It was still dark outside Jaswant Thada, a cenotaph near Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur. As they waited for sunrise, folk artists sitting on the steps of the cenotaph sang Kabir's verses. It isn't usual to attend a music performance at 5.30am, or to walk down dimly-lit paths to Rao Jodha Park to listen to midnight Sufi sessions by Manganiyar artists.
But you did both at the annual Jodhpur RIFF, an international folk festival held at the majestic Mehrangarh fort from October 8 to 12.Following Indian musical tradition, where ragas are associated with seasons and with the time of day, the festival organises performances at different times of the day to suit different melodic modes. This year, over 400 folk artists from Rajasthan and countries as diverse as Scotland, Netherlands, Australia, France and the US participated in the event, which is timed to coincide with the Sharad Purnima harvest festival.
While musicians from the Manganiyar and Langha communities, who continue to perform the traditional forms of their forefathers, have a strong presence at RIFF, the highlight is their collaboration with international artists. These are what give the festival an international tag and attract a number of foreign patrons while also opening a window of opportunity for locals.
Most of the Rajasthani folk artists at the festival belong to marginalised castes and come from rural belts with a rich heritage of musical traditions. Traditionally, these performers have had few economic options apart from seeking patronage from a jazmaan, usually a Rajput or a Thakur. Festivals like Jodhpur RIFF gives these socially disadvantaged performers other avenues to earn a livelihood, to hone their talent, and even to see their art in a new light. "When you know that for hundreds of years your community and your family have been treated as low, it's also through these interactions that the realisation of self esteem and self worth can come. A western musician is only interested in your music, not your identity. Because of this, over time, the folk artists realise their identity as worthy artists sans caste; they are musicians first," says festival director Divya Bhatia.
Going through the line-up of performances, you notice some interesting collaborations: Joseph Tawadros who plays the Egyptian oud (a stringed instrument popular in north Africa and West Asia) and celebrated world musician Ross Daly on the Cretan lyre with the Manganiyar brothers - Ghevar and Firoze Khan - on the kamaicha (a string instrument) and the dholak; Jazz master Yuri Honing jamming with folk singer Sumitra Das.
The results of these partnerships between musicians from different parts of the world go beyond the term 'fusion'. "It's not important how you term these collaborations. What's important is who you are collaborating with. Things like these are not really foreign. All these traditions cross over and have many similarities and that's what we work toward. We collaborate to work on similarities rather than differences," says Tawadros, an Australian of Egyptian origin.
The performances might be impressive but they require much effort. Playing with musicians from a different culture with only a few hours of rehearsal isn't easy and understanding tones and modulations can be a challenge for those accustomed to singing the same songs and playing the same music for generations.
New compositions rarely emerge from Rajasthan's folk belt as the musicians, who follow oral traditions of learning songs and notes, usually focus on the songs of Kabir, Bulle Shah and Mira Bai. The Manganiyars, who used to play at royal courts, have songs for every important life occasion including births, returning from battles, and deaths. "We don't really create new compositions. We compose new songs or tunes when we are asked to, but it is no match for the words written by Kabir or Mira Bai," says Firoze Khan Manganiyar.
The hold of tradition, however, hasn't stunted talent and a few local folk artists like Bhanwari Devi, who collaborated with Ram Sampath on the famous Kattey song for Coke Studio, have experimented successfully. The Manganiyar artists too partnered with several others including Shooglenifty, a Celtic folk rock band from Scotland.
Shooglenifty's performance with Rajasthani musicians and folk singer Christine Salem (who also plays a kayamb, a tray-like percussion instrument constructed from cane stalks) from the Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean formed the rousing grand finale of the festival.
For those who wonder if these collaborations will affect these unassuming folk artistes and negatively influence their music, which evokes nostalgia and harks back to simpler times, Ghevar Khan has the perfect response. "How do you think this turban looks with all its colours and contours?" he asks pointing at Firoze's colourful turban. "It's the same with music. It has no language or limitations. The more you add, the more colourful it looks."
She sings the song of the desert
Women have been an integral part of Rajasthani folk music culture. Some were durbar singers for female patrons while others sang devotional songs at local festivals. Despite their vibrant presence, though, there are many more male performers. "Restrictions from family and societal pressure limit these female folk artists. Some have broken these barriers but many can't," says Vinod Joshi, community director of the Jaipur Virasat Foundation (JVF), which organizes the Jodhpur RIFF. "Of over 3,000 folk artists that the Foundation discovered, only around 100 are women," he says. But the gender balance within the scene looks set to shift with the emergence of many talented female performers.
|Jamuna and Mali Devi|
Lost in devotion, the ektara in her hand and Mira Bai's verses on her lips, Jamuna almost looks like a manifestation of the medieval bhakti poet when she sings on stage. Mali Devi, her younger sister, who plays the jhanjh (metal cymbals), accompanies her.
The sisters from Charanwasi village in Churu district were brought up in the family tradition of singing devotional songs and learned from their father. They cannot read or write, but nevertheless know every verse of Kabir, Mira or Tulsidas that has been taught to them. The oral teaching tradition continues with both their sons now performing with them.
A versatile singer from the Dholli community, Jamali Bai's ancestors used to perform in the Rajputana durbars of Bikaner.
A student of the famous Allah Jilai Bai, she has been singing maand lok geet (a local folk singing style) on All India Radio for the last 40 years.
She is well known for her soulful rendition of traditional mystic songs and has a voice that's like Pakistani folk singer Reshma's.
A rockstar of sorts, Bhanwari comes from the Bhopa community, long associated with folk music. In her community, a male singer or Bhopa is complemented by a Bhopi or female artist. So deep rooted is the tradition that Bhanwari, from a small village in Rajasthan's Churu district, reveals that when her husband's family came with the marriage proposal, she wasn't asked about cooking or housekeeping. She was asked to sing. John Singh and Vinod Joshi of JVF, who organise contests across Rajasthan to discover local talent, first heard Bhanwari sing at night.
"It felt like she had stirred our souls," says Joshi. Bhanwari sang traditional devotional songs and performed in jagrans with her husband. In 2004, she performed at the Jaipur Heritage International festival before an audience of hundreds. She performed with Rekha Bhardwaj at Jodhpur RIFF in 2007. She will also be lending her voice to a Bollywood song.
|Sumitra Das Goswami|
Now in her twenties, Sumitra has been singing with and learning from her father since age eight. Most of their early performances were at all-night jagrans in their native Pali district.
When word spread that the JVF was looking for local folk talent, Sumitra, then a teenager, was one of many musicians who came forward. "Her voice was hypnotic," says Joshi.In the last decade, Sumitra has grown from a village bhajan singer to an internationally acclaimed artist. In 2007, Dutch Jazz saxophonist Yuri Honing expressed interest in collaborating with her. They first performed together in the Netherlands and performed at this edition of RIFF too.
(The writer was hosted by Jodhpur RIFF)