Standing on the carpeted expanse of the Smoking Room in Jodhpur's Umaid Bhawan Palace, Divya Bhatia, director of the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF), introduces two sets of musicians. On one side is the Band of Brothers from Australia, and on the other is a team of six Manganiyar musicians led by Shakar Khan. Their collaborative promise is conditional: if any electricity flows among the two far-flung groups, they may play the big stage together the next day.
The groups first play a few sets on their own. The others listen and follow. It's still more jangle than jingle. Bhatia translates on request and stays off suggesting anything musical. After half an hour he calls for tea. That does for the gathering what the somewhat-structured first session couldn't. The musicians connect, play off in duos, and start conversing without interlocution. On the second evening, they present a few sets - separately and together - to an appreciative audience. It's a beginning that promises to stretch into a deeper association in the coming year.
Something else happens a few hours later. It's past midnight and the Mehrangarh fort has been cleared of all guests. Well, almost all. It doesn't take much to persuade Parveen Sabrina Khan, a gifted 18-year-old vocalist from Jaipur who had opened the evening, to sit down with Joseph Tawadros from the Band of Brothers. Joseph, an oud player who traces his roots to Egypt, knows raag Kirwani. Can Parveen hum it? In a minute, they are off in a jam that booms across the emptied fort.
The impromptu session carries on for almost an hour. Half a dozen lucky people get to hear it before the moments are lost like tears in rain. It's perhaps the most intimate pairing of all at RIFF.
But this five-year-old festival, among many things, is about collaborations. And there's room for more face-offs.
Another hour and another corner of the fort, beat-boxer Jason Singh is leading the last practice session of the Rajasthani band Dharohaar. Jason is a tad worried - one of his star performers, vocalist Sumitra, isn't keeping well. She couldn't perform as she had planned with Dutch jazz saxophonist Yuri Honing and guitarist Stef van Es the previous evening.
But Jason, born Jagdeesh in London, has been working with the troupe for four years. Rajasthan is where he reconciled his Indian-immigrant upbringing and his ear for world music. Despite having few words in common, Jason knows the troupe well enough to change plans on the go. Not only does he lead them to a tight show that evening, but he invites some of them to an open collaboration, the RIFF Rustle, on the last night. Under a neon moon, Jumma Jogi Mewati's bhapang and Rais Khan's morchang prick an air filled with the sound of a dozen international musicians.
It's for moments like this that RIFF is a musical destination like none other.
(Note: The writer travelled to Jodhpur RIFF as a guest of the organisers.)
On Jagjit Singh
A number of you reacted to the previous fortnight's column on Jagjit Singh. As some of you pointed out, I did mix up some of the albums. The one that came out following the death of Jagjit's son Vivek was Someone, Somewhere, not Soz, and it came out in the early 1990s, not towards the end of the decade. Insight, the album based on Nida Fazli's poems, was released in the early 1990s and not in the 1980s, as I had suggested. These errors were mine and I'm sorry for having confused the reader.
Some of you thought I had spoken ill of the recently departed. On this, there has been some misreading. Jagjit Singh is one of my favourite singers. He influenced a generational shift in ghazals - taking it out of the classical wrap and making it more palatable to those who did not like the taankari that was deemed almost obligatory in an earlier era. But I would still not attach the tag of 'ghazal king' to his name, that's all. Is that too incongruous?
A few of you also wrote in supporting the distinction drawn. To them I would say, let's keep our ears and hearts open. It seems to be needed more than ever in our intolerant times.