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Riff nights

art-and-culture Updated: Oct 30, 2010 21:56 IST
Samrat
Samrat
Hindustan Times
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First Diksha sent a link. It looked good: a music fest in a 500-year-old fort in Jodhpur. Let's all go, she said. Akshay, who had landed from Moscow with no warning and no luggage except two bottles of vodka, immediately wanted to go. So did I, and so did Anshika. We booked our tickets, sleeper class on the Mandor Express. Then Anshika dropped out, and then Akshay, a day before the journey. Never trust photographers.

Ria and Vik came along. They made it just in time. Actually, they were a minute late, but so was the train. The ticket had been booked online. It announced prominently that it was valid only with a proper "ID proof". This turned out to be no problem at all. I had the ticket, and I had my ID proof. The others just sat and smiled.

Next morning, from Jodhpur station, we headed off to the place we had booked. It was a little place called Jee ri haveli in the old city, down the hill from the fort. There was a double room, but now there were five of us – we had been joined by Vik's friends Olivia and Clermont. The place was full; there were no more rooms. The owner kindly offered to make space for everyone in his own house, if we eschewed egg, fish, meat, alcohol and cigarettes. It was time to do the needful. We rolled our smokes, and sat down for breakfast with Olivia's French edition of Lonely Planet North India.

All the places in the area were full, or too expensive. Eventually there was no other way, so the rest of the gang wound up staying in the liberal precincts of a police guesthouse.

Evening we were at the fort, ready for RIFF, the Rajasthan International Folk Festival. The first show we caught was a performance of devotional songs by the Meghwals of Marwar at a mausoleum called Jaswant Thada. People, mostly white, stretched out on mattresses. The rest took photos and videos. A few people listened to the music.

The next performance was by ‘living legends' Rukma, Akla and Dariya Manganiyar. None of us had heard of them. The emcee did an extensive introduction, starting with Rukma being born without legs, and how she therefore didn't find a husband until the ripe old age of 25, but he was then 50. How he couldn't earn, and she had to start singing to outside a temple to earn a living. The Manganiyars are Muslim; the men sing Hindu devotional songs, no worries, but women weren't allowed so there were problems. Etc etc. Eventually the music started, and left most people underwhelmed.

Susheela Raman and Sam Mills made up for that. They were doing a set with Rajasthani folk musicians and qawwali. The energy was electric. People were on their feet. There was an instrument called the narh that blew my mind. It's a bit like the didjeridoo, and the sound is like it's from beyond the grave — something strange and impossibly deep. Rana Ram, who played this, is apparently one of two people left who know how to play the instrument.

Pakistan's Mekaal Hasan band had been scheduled to play next, but they couldn't come because they didn't get visas. Meanwhile, if you remember, David Headley had got visas, and Ajmal Kasab didn't apply for one.

Next day started with lunch. There was a Baul performance at 5.45 a.m. which no one woke up for. I later asked a friend who bravely attended. It had been okay, he said.

The next event was at 5 p.m. It was more living legends. Then a group called Sona. The singer was attractive, but her songs were less so. Outside, in a courtyard in the fort, people in their Fabindia best milled about drinking alcohol and eating overpriced enchiladas and corn. The menu made no sense to me.

We had a couple of drinks, and bumped into more friends, and went to the fort ramparts to have a smoke among the medieval cannons that look down on the town twinkling far below.

A flamenco-kalbeliya dance collaboration followed. The flamenco dancers were hot, but looked angry. It seems the song was about some kind of intense, painful love. The kalbeliya dancer was sweet and looked happy. She didn't understand the lyrics, I suppose. The crowd mostly looked happy. The photographers looked very happy.

A man sitting in the first row went up on stage and danced with this lot at the end of the show. It turned out he was "HHM Gaj Singh II, Maharaja of Marwar – Jodhpur". HHM stands for His Highness Maharaja. HHM didn't have a moustache so I had to ask who he was. In my imagination, all Rajasthani maharajas have massive moustaches that twirl up at the ends.

We went from there to the best 16th century disco in the world. It was the night after Sharad Purnima, the brightest full moon of the year. A silvery light fell on the fort where battles had been fought, and people had died. S was at the entrance. I didn't expect to find her in Jodhpur. She looked like she had a high alcohol content. "Are you ok?" I asked. "No. Hammered" she replied. We tottered onto the dance floor.

Next day started with lunch too. No one made it for the morning 5.45 performance again. I later asked a friend, who went there without sleeping, about the show. It was okay, he said, but there were a lot of people fast asleep on the mattresses. Morning ragas don't work if it's still night for you.

Most people left by evening that day. I cancelled my ticket and stayed a day more. There were things to do, like explore the fort and drink the makhaniya lassi that the shop selling it advertised as 'recommended by book'.