhi sarangi and Anwar Khan’s magnificent voice? “Fusion has no discipline,” he says. “The fun is present. Not the elation.” The paradox is that classical music, with its rigour and complexity, evokes emotion, while folk’s spontaneity, the Ustad claims, “is to watch.” It scratches at a surface where classical music plumbs the depths.

“Of course,” says his son, Sabir Khan, when we ask him if he agrees. “Folk music gives us pride. Everyone loves it, and everyone sings it. But we approach classical music the way we would an Eid namaaz – with respect and purity.” We are sitting in the moonlit zenana courtyard, awaiting the night’s transformation into an experimental dance floor. Sabir is an exponent of the sarangi himself, and has just performed – to significant applause – alongside his father and the other legends on stage. Jodhpur-born, Mumbai-bred, he may seem cast in the mould of the crossover artiste, someone who counts France and the USA as regular concert venues. But he sees the difference between playing with differences, and playing differently, all too clearly. “I’m a tenth-generation musician,” he explains. “I play with all kinds of musicians. But I see that the point is to find a confluence without changing what either of us do.”

Those confluences cannot be achieved through artifice, and not always through dedicated effort. Many of RIFF’s collaborations are intentionally ad hoc, a string of let’s-see-where-this-goes. Sometimes, as when the folk dancer Rajki Devi joins young flamenco dancer Farruco for a surprise encore at the end of a hearty performance of Spanish music and dance, it works effortlessly. There are places where experimentalism overrides effect. Sometimes the gaps need more work to be bridged.

And sometimes, they don’t. “We missed our train,” says Rewben Mashangva, the bluesman from Nagaland who has travelled for a week to come to Jodhpur. “But being here is worth it. To come to a place so beautiful and so far away, I think – if even one person comes to my concert, I’ll be happy to play.” At 5.45 a.m., the morning after a full night of partying, he is surrounded, on stage at the Jaswant Thada, by attentive listeners. As he sings his songs – grown in a soil, as they say, so different from the villages of Barmer and Bikaner – the sun rises over the Blue City below. The divine seems to come within touching distance.

Maand and More
Rekha Bhardwaj collaborates with maand singer Rehana Mirza, and bhopi Bhanwari Devi

Rekha Bhardwaj describes the singing of her collaborators with an interesting word: desireless. Bhardwaj met Rehana Mirza on a trip to Jaipur in June this year, and later Bhanwari Devi. The idea of a collaboration quickly caught on. “I was not aware then that it would be so difficult,” she smiles. Perhaps it’s easy to admit after a concert that has brought people to their feet. Unlike the popular idea of a ‘folk’ voice that sacrifices perfection for spontaneity, artistes like Mirza and Bhanwari Devi, who hardly needs a sound system to be heard from end to seeming end of Mehrangarh, create a perfectly-controlled, yet wholly unvarnished sound. “The delicacy of their art,” says Bhardwaj of her fellow-singers, “is absorbed from the soil of this earth. You have to live on it to experience it wholly. And life itself informs their music and transforms it.” There is no self-conscious artistry here. Bhardwaj’s own quest to reconcile music with a life that puts the demands of family and the fruition of others’ schemes before her own spiritual and artistic study resonates with the experience of urban women everywhere. Still more challenging is the correspondence of musical study and practice with the rigour and challenge of life in a little desert community – such as Bhanwari Devi’s – and yet, she says admiringly, their whole lives are connected to music. Such a relationship “has to be learned. To accept our lives as they are, to celebrate what is given to us, to translate and transform experiences into music.” It’s not an easy process. But “I’ve started to crib less,” she smiles.

The Best of RIFF 2009: Verve’s picks

Crossover King Raies Khan, folk artiste and teacher and beatboxer-come-lately. His jugalbandi with Jason Singh had crowds screaming for more.
Voice of the Festival Amidst the glories of stalwart performances, the transcendent and evocative voice of Bhanwari Devi stood out, and how.
Best Hips Farruco, the 21-year-old flamenco artiste performing with Antonio Rey and group, created several minor hyperventilatory events in a spellbound audience.
Best Dancing The Old School of Folk Music from Chicago brought it down to the crowd, spontaneously teaching a giddy audience to circle dance á la Middle America.
Most Heard The evergreen Kesariya Balam, sung in refreshing ways.
Mister Congeniality Saka Mashangva, aged eight, earned rave reviews both in concert with his father, Naga folk blues exponent Rewben Mashangva, and off. Drumsticks from Sivamani, a warm hug from the Maharaja of Jodhpur, and endless cheek-petting everywhere he went didn't seem to put him off his game, though.

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