On the day before his workshop on rare musical instruments of Rajasthan, Dr. Vijay Verma, an expert on folk traditions, is seated on a plastic chair under a makeshift canopy at Jodhpur’s Marwar Rajput Sabha Bhawan. An all-male group of over 20 folk musicians sit around him, on a large green cloth spread out on the ground, each patiently waiting his turn. The musicians are here to perform at Jodhpur Riff. Verma’s assistant, seated next to him, makes notes as Verma asks each musician the name of his instrument, how it was made and how it is played. The assistant notes their answers down on writing pads that have been stacked neatly on a table, next to a small audio recorder. After each exchange, Verma presses the record button and asks the musician to play something. After recording for almost a minute he stops and calls for the next musician. Verma has been doing this for the past two days. He is still worried that he may not be able to document all the folk instruments that are at the festival.
Interested in the folk arts and culture since his youth, Verma taught history at a university for two years before joining the Indian Administrative Service. He kept up with his subject of interest and continues to pursue it after retirement.
He feels a change in lifestyle may be the reason for the survival of several folk instruments being jeopardized. “The traditional audience, the traditional patrons and the performers, formed a complete matrix which nourished our traditional folk arts,” he says. “This matrix is at danger.” The primary reason for this, he says, is an urban disconnect with folk music. “The patrons may not be continuing to take interest,” he says. “The audience may not be as aware of what’s taking place as audiences were before— that this is from this region, this is this instrument, this is this story. They may just be out for a good time. The patrons and the audience determine, ultimately, the kind of performance. If these two are lacking in any way then the performance will also deteriorate.”
Backed by tourism, says Verma, folk music nowadays caters to entertainment and applause in the hope of securing a future for itself. “But showmanship is alien to folk art,” he says. “Showmanship and entertainment are taking over now whereas earlier folk music was a part of life. So, in a way, society, at large, is speaking through the performer.”
Nevertheless, the workshop titled ‘The Rare Instruments of Rajasthan’, which takes place at the Chokelao Bagh of the Mehrangarh Fort at 11 am, on October 18, is well attended. A large canopy has been set up, offering the participants as well as the attendees a welcome respite from the heat. The audience sits cross-legged on white mattresses with large bolsters that have been laid out on lush lawns.
Verma, for the most part, avoids using the traditional names of the instruments, referring to them instead by their generic musical classifications, for a wider and more instant connect. He introduces instruments as “aerophonic” or “string” or “zither” or “percussive”.
Among the many unusual instruments being showcased is the mashak, or the Indian bagpipe— an aerophonic instrument made of goat’s hide. The musician first blows into the bag, which creates a reservoir of air in a large bladder. This relieves him of having to continually blow into the bag while playing it.
The mashak has two bamboo pipes— one through which air is blown in and a second pipe which has holes in it, through which the air flows out. This second one with holes contains two single reeds within, that vibrate against the edge of the pipe as air passes through. One of these reeds produces a drone, the other a harmony. The mashak is played by placing the fingers over the holes of this second pipe as the air exits.
The tone of the mashak may be altered by pressing on the bladder with the elbow. The fact that they don’t have to blow into the instrument while playing it enables the Jogis to sing while playing the mashak. The Jogis are a religious and musical community of storytellers who sing mostly about Bhairavji, a deity they worship who is an avatar of Shiva. Here, in the middle of a song, a Jogi begins to blow into the mashak to refill it. “Observe how and when he blows in,” says Verma. “It has to be in rhythm with the music.”
Verma elaborates on the storytelling, the dances and other performances that accompany the playing of the instruments he showcases, for context. The workshop includes a small performance that demonstrates the Bhopa-Bhopi tradition of storytelling. The performance involves a painted ballad, a large colourful piece of cloth which illustrates the story being recited. It also involves a couple— literally, the Bhopa, or the husband and the Bhopi, or the wife. The Bhopi’s head and face is covered by her veil as she stands, along with the Bhopa, and sings. The Bhopas use a rawanhathha, a rudimentary lute like instrument which may be seen as a sort of precursor to the violin.
The Bhopa and the Bhopi take turns singing. They are singing of Pabuji, a folk deity and hero. The lyrics recount the story of how Pabuji borrowed a mare from a woman for his marriage. He had pledged that he would protect the woman, if the need arose. At Pabuji’s marriage ceremony, during the saatphere (the final rites), the owner of the horse appeared, claiming the general Khichi had stolen her cattle. Pabuji left his wedding to pursue Khichi and retrieve them.
Throughout the session, Verma interjects to explain every aspect of the performance, down to the significance of the clothes worn by the performers.
The workshop proceeds to examine an aerophonic instrument called a narh. When played, it produces a drone. Verma explains how this seemingly monotonous sound actually blends in perfectly with bait, a kind of poetry. The bait is known to be sung by one singer, to the accompaniment of the narh, as a caravan travels though the desert at night.
The stories and situations these instruments and their music evoke seem alien to begin with, but one is gradually drawn to them because they are our only window into another world. A world we are leaving behind all too quickly.
“The only hope,” concludes Verma. “Is to incorporate as much of the folk bequest into the web of life with as little loss of its nuance, spontaneity and vitality as possible.”
Every morning, at around 9 a.m., the courtyard of the ‘Zenana Deodi’ (Queen’s chambers) at the Mehrangarh Fort is filled with the sound of tinkling bells. This sound, that echoes throughout the courtyard, the corridors that lead from it and the intricately carved windows that surround it— comes from a group of Teratali dancers. From the Kamad community, they perform this dance in honour of the folk deity and hero Ramdev.
Teratali (meaning ‘tera’ or twelve, ‘tali’ or rhythms) is a devotional rite that involves a dance to the tambura, a long necked plucked lute. The songs comprise a poetic narrative and are a celebration of the saint’s life.
This group of dancers are from the Kamad tribe, a tribe of traditional snake charmers. Besides them, the dance is also performed by the tribes of Mirasi, Bhand, Dholi, Bhat and Nat. It is also an important ritual in the Baba Ramdev temple at Runecha.
The courtyard is the last stop in an audio tour of the fort. From here there is normally an exit via the Mehrangarh Museum’s gift store. The group is seated on a raised stone platform at the courtyard. There are four women and two men. The men, dressed in white with light pink turbans, play the dholak and tambura. The women wear maroon saris with heavy plastic bangles that cover their arms from their shoulders to their elbows. They play the manjira— an instrument made up of small cymbals tied together, which make the tinkling sound. They dance, while remaining seated, all the while manoeuvring the manjire—which are tied to their legs and concealed beneath the petticoats within their saris—to produce a rhythm. Also each woman holds a pair of manjire, with one cymbal held in her left hand and another tied to a string, held in her right.
As the performance progresses they swing the string held by the right hand to clang the cymbal attached to it to the one in their left. They do this in perfect synchrony. They also balance a stack of steel and brass pots on their heads while they dance. There are a few 100 rupee notes lying before the dancers. These are weighed down by a large sword. A crowd, a mix of Indian and foreign tourists, gathers. Some take pictures or shoot videos. After 10 minutes, the performance ends and the crowd disperses.
Kailashi Bai has a dusky complexion. Her eyes are the colour of hazelnut and her cheekbones are covered with freckles. Like the other dancers, she wears wine-red lipstick, and kajal. She isn’t sure of her age, but says she “must be around 30”. Her husband, Kaludas, who heads the troupe, plays the tambura. “I’ve been doing this dance since I was very young,” she says. She has three children— two sons, aged five and 16 and a 13 year old daughter. Has she taught her daughter the dance? “They don’t do it. They’ve learnt it as part of our tradition but right now they’re studying,” says Kailashi Bai. What about after they finish their studies? “It would be better if they get a job, but if not, then they can join us.” What about her daughter? Should she do it once she’s older? “It would be better if she got a job as well. We get a performance only every two or three months. Apart from this our occupation is farming.” They perform at government cultural programs, fairs and religious festivals. The troupe hails from Gogunda Tehsil in Udaipur district.
Kamala Bai, a fellow performer, overhears us and joins the conversation. “How old are you?” she asks. On learning that I am 24: “Are you married?” She seems disappointed at the fact that I am not. “What do you do?” I tell her. “You should be married by now. See I was already married at your age. Now I have a son as big as him.” She points to a male member of their troupe. He seems to be in his mid-twenties. Kamla Bai says she is “around 45”.
Soon another wave of tourists appear and they get ready for their next performance. In the evening this courtyard, which once served as private chambers for women from the royal family of Jodhpur, will be transformed into a beverage area for attendees of Jodhpur Riff. But for now it is their stage. They lift the swords resting at their feet and hold them in between their teeth, by the blades. The section of the blade inserted into the mouth is covered by a piece of cloth. Each such piece of cloth is stained red— it’s the colour of their lipstick.
(Image: Terataali dancers. By Shantenu Tilwankar for Oijo/Jodhpur Riff)
‘Maru Tarang’, whose English name is ‘Ripples of the Desert’ (the name is also inspired, in part, by ‘Maru’ the heroine of the Rajasthani love saga ‘Dhola-Maru’; Tarang, on the other hand, means ‘waves’), is a collaboration that evolved out of a residency at Mehrangarh Fort in 2011 when musicians Jeff Lang (now 44), and Asin Khan Langa (now 26), first met. The group comprises Lang (on guitar), Asin (sarangi), Bobby Singh (tabla), 38, and Bhungar Khan Manganiyar (khartal), 28. Now, two years later, ten minutes before their performance at Jodhpur Riff, three members of the group are waiting backstage with another big group of Manganiyar musicians who will perform after them. Singh and Lang indulge in light banter. Next to them, Khan sits silently. Asin is nowhere to be seen.
Maru Tarang has only performed together “maybe once a year so far”, according to Lang, in the two years since they formed. But when they do get together they have a packed schedule. In the few days they’ve spent together at Jodhpur so far they have, in addition to rehearsals for their show, taken out time to make a record. “We snuck away into a studio in Jodhpur and recorded the repertoire we had worked out,” says Lang. “We haven’t been able to add too much to it in terms of material but the way the four of us react to one another’s music has definitely got some new richness and depth to it.” Lang believes the camaraderie shared by the group has filtered into their music. The team seems happy with what they have done. “I think it went well. It’s always good to get together with them,” says Khan of the recording. Lang will get back to Australia and master the mix to make it sound as good as it can. Besides this, earlier in the day, Maru Tarang also managed to squeeze in time for a video shoot on the terrace of Mehrangarh Fort for the online music show BalconyTV. Lang is the liveliest of the lot, and always game to fool around. Once, during this shoot, he pretended to push Singh off the terrace (this gave everyone quite a start because the terrace is without a railing and leads to a very steep fall).
It is now minutes before Maru Tarang is due to perform and they stand by the stage joined, finally, by Asin. They are calm. The mad rush of the first two days of the festival seems to have led on to a sense of control. The organizers and volunteers too appear to be running the show with greater ease, as if on auto-pilot. Around the Fort, artists who performed in the past two days are hanging out together, talking, drinking, waiting to watch the evening’s performances. Maru Tarang is the first act on this last night of Jodhpur Riff 2013. As they are being introduced on stage, they shake hands and pat each other on the back.
On stage, Maru Tarang is that rare act where the joy the musicians feel in collaborating with one another is almost tangible. The group sits in a way that they are half facing the audience, and half facing one another.Each collaborator keeps making eye contact with the other, and listens intently to what is being played in order to be able to “keep up”, as Lang puts it. At points Asin’s voice soars powerfully over everything. The performance ends with a delightful jugalbandi. Every member of Maru Tarang is grinning widely as they take a bow. So is the audience.
(Image: Maru Tarang perform. By Kavi Bhansali / JodhpurRiff. )
You can hear a few notes of the shehnai as you walk towards the backstage area. The space is humming with energy, abuzz with myriad conversations. 19 Manganiyar are waiting to perform at the main stage of Jodhpur Riff. They are sitting in small groups, talking, drinking chai, tuning their instruments. Several other Rajasthani folk musicians walk in and out, dropping by for a chat with those about to perform. A volunteer carrying a steel thermos flask is pouring out masala chai in small paper cups and passing them around.
A few of the Manganiyar are sitting around Bhanwari Devi and her sons, chatting with her. Bhanwari is performing with the Gypsy All Stars later that night. Morchang player, Rais Khan, flits from one group to the other. Almost every Manganiyar musician is wearing a white kurta. Rais is the only one clad in black. He is not performing with the group. But he may be playing later in the night with the Gypsy All Stars. He is not sure, however. “I was told that I might have to perform today but now I don’t know whether it is happening,” says Rais. As Rais hangs around, near the entrance to the backstage, Feroz Khan, a member of the group, is bidding farewell to a friend he has made at the festival. They exchange goodbyes, hoping to be able to meet again soon. “Inshallah!”
Amidst another group, Pempe Khan is sitting quietly. Today’s is a special performance for the Manganiyar, but especially close to Pempe’s heart. Their performance tonight will be dedicated to the memory of Sakar Khan, the legendary kamaycha player who passed away two months ago. Sakar was Pempe’s elder brother. A Padma Shri Award winner, he had learnt to play the kamaycha from his father Chunar Khan, and went on to perform at some of the most prominent festivals around the world. He had performed alongside the likes of Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison. In 1968, when Jaisalmer got its railway station, Sakar Khan had been called to play. He used his kamaycha to recreate the sound of an approaching train.
The Manganiyar had a rehearsal this afternoon. “We always play music. That is all we do,” says Pempe. “So rehearsing for an hour or two on the day of a performance is more than enough to prepare us for it.” Since his brother passed away, Pempe has been wearing a white turban as a sign of mourning. Today, for this performance, he has changed into a red one— like all the other Manganiyar. Every time he talks about his brother his eyes moisten a little. “Tonight’s performance was composed by him and rehearsed with him.” It has been left unchanged. They will be playing the same songs and compositions. Pempe walks slowly out of the backstage area. He needs to take a short walk, alone, before the Manganiyar are due on stage. He recedes into the crowd gathered in the courtyard just outside the backstage area.
‘The Manganiyar of Marwar’ went on to be one of the most memorable performances of Jodhpur Riff 2013.
(Image: Sakar Khan (centre). © Kavi Bhansali.)
It is midnight, and the beginning of the last day of Jodhpur Riff. The audience has spread out, through the courtyards of the Mehrangarh Fort, in search of refreshment and chatter. The performance that got over just a few minutes ago—by the Gypsy Allstars—is the talk of the night. The Gypsy Allstars, comprising members of the famous Gipsy Kings as well as those descended from the family that had formed the band, played old favourites from their repertoire—‘Volare’, ‘Bomboleo’—followed by music that is the product of a new collaboration at the festival, called ‘Return to Rajasthan’, with singer Bhanwari Devi as well as other Rajasthani folk musicians. Glasses clink and conversations ensue around how the group may well be on its way to finding a new ‘world sound’ with this collaboration. A sound in sync with the raison d’être of the gypsy, the eternal world wanderer.
The leader of the Gypsy Allstars, Cedric Leonardi, is missing from the party. He finally announces his presence, as well as the beginning of the last and most awaited Jodhpur Riff mainstage concert, with a drumroll. The concert will be a jam between practically every musician who has performed at the venue over the last three days— an event that has come to be known and looked forward to every year as the ‘Riff Rustle’. The conversationalists hasten back. Because the only thing that goes better with wine than conversation, is music.
Leonardi is this year’s ‘rustler’, or the musician who will conduct the jam. He has attended several of the performances at the festival but hasn’t really had a chance to jam with most of the musicians before now. This suits the scheme of things. The rustle, as its name suggests, is supposed to be impromptu: an exchange of thoughts, an orgy of ideas, a no-holds-barred musical conversation.
Earlier in the day, while speaking to us, Leonardi had expressed his regret at the fact that some of the musicians, who had played on the first two days of the festival, were no longer around. “I heard Spiro on the first day but they left, Manu Chao left, lots of people left,” he said. “Last night I saw the collaboration between the oud, the sarangi, and the robab. Only the oud will be here (he means Joseph Tawadros, the ARIA winning oud player), so I invited him to come.”
Leonardi had some sort of a vague plan in place on how to begin: “Maybe I start to play a beat and we’ll take it from there, depending on who is on stage. If it’s only Rajasthani musicians then we start off, maybe, softer, a little percussion, maybe a DJ would be nice… ”
And now he is in it. The audience has gathered around the mainstage, at the fort’s old zenana courtyard. Leonardi’s drumming is followed by the guitar solos of cousins Georges and Mario Reyes, inheritors of a rich musical legacy (the Reyes and Baliardos families from the South of France are the ones behind the famous ‘Gipsy Kings rumba’). They are joined by Tawadros on the oud. In the beginning the Reyes’ guitars, coupled with singing and folk percussion, seems to swallow the sound of the oud. Tawadros had been experiencing some trouble with the pickup from his oud during his sound-check. This seems to be happening again. He takes a while to settle in, looking a bit confused at first and then casting more than a few angry glances towards the sound console. In the meanwhile, Leonardi introduces new instruments and new musicians. Norwegian folk singer Linda Gytri’s band mate Vidar Berge joins in on the guitar. Berge strums along with the others while Gytri plays some notes on the accordion, on loop. DJ and producer Maga Bo stands behind this ensemble with his console. He creates a siren-like sound effect. After some time Tawadros’ oud and Mario’s guitar finally seem to have found common ground, in a short strings solo part, as both instruments begin to riff off each other before transitioning to more strumming.
This segues into a Rajasthani instrumental set with dholaks and a harmonium. Bhanwari Devi, who’s been sitting quietly at centre-stage all this while, joins in with an overwhelming rendition of a Rajasthani folk song. She quietly exits the stage once her solo is over. After she leaves the act seems to flounder for a few moments. The musicians seem to be searching for a coherent beat or rhythm to follow. This makes the music sound discordant, almost cacophonic for a short while. But the jam picks up soon, with some percussion by Scottish drummer James Mackintosh and the Rajasthani artists. Also, there’s a dhol solo which, though impressive, feels a bit excessive because the bass instrument is loud and overpowering. Still, the jam has livened up considerably, though there is a need for a unified sense of direction. Various musicians pop in and out for solos or duets. Finally, the guitar strumming appears to link the disparate musical elements together.
A guitar duet with Mario and Berge follows, which leads on to an oud solo by Tawadros. The tempo quickens, before breaking into vocals by Georges, followed by some more Rajasthani songs sung by Meru Khan Manganiyar. Both these vocal segments are accompanied by percussion, this time by LAZAbeam (of Jus Now) and Ewan Macpherson. The duo was seen jamming together in a sitting room, near the mainstage, before the evening’s performances. On stage they seem to have struck up a strong camaraderie. LAZAbeam brings in Trini carnival vibes to the mix. This new turn, apparently, has gone down well with the audience who though participative so far hadn’t been half as enthusiastic as they seem now. The ground in front of the stage is crowded with people dancing, head-banging, bouncing. One of the audience members—a black man in a loose t-shirt and a pair of shorts—runs on to stage, grabs the mike that was so far committed to Leonardi’s drums and proceeds to sing a song that sounds Nigerian. He is terrible. The crowds boos him and Leonardi, after the first few minutes that it probably took him to recover from the shock, shoos him off stage.
Gytri plays a jaunty polka which goes well, surprisingly, with the Trini beats. She does a short duet with LAZAbeam. The Reyes cousins begin another rendition of Bomboleo which takes the tempo a notch higher. Besides the crowd in front of the stage, there were also several people seated on the seats or along the fort ramparts, who are now on their feet dancing.
Unfortunately Maga Bo, who is well known for his use of organic samples and live music in his sets, has not really been utilized in this jam. His contribution has been reduced to dropping in the occasional sound effect.
Also, Gytri’s accordion has very little space amid the constant back and forth between the guitar strumming and the percussion. She does have a short solo towards the end of the jam, however, which features snatches of her compositions which she had played during her own set.
But jams are never perfect. That is part of their charm. At the end, the audience calls for it to continue, a request the rustler and the other musicians have to decline politely because it is already too late. They smile instead, and bow repeatedly. The last night at Jodhpur Riff comes to a close, after many rehearsed performances, with a raw, unpredictable, wild set that could have gone anywhere, and did— taking the audience with it.
(Image: The Riff Rustle. Kavi Bhansali/JodhpurRiff).
In Daulat Khana, one of the many courtyards of Mehrangarh Fort, a group of 12 men sit on a carpet on the floor. They are clad in white kurtas and pajamas. They wear blood red turbans on their heads and a red sash is tied around their waists. Ghungroos—small bells that are strung together and worn by dancers on their feet—are tied to their ankles. Round drums lie by their side. As a gaggle of tourists passes by, one of the men beats on his drum to try and interest them in a performance.
The group, which goes by the name of the Shyam Mithra Mandal, is here as a part of the festivities that take place at the Mehrangarh Fort, every day, during Jodhpur Riff. They play something called the ‘chang’, a shallow, round drum that the drummers hold up in their hands and beat while simultaneously dancing to its rhythm. It is made of bull or goat hide, stretched over a spherical, wooden frame. On the off white flat surface of each chang, which the drummer beats, the name of the group, their village, Pabusar, and their district, Churu is painted in red. “We don’t make the chang ourselves but we get them from Jaipur,” says Omprakash, 30, one of the group members. “You get the best chang there.” At the fort, they perform throughout the day, from 10 am to 5 pm.
Their performance is a mix of a unique dance form, the pleasant notes of a bansuri, or flute, and the steady rhythm of the chang, coupled with that of the ghungroos on their ankles. The dance, called gindan, has the men leap, in step with the drumbeats, and turn in the air. At times they walk from side to side, half sitting as they beat the chang. The dance form is from the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, native to the districts of Churu, Jhunjhunu, and Sikar. The drummers usually drum and dance on festive occasions, such as Holi and Diwali. “It is a dance of celebration,” says Gopal Ram, 36, the leader of the group. They only ever perform together. The group members are related to one another: each is either a cousin or a brother of the other. “We learnt to dance on our own,” says Gopal Ram. “We taught each other.”
Of the 12, two members play the bansuri and the dholak. During the dance, they sit in the middle while 10 others dance in a circle around them. Do the women in their village dance as well? “No, they don’t. That is against our tradition,” says Samandar, one of the drummers, who claims not to have a surname. “They may dance with each other inside the house but not outside, in front of everyone.”
But these restrictions don’t bind their audience. Earlier in the day, when a large crowd had gathered to watch the group dance, a number of women from the audience could not help but sway to the beat of the chang. Some of them eventually joined the drummers, dancing with them. The drummers spread out, making them a part of the performance. Eventually they were dancing within the circle.
(Image: The chang drummers of Shyam Mithra Mandal at Jodhpur Riff. By Kavi Bhansali / Jodhpur Riff. )
Kaela Rowan, a Scottish singer, is sitting on the main stage at Jodhpur Riff, under a white canopy put up to shade musicians from the scorching afternoon sun. She is going over the lyrics of a song that her group is about to sing; singing along with James Mackintosh (on drums), Ewan Macpherson (Jewish harp and guitar) and Patsy Reid (fiddle). This group, in turn, is collaborating with Kamru Khan (on the kamaycha), Kasam Khan (saarangi, vocals), Sheru Khan (morchang), Bhanwru Khan Langa (khartal), Mustaq Khan (dholak) and Dayam Khan (harmonium, vocals).
As Rowan goes over the lines to the folk song Balamji Mora Jhilmil Barse, Dayam begins to play the harmonium. He sings and the musicians playing other instruments join in. Rowan listens to Dayam, mouthing the lyrics along with him. This is followed up by a Celtic folk song by Rowan. Then Dayam and Rowan take turns, each singing their bit alternately. The other musicians join in on the chorus of this new creation. Confusion ensues. When should everyone stop singing so Rowan can sing some lines solo? The music ceases abruptly as the instrumentalists, one after the other, stop playing. The kamaycha is the last to trail off. They look to each other to see where they’ve gone wrong. They discuss the order of singing that they had decided upon earlier. Finally, the confusion is cleared. Mackintosh (on drums) reconfirms the order out loud: “It’s the guys, then Kaela, guys, Kaela and then we take it up.”
It’s getting windy now and the white canopy above begins to flutter noisily. The group goes over the song again. Some of the instrumentalists join in while the rest listen and try to figure where they would best fit in. Reid pays attention to the sarangi, trying to match her fiddle to it. Mackintosh switches between playing the drums and playing the pacay pods (two pods tied together to create something like a maracas, but with a duller sound).
They take a break, settling down to tune their instruments before beginning again. The wind grows stronger. Two of the wooden poles holding up the canopy fall forward. They are almost immediately caught by a few volunteers. However, everyone rushes out from under the canopy, not quite sure of what just happened. The volunteers struggle to get the canopy back up. There is a tear in the sheet. While the tear is fixed Rowan and Reid wonder whether they should grab some lunch. Sheru and Bhanwru continue to watch on silently as the wooden poles are fixed back into position.
The canopy back up and the break over, the group gets together to go over the song again. They seat each other according to the instruments they are playing and the order in which they will play these. The Jew’s harp being somewhat similar in sound to the morchang, Macpherson and Sheru sit next to each other. Reid sits between Kasam on the sarangi and Kamru on the kamaycha. Mackintosh sits next to Mustaq on the dholak. Rowan walks around, checking to ensure that everyone has space to sit comfortably and maneuver their instruments.
Once again, Dayam begins playing the harmonium and sings. Towards the end of the song, the dholak and the morchang pick up, and Bhanwru raises himself on his knees clapping the khartal enthusiastically. Everyone seems happy at having gotten the song right. The afternoon sun shines bright on their faces. The wind begins to blow hard again but the canopy looks like it will hold.
(Image: By Shantenu Tilwankar for Jodhpur Riff / Oijo.)
The Norwegian folk band Apal arrive together, about halfway through when a collaboration between Daud Khan Sadozai, Joseph Tawadros and Dilshad Khan is playing out on the main stage of Jodhpur Riff. It is around 8.30 p.m., on October 19. Some members of Khan’s entourage, who were hanging around earlier, have left the green room and it is now quiet. The only people backstage are a handful of volunteers. However, the members of Apal prefer to sit silently on a raised stone slab, in a corner right behind the main stage where the performance ensues.
Apal is a group that has come together specially for Jodhpur Riff. They play traditional Norwegian folk tunes as well as original compositions by their accordionist 33 year old Linda Gytri.
The band members—Linda Gytri, (accordion), Kristoffer Kleiveland (diatonic accordion) and Vidar Berge (mandolin and guitar)—are dressed mostly in black, except for a cream and blue kurti with a floral design that Gytri wears. They have placed their instruments next to them, either on the slab they are sitting on or, in their cases, at their feet. They sit bunched together, occasionally speaking in quiet murmurs to each other, in Norwegian. Kleiveland and Berge are bent, their heads over their knees with expressions of intense concentration on their faces. Gytri, on the other hand is bobbing her head and swaying slightly to the sound of the music coming from the stage. Her eyes are closed. She has a slight smile.
After almost half an hour of silence, Gytri approaches me. She has an affable smile. “How do you say ‘Sharad Purnima’?” she asks. I tell her, repeating the words a few times so she can get the pronunciation right. She goes back to her band members and repeats it to them. They repeat it in turn. I compliment Gytri on her kurti. Has she had a chance to do any shopping? “A little. I bought this from a shop just outside our hotel. See?” She turns around and turns the back collar of her kurti. The label reads ‘Anokhi’, a brand which specializes in clothes made from traditional textiles, coincidentally run by John and Faith Singh, who also run the Jaipur Virasat Foundation, one of the organizers of Jodhpur Riff. “We bought this shirt too,” she says tugging gently on Berge’s black shirt sleeve. Berge and Kleiveland look up and smile politely. They listen to our conversation for a while, then return to staring intensely at their shoes.
Gytri will be staying for a day more after her performance is done. “The normal life here is so different from ours at home. It is very interesting. But I didn’t get a chance to see any of yesterday’s performances. When we were done with our rehearsals, we went back to the hotel, the food was good and the band that was playing was so nice we decided to stay in.”There is more small talk. “Ok,” she says. “Now I’ve got to get on stage.” She joins her band. Their set is delayed as the audience refuses to let Tawadros, Sadozai and Khan leave, demanding an encore. Apal return to wait, silently.
When it’s finally their turn they kick the set off with a composition written in anticipation of coming to India—‘Tuk Tuk’—followed by another they composed the night before, inspired by their time spent in a hotel, and named after it: ‘Ranbanka Palace’. But what the audience seems to love the most is a tune dedicated to the moon. “To Sharad Poornima,” Gytri explains on stage.
(Image: Apal performs onstage during Jodhpur Riff. Shantenu Tilwankar for Oijo/JodhpurRiff)
It’s around 7 p.m. on the 19th of October. Daud Khan Sadozai paces around the green room behind the main stage at Jodhpur Riff as he waits for the musicians who will be collaborating with him. The 58 year old Afghani is a master of the robab (a lute-like instrument originally from Central Afghanistan). He will be collaborating with 30 year old Dilshad Khan, on the classical Indian sarangi and 30 year old Joseph Tawadros, playing the Middle-Eastern Oud. This is the first time the three of them are working together. Sadozai and Tawadros met for the first time at the Delhi airport on their way to Jodhpur, while Khan was only told that he was performing with them this evening. Both the robab and the oud come from a long tradition of Persian music. The classical sarangi, on the other hand, evolved from folk instruments in Rajasthan through the period of Islamic rule in India.
Sadozai was born in Kabul and now lives in Cologne, Germany, where he is the head of the Academy of Indian Music, founded by sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. He is one of the few artists who still play the robab, which he learnt under Ustad Muhammad Umar in Kabul. He was also a student of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, whose ancestors are supposed to have brought the robab from Afghanistan to India, and developed the Sarod from it. His knowledge of Hindustani music makes it only natural that he will lead this collaboration. Tawadros was born in Cairo and moved to Australia when he was three. He currently lives in Sydney. He is an ARIA (Australian Record Industry Association) award winner who has collaborated extensively with other musicians, from various genres, on many of his albums. Notably, with jazz musicians John Abercrombie, John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette. Khan, who was born in Jodhpur, lives in Mumbai currently. He belongs to the Sikhar Gharana, that has produced several stalwarts of Indian classical music. He was tutored in the sarangi by his uncle, noted sarangi player and vocalist Ustad Sultan Khan and is seen as a promising talent. He has played with several luminaries of Indian classical music such as tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, vocalist Pandit Ajay Pohankar and gazal singer Pankaj Udhas.
Tonight Sadozai is wearing a colourful skull cap and, despite the heat, has a tan coloured shawl draped over a white and silver Pathani suit. He seems quiet, almost contemplative, but one gets the sense there is more happening beneath the calm exterior. He occasionally speaks to his assistant, a young woman in a mustard yellow kurta, and the tabla player who will be accompanying him in his solo set.
A little while later Tawadros enters the green room, wearing a purple errand boy cap. He seems relaxed. He doesn’t interact with Sadozai, but sits quietly after keeping his Oud on a chair. A Rajasthani folk musician enters. He is over six feet tall, with a large salt and pepper mustache, wearing a colourful turban. He is accompanied by a slightly built older man with spectacles and a white mustache. He introduces his companion to Sadozai in Hindi. His name is Sakaram and he crafts kamaychas and sarangis. Sadozai greets him politely in chaste Hindi. He then sits down, his hands clasped in his lap, eyes shut. The usually talkative Tawadros leaves the green room to roam around backstage by himself.
Sadozai’s assistant reenters the green room after leaving to fetch his wristwatch. She bends down to speak to him but his eyes remain shut. He seems to have dozed off. She smiles to the tabla player and takes the seat opposite him, waiting for him to wake up. She joins in a quiet conversation with the tabla player. The folk musicians speak among themselves in hushed voices.
The silence is interrupted by the arrival of Dilshad Khan and his entourage, a group of chatty young men. He is wearing a brown salwar suit and conversing animatedly with members of his party. The young sarangi maestro is introduced to Sakaram. He promptly discusses an order he has recently placed for sarangis and kamaychas. “Lekin Langa sarangi nahi, desi sarangi hai. (But it’s not a Langa sarangi, it’s an Indian—classical—sarangi),” he says. One of his companions removes Khan’s sarangi from its case and plays a bit. It produces a rich, mellow sound. He hands it over to Khan who invites Sakaram to inspect it.
Sadozai removes his robab. It has intricate Afghani inlaid work along its neck, possibly in mother of pearl. The white floral patterns stand out in contrast to the dark brown of the robab’s neck. Sakaram looks on appreciatively. Sadozai leaves to get on stage. The conversation continues.
Meanwhile Tawadros has returned. He picks up his oud which he allows Sakaram to inspect before strumming it quietly. Khan plays a few snatches on the sarangi as Tawadros listens and tunes his instrument. He looks up once or twice to quietly smile at me from across the room.
Sadozai’s set has begun. A volunteer enters to ask us to keep things quiet. Khan apologizes and takes the sarangi from his companion who is playing it absent-mindedly.
After a few minutes Khan begins playing it himself. Sakaram continues to inspect the oud as Tawadros plays. The music, talk and laughter in the green room get steadily louder. Sadozai is about mid-way through his solo set.
Khan is now just outside the green room and talking to his companions. A volunteer scolds him again about talking too loudly. He apologizes profusely. And then turns to his companions, and grins like a mischievous school boy.
Soon they will all be up on stage playing sets they have barely rehearsed together. Up there they are unrecognizable. Transformed by the charisma of the stage and setting, music they are playing and the audience’s awe and reverence. The coming together of masters of instruments that come from very different parts of the world and yet seem to have a common beginning somewhere in the history of music is a gratifying idea. We hear strains of very different ethos of music and yet their unlikely blend is exhilarating. The men with instruments I met backstage are magicians now and they are being treated so. The audience refuses to let them go after their final set is done. This puts them in a tight spot— one in which they have to improvise an entire composition; build it from scratch. As they fidget with their instruments on the stage, glancing uncertainly at each other, for a moment I glimpse the men I met backstage again. But then they start playing and very soon they are having a conversation with each other. A strong, powerful and mesmerizing conversation unlike the mundane chatter behind the scenes. Their eyes light up most in this last set. It is one thing to be treated as magicians, quite another to know you truly have made magic.
(Image: Daud Khan Sadozai performs on stage at Riff. Kavi Bhansali/JodhpurRiff.)
The rigour of rehearsing for hours at a stretch seems to have caught up with 50 year old Bhanwari Devi on the afternoon of October 20. The renowned Rajasthani folk singer is due to be on stage with the Gypsy Allstars for one of the most anticipated acts of Jodhpur Riff 2013 this evening. Her sound-check for the act is on soon. But she’s running a fever. She’s lying on a couch in a room at Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort, where her performance will take place. On a table next to her is a plate with slices of apple and a paper cup full of black tea. “What does she want,” asks Hedda Leonardi, manager of the Gypsy Allstars, when Bhanwari asks for some salt to add to the pieces of apple in Hindi. Leonardi seems a little nervous. The Gypsy Allstars have been rehearsing with Bhanwari for a few days now. She is an important part of the show they have planned. But Bhanwari’s face, famously veiled when she sings, is the epitome of calm as she waits for her sound-check. She has collaborated with many celebrated musicians before this, among them singer Rekha Bhardwaj and Sona Mohapatra for Jodhpur Riff, and Hard Kaur for Coke Studio, and performed at festivals such as the Edinburgh International Festival. She seems confident of being able to deliver.
Seven hours later she is backstage with her 26 year old son Krishan Bhopa, laughing with a group of Manganiyar musicians who have their act before hers. They are a group of about 20 in all, a mix of young and old. They are seated around the green room in groups of four or five. Some of them are tuning or practicing pieces of music on their instruments. Bhanwari is the only female musician in the room. Her veil has been pulled back from her face, covering only her head now. In two hours, when she goes on stage, it will be back on again. Manganiyars who enter the room greet her with a Namaste. A few touch her feet.
Krishan pulls out a photo album from his bag. The pages are made of textured hand-made paper on which photographs have been stuck on with glue. The first photograph is one of a smiling Bhanwari, her head covered. She’s looking off camera. There are many snapshots of Bhanwari performing at various music festivals. Also, there are candid moments from their travels. A widow for over a decade, Bhanwari, has had nine children. Of her three daughters, one passed away when she was young. Two others are married. Of her six sons, four are too young to work and are either studying, or helping in farming the land she has back at her village. Two of them Krishan, a farmer, and Inder, a driver, work full time. They are also the only two children to have pursued music as a career alongside their other professions. They play the dholak as well as the harmonium. They accompany her when she tours to perform.
There are photographs of other musicians in the album too. One is a close up of a girl, wearing dark lipstick and heavy make-up, and singing into a mike. Her head is covered by a portion of her red sari, that has a golden border. One of the older Manganiyar points towards a lanky, bespectacled young man in his group and bursts out laughing. Bhanwari peers over his shoulder at the boy and begins to giggle. “That’s him in the photo, when he was a child,” she says. “He was dressed like a girl when he was singing.” He was 12 when the picture was taken. Now he’s 20. He takes the album and starts leafing through it with a group of other Manganiyars in another corner.
Also in the album are a few images that aren’t stuck, which lie loosely between the pages. There is one of Bhanwari and Inder bending over and touching a wave as it washes over their feet. Both of them are looking up into the camera and grinning. “Juhu Chowpatty (a beach in Mumbai),” she says. “That was the first time I saw the sea.”
There is another photo, at the beach, of Krishan alone. He is wearing a shirt and trousers and sunglasses. His hands are on his hips and he’s looking into the distance. I tell Bhanwari he looks like a hero from a Bollywood film. She throws her head back and laughs the loudest I have heard her laugh so far. Bhopa smiles sheepishly.
Soon enough she is called to perform. With the veil now pulled over her face, obfuscating the smile, she quietly walks on to the stage. Her seemingly disembodied voice takes over the entire performance. The audience tunes out of everything else. The strength of her song is awe-inspiring and formidable. Only, I can still hear the echo of the laughter backstage.
(Image: Bhanwari Devi and Krishan Bhopa at her rehearsal with the Gypsy Allstars. Jodhpur RIFF/ Oijo)
It is 11:30 am on the 19th of October, the second day of Jodhpur Riff, 2013. The sun makes standing outdoors unbearable. One may find respite, however, inside the Mehrangarh Fort complex, under a canopy in the Chokelao Bagh. Here, anthropologist Vinod Joshi, Community Director of Jaipur Virasat Foundation (one of the festival’s organizers), oversees a workshop and interactive session called ‘The Manganiyar of Marwar’ whose purpose is to showcase the varied and rich musical tradition of one of Rajasthan’s best known musical communities, who hail, mostly, from the districts of Barmer, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur.
Joshi tries to explain the intricate relationship the Manganiyar share with their patrons by using the idea of three main stages a person’s life may be divided into. “Janam-Paran-Maran (birth, marriage and death),” is how he puts it. The Manganiyar’s patrons range from the Brahmin Paliwals to Muslims to the Rajputs. They are bound to their patrons and have to perform at their houses on these three occasions, perform through celebration or sorrow.
Besides being musicians, the Manganiyar are also genealogists who keep records of their patrons’ lineages. These records are passed down through the generations in each Manganiyar family. But, most interestingly, the records subsist not as dry facts on paper or parchment but as poetry which is learnt and recited or sung by each new generation of Manganiyar to whom the mantle is passed. Babu Khan Manganiyar (the Manganiyar often affix the name of their community to the end of their name) recites one such poem. It begins with describing the evolution of the world and the marriage ceremony of the Hindu god Ram, then going on to list the names of the ancestors of Gaj Singh II, the current Maharaja of Jodhpur.
Darra Khan uses the kamaycha (a string instrument unique to the Manganiyar) to create the musical impression of the arrival of the first train of the day in Jaisalmer. Then, through swift finger movements, he recreates the impression of a train beginning to move, and picking up speed. There is enthusiastic applause.
Joshi says that the most challenging performance for the Manganiyar is when a patron asks them to play something for his or her son-in law. This becomes a “matter of pride” for the patron, and the Manganiyar as well.
The women of the Manganiyar community do not usually sing in public or perform before a public audience. But today, in a rare appearance, Daria, Khalima and Sakla Khan from Barmer, perform at the workshop. Daria plays the dholak. Khalima and Sakla sing. Also, brothers Rais and Sheru Khan play the morchang and then demonstrate, via a short rendition that mixes beatboxing with the sound of the morchang, how the instrument can be adapted to create a modern sound. 25 year old Rais, thanks to a Jodhpur Riff collaboration that led to a musical group now famous world over as ‘Dharohar’, is also the first beatboxer to emerge out of Rajasthan. Sheru, 5 years younger to him, is following in his steps.
Then, 80 year old Mishri Khan, the only surviving player of the jal tara, shows the audience how the instrument is played. He maneuvers a clay lid over a steel plate half-filled with water, using the vacuum created by the lid to produce notes of music.
The final performance, called Jaloji, is one where all the Manganiyar present come together to sing and play the dholak, kamaycha, morchang, sarangi and khartal, and create the music that has made them as popular as they are today.
(Image: Mishri Khan plays the jal tara. By Shantenu Tilwankar for Jodhpur Riff / Oijo.)
At around 4:30 a.m. on the 18th of October, while it’s still dark, Chetan, Mala, Damora, Ballu and Manwar Ram ease in the first dawn of Jodhpur Riff with the Harijas— a style of Rajasthani Lok Bhajan (or popular devotional songs) that tells religious stories in a sequential manner. They are seated on a wooden platform on a terrace right next to Jaswant Thada (a white marble memorial built in memory of Maharaja Jaswant Singh II, an erstwhile ruler of Jodhpur), with a stunning view of the city of Jodhpur. The city’s Umaid Bhawan Palace can be seen in the distance.
The four musicians, ages ranging from 32 to 45, are from different villages within the Jaisalmer District. They belong to a community known as the Meghwals of Marwar. Here, they play the dholak, the jhanjh (which resembles cymbals) and the tandura (a string instrument with a distinctive sound).
And they sing. In the beginning, while the moon still shines bright, there is a devotional song about the moon. How its reflection seems shaky and how, yet, when we watch it in the sky it is steadily there. An analogy is drawn to the way one may perceive life.
The next song is one by the bhakti poet-saint Kabir, sung by Ballu Ram. Some members of the audience clap to keep rhythm with the music. Some sway. Others simply sit or lie still. “Kabir is surprised,” say the lyrics. “How can a fish in water be thirsty.” The Meghwals are Dalits, a word used to denote a group of people who were once regarded untouchable (Jyotirao Phule is said to have first used the word in the 19th century— in Sanskrit it means ‘crushed’ or ‘broken to pieces’). Another popular saint of the community is Ramdevji, believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu, also a saint of the poor and oppressed, whom many of their songs are weaved around.
Like Kabir, who did not entirely renounce the material world, Ramdevji was a Rajput ruler who is believed to have possessed the power to work miracles. Stories of him are endless. “Ramdevji’s father’s name was Ajmal,” says Chetan Ram. “He went to Dwarka. At first he didn’t have a son. He asked the Almighty: What should I do? God said: Don’t worry, I’ll be born in your house as a small you and I’ll be called ‘Chhota (small) Ramdev’.”
Though traditionally treated as outcasts by the Hindus, the Meghwals, ironically, have played a significant role in certain religious rituals. And they continue to do so. For instance, the custom is that if a person asks something of God, and it is granted, then he or she organizes a jagran (an all-night gathering for devotional songs). Meghwal singers, or ‘rikhiyes’, as they are known here, are a must for such a gathering. So, in a strange way, music plays the role of the great leveler. Songs of the very gods they have been forbidden from worshipping bring them back into the folds of a community that wouldn’t otherwise have accepted them.
But the audience on the terrace is probably unaware of all of this. They sway and clap to the music because they take it at face value, for what it is. This is the first time, since 2007, that the Meghwals are singing at a ‘dawn devotional’ concert at Riff. Last year they performed as part of the ‘dusk devotional’ concert. Mala Ram goes on to sing a song by Sadaram Sahib (a saint from Jaisalmer), with a swinging, almost hypnotic, beat. The sun rises. They end the session with songs by the saint-poet Mirabai.
(Image(s): The Meghwal from Marwar at the ‘Dawn Devotional’ concert. By Rajesh Prabhakar/Shantenu Tilwankar | Jodhpur Riff/ Oijo)
Georges and Mario Reyes are late for their rehearsal. Far from being put out, their drummer, Cedric Leonardi, throws his hands up in greeting: “Bienvenue! Nous avons un petit theatre personnel! (Welcome! We have our own little personal theatre!)”
The Gypsy Allstars are about to rehearse with a trio of Rajasthani artists. The artists—Bhanwari Devi (vocals), her son, Krishan Bhopa (on the harmonium) and Pappa Khan (on the dholak)—are seated in the front row of seats at the Ali Akbar Theatre in the Umaid Bhawan Palace— the house of the Maharaja of Jodhpur and the hotel where the Gypsy Allstars are staying. Hedda, the band’s manager and Leonardi’s wife, is seated right next to Bhanwari Devi. They’re listening to the band’s tracks on Leonardi’s MacBook to decide on what to play for their performance at Jodhpur Riff. Hedda wonders whether they should have Bhanwari Devi sing the Gayatri Mantra. Bhanwari Devi seems focused, yet reticent. Right now they’re listening to the Gypsy Allstars song ‘Toca’.
The band has spent the mornings of the past two days listening to various folk artists at the Marwar Rajput Sabha Bhavan, where the folk artists are putting up, to figure who they might be able to collaborate with. Apart from Bhanwari Devi, Bhopa and Khan, they have yet another group of artists whom they will be rehearsing with soon.
They’ve kept the number of instruments to a minimum. There are two guitars, a harmonium and a dholak. On stage, Mario and Khan begin. Mario starts to strum while tapping the body of his guitar to set up a rhythm which Khan quickly matches with his dholak. Meanwhile, Georges sits in one of the audience seats, strumming quietly on his guitar. Once the beat is set, he gets on stage as well. Now Mario joins Georges in an enthusiastic flamenco riff.
Bhanwari Devi and Bhopa come in at the end. They are singing a folk song. They hope to find some common ground with the notes of ‘Toca’ and the raag it is based on, the Raag Kirwani. As she sits on the stage floor, Bhanwari Devi draws up her veil to sing. She is wearing a yellow ghagra-choli (skirt and blouse). She is still unsure of her aalap and is finding it difficult to sing in the same key in which the Gypsy Allstars are playing at the moment. After several false starts, Mario finally demonstrates three different keys to her as options. She can pick the one she is most comfortable in. There is a quick exchange as the volunteer attempts to translate Mario’s French to Hindi and Bhopa’s Hindi back to the band.
Bhopa, compared to Bhanwari Devi, is more outgoing. He discusses the changes in key with Mario and Leonardi, via the translator. Occasionally, he helps Bhanwari Devi with her aalap, or simply reassures her. He smiles most of the time and nods his head confidently when Leonardi suggests changes or improvisations.
An hour and a half later, they seem to be in sync. Now the Reyes brothers begin the song anew with some energetic strumming and peppy vocals. They are joined by Khan’s dholak and by Leonardi, thumping a beat on the hard shell of a guitar case. Bhopa’s restrained harmonium enters the mix here and Leonardi gestures at Bhanwari Devi. A voice rises through the auditorium, plaintive yet powerful. Leonardi lifts his hands joyfully in the air; Bhopa, Khan and the Reyes brothers smile broadly. Hedda clasps Bhanwari Devi’s hand.
(Image: Cedric Leonardi jams with Rajasthani musicians, by Shantenu Tilwankar/ Jodhpur Riff/ Oijo)
It’s the 17th of October. 7:45 pm. The ‘Opening Night Variety Concert’, the first concert of Jodhpur Riff, has just begun. 43 year old Jumma Khan, one of the festival’s most famous Rajasthani artists, who’s been a part of it from the beginning, is preparing his safa, or turban. His cousin Mukesh, a bhapang player like Jumma, unrolls the pink and blue cloth till it is about 3 metres from his head, then wraps it around. “You can tell where a Rajasthani is from by the way he ties his safa,” says Mukesh. Unlike the turbans worn by another group musicians sitting nearby, which seem to be wrapped around in straightforward circles, those worn by Jumma and his five companions (three of them are his cousins) seem to peak towards the centre of their foreheads, a feature that Jumma and Mukesh say is “characteristic of turbans from Mewar”. Also, says Jumma: “The turbans worn in Mewar, at least in my village, are usually white.” As white as the kurtas and lungis or sarong-like garments the men usually wear. Jumma and his team are dressed in white kurtas and pajamas instead. The pink and blue turban has been donned to greet an audience that expects no less from a colourful performer like Jumma. “Especially a Rajasthani performer,” Jumma adds, for Rajasthan is the land of colour. “Also, white is difficult to keep clean— it easily gets dirty.” The pajama too makes it easier for him to perform while standing up or moving around on stage, as he often does to rouse his audience. Together they are a testimony to Jumma Khan’s greatest strength that has seen him from his village Pinan, in the Rajasthani district of Alwar, to Jodhpur Riff, to the iTunes festival in London: his ability to improvise.
The concert, the only Jodhpur Riff event that can be attended without any entry fee, is being held at the parking lot outside Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort. To the right of the stage is the majestic backdrop of a medieval killa. Beyond it, and to its right, is a splendid view of the blue city, now lit up to look like something out of the Arabian Nights. Above, is a moonlit Jodhpur sky. Jumma Khan finishes his tea that has been served in a paper cup. He lights a ‘Telephone’ bidi, a brand that he says is “quite popular in these parts”.
He sings two lines of a song as another companion, Deen Dayal, strums a few notes on a harmonium. They are trying to settle on the right sur (tone) for the evening. Jumma has been singing with this team “from when we were kids.” Besides them, he gives public performances with Dharohar, a group that was born out of one of Jodhpur Riff’s first collaborations, which has gone on to tour the world (it was with them that Jumma had performed at the iTunes Festival). They have had a rehearsal in the afternoon, but he isn’t sure of which songs to sing here: “I look at the audience; I gauge how they are responding to the songs and then decide according to what I feel they would like.”
Jumma is a Jogi, one of a community of storytellers. His songs often draw on mythology (there’s one on the marriage of Shiva—Shivji ka Byawla—and on the Mahabharatha— Panduvon ka Kada) and history. But his most popular songs are what could be termed Lok Geet, or ‘people’s music’, with cheeky yet incisive and insightful lyrics that explore contemporary issues, from corruption to dowry, bride burning and female foeticide.
“Dhan daulat ki kami nahin hai mere desh mahaan mein /
Phir bhi karzwaan paida hota hai, baccha Hindustan mein.”
(There is no dearth of wealth in my great country /
Yet children in Hindustan are born with debts to pay already).
Like the wandering minstrels of yore, Jumma’s lyrics have the rare quality of being able to put forth a complex thought— simply.
He plays a recording of a song he sang at India’s Got Talent, a TV talent show:
“Bin baat taraazu le lo /
Kami nahi hai pyaar mein.”
(You don’t need to weigh it on a weighing scale /
You can have as much as you want, for there’s no limit to love…)
The recording is constantly disrupted by static. Jumma has a basic phone, hardly fit for recording and listening to music, just about all right for taking calls. But it keeps ringing. An organizer from Baroda wants him to sing at a show in a couple of days. Jumma’s trying to fit it in. A politician wants to record two of his songs and use it for his election campaign. He isn’t interested. Jumma hates siding with one politician over the other (“Each one is equally corrupt”). Instead, he talks about how Bollywood producer and actor Arbaaz Khan had approached him immediately after an India’s Got Talent shoot at Film City, Mumbai. “He had an air-conditioned car that we sat in,” Jumma remembers. “He asked if I could create a song for him, on the ‘Bombay woman’, then and there.” Jumma produced one in minutes. He sings:
“Rangeeli Bhabhi chale chamakwa chaal /
Fashion pe kare kamaal… ”
He’s quickens the pace of the song because he has to be on stage soon. The lyrics of this one are not easily given to translation. Arbaaz had wanted to record the song immediately. Jumma declined. He said he would do it the next time.
It’s time for Jumma to go on stage. He goes on as part of Dharohar first. While the rest of the group sit on a wooden platform, Jumma sits away from them, on a chair, very obviously the star of the show. He’s the only one getting requests from the audience. Most of the requests are for one of his most popular songs known simply as ‘Tar’, where Jumma uses the sound ‘Tar’ as a something that can be a suffix for words used for most important positions in today’s world (Collec’tor’, Minis’ter’, Doc’tor’, Direc’tor’ and so on… ). As more members of the audience begin to shout ‘Tar’ in unison, Jumma declines the request, deciding instead to sing the song he had composed in just a few minutes for Arbaaz. The last stanza goes:
“ …Kabhi Malaika Kabhi Kirron Kher /
Kabhi Farah Khan ban jawe /
Kabhi Hema, Rekha, Sridevi si lehraawe /
Kabhi India Got Talent pe Judge ban /
Pooch rahe sawaal.”
They love him anyway.
(Image: Jumma Khan at Jodhpur Riff. By Kavi Bhansali)
Winds put out small fires and fuel the larger ones. The same could be said of distances and passions. Indian expatriates have struggled to hold on to a piece of their country and the struggle has often expressed itself through distinct musical sub-cultures from Birmingham to Jamaica. Surabhi Sharma’s documentary Jahaji Music follows singer Remo Fernandes as he travels into the Caribbean islands to discover the music of a culture where it has often been the means and the end of survival.
The film is mounted as an impressionistic collage of fragmented narratives, which do not always link up. The camera sets the tone for the journey with lingering long and mid shots, that take in the city and culture scape, turning curious and intrusive when the rhythm picks up.
We drive into the heart of Trenchtown with Bob Marley’s teacher and Rastafarian philosopher Mortimo as he pays tribute to the land that nurtures great music in the midst of debilitating poverty, violence and political neglect. The entrancing beats of the steel pan (a musical instrument that “came from nothing” when the colonial government imposed a ban on the African drum) set the mood for volatile protest songs against the system, the police and even the queen of England. There is a more upbeat chat with a visual artist in the Savannahs and dancehall queen Stacey. Singer, songwriter, dancer Denise Belafon takes us through the performance of her new song ‘I want an Indian man’ and talks, tongue firmly in cheek, of the protests that followed from the Indian community as she stripped off her sari mid-song.
Indians were shipped to the islands in the nineteenth century. They arrived with little except seeds and songs and began to work their way into an alien culture and country. Generations later it is hard to tell them apart from the majority of the population except for the pictures of Hindu deities on their walls and the Hindi film hits that play on as they go about their daily chores. Popular musicians from the community have worked hard at being accepted into the local music scene and are mindful of not sounding like ‘foreigners’ when they sing. Soca and Calypso have shaped their identity and they are acutely aware of that. Chutney-soca artiste Rikki Jai sings “hold de Lata Mangeshkar, give me Soca”, but then he follows it up with Bindiya Chamkegi revamped to fit into Soca Rhythms. Clearly they are not up to abandoning their Indian cultural heritage either. Most of them do not speak or understand Indian languages but they must assimilate popular folk and film rhythms from the motherland into their music to complete their expression. Lyrics are written and translated for them by their mothers or grandfathers often. And strange as it may sound to hear “sanwariya hum hu chalab tore saath” in a distinct Caribbean accent it packs the same emotional punch as it would in a North Indian village.
The documentary is an emotional and musical journey worth taking. And somewhere along the way lies an uncomplicated answer to the pointless debate of who is the ‘real Indian’. A real Indian is someone you can take out of India but whom you cannot take India out of.
(Images L-R: Poster of Jahaji Music; A still from Jahaji Music; A still from Jahaji Music)
It’s an interesting coincidence that the opening shot of Bidesia in Bambai is similar to that of Dhobi Ghat— an overcast Mumbai evening shot from the taxi lumbering on the road; introducing us to the protagonists, both migrants, solely through their voices. But, unlike Dhobi Ghat, Bidesia in Bambai is not an exotic, romantic take on the city. Surabhi Sharma’s documentary is a sharp, gritty account of the numerous faceless Bihari migrants—battling for space, identity, and empowerment—and the ways in which music gives them a sense of purpose.
Ramanuj Pathak is one such migrant. He earns a living from driving a cab, but as the documentary unfolds, his real calling is revealed: writing and singing Bhojpuri songs. The double life of Pathak is a fascinating story in itself but his struggle to belong in his adoptive city makes it more complex. Even though he has lived in Mumbai for over 15 years, it is still “Bambai” for him, and he, a Bidesia here (someone who leaves home). On the other end of the spectrum—both financially and artistically—is Kalpana Patowary, a singer from Assam, who is now a renowned singer in the Bhojpuri music industry. However, her unfamiliarity with the nuances of Bhojpuri also makes her a stranger to her adoptive profession. While recording songs at the studio, she often has to stop and grapple with the diction of the lyrics. It is this sense of alienation that links Patowary’s very different story to Pathak’s.
Sharma eschews the conventional tropes of documentary filmmaking— tropes like voice-overs, talking heads and expositions. The narrative that emerges from this economy renders the documentary the aesthetics of a narrative feature. Sharma is not interested in hand holding and guiding the viewer through the narrative. New characters or scenes are seldom introduced through texts or voice-overs. Instead the director trusts her viewers to plug the missing pieces themselves. “I end up having conversations with people. So, even if I have a specific set of questions, but during the conversation if the person leads me away from my questions to a different realm all together, I happily go along and that determines the structure [of the film],” says Sharma. It’s this controlled chaos that makes Bidesia in Bambai compelling. In popular notion, documentaries in our country are still looked down upon for being ‘boring’, or ‘instructional’. This one then is a fitting rejoinder: pulsating with energy, music and striking visuals.
In the age of YouTube, Bhojpuri music is ubiquitous and yet very few people attempt to understand its context before judging it. Bidesia in Bambai is a strong counter-point to such cultural parochialism. A lot of it results from where Sharma places herself in the film. She acknowledges that she herself is an outsider to the culture of her protaganists and is sensitive to this sense of the other. She is careful not to reduce her protagonists or their milieu into symbolic kitsch. “I, as a documentary filmmaker, am really caught up with, and very critical of my gaze,” says Sharma. “I have a huge problem if there are moments when people are laughing at what’s happening on the stage. When Pathak cracks a joke, and if people laugh then I feel relaxed. Because then you are laughing with him, not at him.”
The film also deals with gender politics in a direct way. Sharma goes to a lot of testosterone-charged, male dominated spaces, which can seem both exclusive and intimidating to a woman. For Sharma, visible markers of her class and her profession helped her to negotiate these spaces. “Even though I was entering a space, which had 20,000 men, there’s a certain privilege you come with, in the way you look, you have the equipment, you get a certain position irrespective of what you do,” she explains. “So, in that sense, I have never felt threatened. You just come and people accept you. No one is trying to test the power equation.” This equation brings forth a benign, accommodating facet rarely associated with these migrants. “Everyone seems to now think that the single male migrant is going to attack all of us middle class women. So, it’s very important to try and get a sense of that space without slotting it easily. In the end, in the Chhath Puja, it’s a very charged space, which brings out very crass identity politics, but equally, that same space can become a place for one of the most vulnerable and marginalized people in the city,” says Sharma.
At the core of the film is the marginalization of the migrants in Mumbai. It keeps cutting back to the hapless state they often find themselves in—their houses and music studios are frequently demolished—and the grit with which they keep at it, rebuilding, even retaliating, when pushed to the brink. During a live show, someone from the audience throws a stone at one of the performers on stage. The organizer intervenes and snaps back: “Don’t think that we don’t belong to Bombay.” When Sharma set out to make the film she was only looking to explore the city, its migrants and their music. The politics of their marginalization is the story that found her along the way. “What was revealing to me was the city,” says Sharma. “I thought here I was looking for the production and circulation of music, but it took me to spaces where everything was precarious.”
In one such scene, the camera slowly pans over Adarsh Nagar, a decrepit area in the northern suburbs of Mumbai that used to house music studios of a lot of Bhojpuri artists, including Patowary’s. Studios that have just been demolished. Sharma asks them what will happen to the ‘industry’ now that they have lost these studios. “The industry keeps growing and moving, here and there,” she is told. “This is like an ocean, madam. The caravan is only going to increase.”
(Images L-R: Poster of Bidesia in Bambai; A still from Bidesia in Bambai; A still from Bidesia in Bambai)
A striking image from The Lost Music of Rajasthan is that of Bhanwari Devi walking through the streets of Edinburgh wrapped in a grey shawl, her pink dupatta standing out in a sea of people. Bhanwari Devi was married young and had her first kid when she was 12. She comes from the tradition of ‘Bhopa-Bhopi’ where the Bhopa is the husband and the Bhopi the wife. They are priests who sing and narrate tales and epics of folk deities. Bhanwari was in Scotland to perform with her two sons at the National Museum of Edinburgh. When her husband passed away, she began to sing other kinds of songs as well and has been making a living by singing in order to support her extended family of 22. But it was through Jodhpur Riff and the Jaipur Virasat Foundation that her music found a global platform.
The Lost Music of Rajasthan, directed by Jill Nicholls, is a documentary filmed as part of BBC One’s arts series Imagine. It follows host Alan Yentob as he goes along with Jodhpur Riff co-founder John Singh, traversing the length and breadth of Rajasthan in search of its best folk musicians. The documentary introduces the viewer to the rich and wide ranging folk tradition of Rajasthan: from Chang drummers to Kalbeliya gypsies near Jodhpur; from the music of devotional singers in Charanwasi to the musical traditions of the communities of Meghwal, Langa and Manganiyar,and the concerts that take place in villages. As we follow their travails, the documentary throws into relief the state of folk traditions and arts in Rajasthan as they struggle to survive in the present times.
The documentary reveals the dichotomy of the folk tradition. The folk musical and art traditions have been brought to the brink as new avenues of entertainment take away their audience and their traditional forms of patronage die down. But, as Vinod Joshi, Community Director of Jaipur Virasat Foundation, points out, it is because these traditions have been the mainstay of the lower caste and not the middle class that they have survived, even if it is on the fringes. Says Joshi: “There are certain cultural values that are alive in these communities because they remain removed from modern education and way of life. Those who migrated from the rural to the urban areas— in their urban life they do not connect with these traditions on a day to day basis. I think this is because education and science are continuously discouraging these cultural values and knowledge. So gradually, it goes away.”
Co-founders of Jodhpur Riff , John and Faith Singh have been involved in the revival of other traditional arts of Rajasthan, such as hand block printing and the preservation of historical architecture. For Jodhpur Riff , John views the folk arts and traditions as “living heritage”. Through the festival, they seek to create a platform for these folk communities to reinvent themselves and their virasat, their tradition, in the modern world, as opposed to simply conserving or archiving them.
But this is not an easy task. While many musical folk traditions are getting a new lease of life through Jodhpur Riff and the village festivals organized by them, several of these traditions, that are not performative arts but rituals that have been passed down through generations, are being lost. Sagar Bhopa, for example, is perhaps the last of his community to know and carry on the tradition of storytelling of the rituals and traditions of the community. Such traditions are not so much in need of patrons and an audience— as for the next generation to take them forward.
But what if they are carried forward? Could they make the artist’s life any better? Not nearly yet.
When she returns to her village, Bhanwari Devi is greatly surprised by the newfound respect she is treated with. And yet she yearns for Edinburgh and the ease of life it afforded her. She is told that it is a distant dream.
(Image: A screenshot of Bhanwari Devi in Edinburgh, from The Lost Music of Rajasthan.)