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.)