Through Jodhpur’s streets & a festival in a fort, I try to find out what India is.
The bathroom in the train smells. That’s because it’s shared by some 50 people aboard a rickety train. The only breathing being done is reluctant, and through the mouth. I’m on my way to Jodhpur, for a music festival inside a fort. It’s called Jodhpur RIFF (also called the Rajasthan International Folk Festival). I’m also on an endless search for the Great Indian Dream.
Captain Planet & The Strange World of Bogus Maps (14 October – Evening)
A wobbly table at the bar leads to an accidental conversation with a man from Mumbai who tells me he’s a geographer. Let’s call him Captain Planet. The walls inside the Mehrangarh Fort, which has been around for close to 500 years, are thick. They’re fatter than Yo Mama. Vodafone struggles in vast open spaces — I’m sure they get weak signal even in their head office — so there’s not a chance in hell that I’ll get internet here. Which means I can’t quickly Google what geographer actually means.
Captain Planet tells me something that changes my world — literally. He claims that all those globes and atlases we were told are sacrosanct, are, in fact, totally and absolutely bogus. The maps we’ve grown up believing to be a 2D rendition of what the world looks like are all heavily skewed in favour of the powerful western countries. Could Jodhpur be bigger in size than all of Los Angeles? Is London just a mini-Bandra? What, really, is India? I try to find out. A really tall guy near us is looking for “something strong to smoke”; let’s hope he finds it. At the stage nearby, the Brian Molley Quartet plays some saxophone-led jazz music. It’s good, it’s smooth, but jazz needs to be slozzled and messed up for me to truly enjoy it.
Brian Molley on the saxophone. Photo credit: RIFF/OIJO
The Exotic, Vibrant, Colourful, Vivid, Red-Yellow-Green-Orange-Purple India (17 October – Late Afternoon/Early Evening)
I dither a little as I search for change in my wallet. The auto-rickshaw driver had asked me for Rs.60 for a 10 minute ride to Sardar Market in Ghanta Ghar. It’s an internet-recommended tourist spot. Within seconds, a policeman — a sipahi, from what I can gather — takes out his little notepad and starts writing a challan for the rickshaw driver I’d just left behind. I try to interject, telling him it’s my fault that I took too long to pay him. The cop tells me, in the sweetest, politest tone I’ve ever heard in my life from a pig-shaped person, that the challan isn’t for waiting in a no-waiting area. It’s because the guy isn’t wearing a uniform. Oh, well.
Mehrangarh fort is on a hill, visible from most parts of the city. Ghanta Ghar is at a lower level, so you have the fort casting a shadow over the market. I try to photograph the fort, raising my phone-camera above my head to get a good view. A man on a bike, waiting for him mum to get on the seat behind him, looks at me.
“Are you done?” he asks me with menace in his voice.
“Sorry, what?” I answer his question with another question.
“Are you done clicking my picture?” He’s on the kind of defensive that turns into aggression quickly.
This is what tourists do. They go to a place like Ghanta Ghar, which is a huge market selling just about everything under the sun — flutes, traditional and contemporary clothes, shoes, utensils, locks, fruits, vegetables, hot snacks, cold drinks — located around the clock tower. And then the tourists whip out their DSLRs and take artsy, black-and-white photos of the locals in all their supposed poverty-stricken glory. “This,” they say, “is the Real India. This is Little India. This is the India you hear about and fall in love with.” The one you find in coffee table books targeting South Delhi/South Mumbai homeowners and foreigners.
I assure him that I wasn’t taking his picture, even offering to show him the photos on my phone to confirm. The guy understands, and drives off sheepishly. He was ready to beat me up just a few seconds ago. I visit an elderly gentleman’s cigarette-shop for a bottle of water and some shelter. He looks to be the wrong side of 70. He has silver hair; his moustache is a little crimped, recoiled unto itself like a turtle.
“Delhi,” I tell him, when he asks where I’m from. “I came here for RIFF, the sangeet festival at the qila. Have you been there?”
He proceeds to show me his right foot. He’s disabled — the foot is curled upwards, and it’s smaller in size than the left foot. He’s been to RIFF in the past, he tells me. He wasn’t able to see much as he can’t really walk around. But he rode his bicycle up the hill to go there. He points to it. It’s a regular bicycle.
Ghanta Ghar, one of the busier markets in the city
Jodhpur RIFF: East vs West vs Everything in Between (13-17 October)
Ghanta Ghar is one Jodhpur. Another is the Mehrangarh fort. Jodhpur RIFF is a folk/fusion festival which takes place inside the fort each year. The ninth edition, in its 10th year, featured, as always, a mix of local Rajasthani folk musicians and big and medium-sized-hitters on the world folk and fusion map — globally, it’s what is condescendingly often referred to as “world music”. When it’s not up to the mark, it can also be called “Coke Studio Music”.
The Manganiyar community, in particular, has left its mark on several occasions in the past. There’s something unsettling about sarangis, tablas, mandolins, or dhols soundtracking a moonlit evening in a place that, at several points in its history, has only been associated with violence and war, with defence and aggression. The music radiates a patina of poignancy as the sounds reflect off the huge walls and the intimidating domes. The lights bounce around, shining ominously in parts, soothingly in others.
Australian percussion Ben Walsh collaborates with a host of Manganiyar musicians for an electric set
The festival has HH Gaj Singh, the Maharaja of Jodhpur-Marwar, as its Chief Patron. The International Patron is Mick Jagger. There exists a massive lift inside the fort to transport visitors to the terrace and the main stage/bar/food areas. It’s only got two floors in fort-terms. But in real-world-terms, the lift covers 120 metres, which counts as 12 stories. Maintenance is carried out on this lift on a weekly basis, because you wouldn’t want to get stuck inside the walls of a half-a-millennium old fort. Ever.
After dark, the fort takes on a life of its own
The full-festival ticket this year, for four days, was priced at Rs.12,500. Tickets for individual days were Rs.5,000. Is that price prohibitive? Does the line-up, comprising international artists and exceptionally gifted folk musicians from India, in addition to the exquisite venue and high-quality production, justify the price tag? I’d rather not speak on behalf of others. For me, personally, I could only afford to go since I was invited.
The lyra, the oud, and the dhol works wonders during Ross Daly's set
At RIFF, there are tons of artists presenting the very best (and worst) excesses of their heritage, performing music that’s hundreds of years old and has been passed on through several generations — orally, as folk music often is — each one clinging on to the dying embers of a world that doesn’t exist. These are the straightforward “folk” musicians. Then, just as easily, is the other lot. The lot that insists on inserting the kamaycha, a bowed instrument in the sarangi family and much used by the Manganiyar musicians, into, like, smooth jazz or traditional music from Africa or eastern Europe. These are the fusion people. Pick a side.
Performances at Jaswant Thada near the fort began in near darkness
Bharat Maata ki… Jai! (October 16 – Late Evening)
A group of early 20’s miscreants, during the finale that was conducted by Australian percussionist Ben Walsh, are sitting way at the back. Walsh is orchestrating a long set of improvisations and jams between several of the performing artists to close out the festival. When it starts, while Anwar Khan is singing and Walsh is playing an Indian beat on a weird square-shaped instrument, the kids at the back decide to shout out what else but “Bharat Mata Ki… Jai!” Multiple times. Within a couple of minutes, the festival director, accompanied by three grim-looking security guards, has a stern conversation with the ring-leader of the chanting troupe. I don’t know what is said in that exchange, but there are no more pseudo-patriotic proclamations after that.
I’m not often unruly, but I did have every intention of getting messed up this night. I’ve grown up believing that you must get completely shithouse schlonkered on drinks at a music festival. That you must be a royal nuisance, as long as it’s not at the cost of spoiling someone else’s experience. It’s essential. The alcohol is reasonably priced at Rs. 300 for a large drink or a beer. But I should clarify that this isn’t for any hedonistic purpose. I’m a doctor of journalism, damn it, and getting seriously f****d up is part of the job description, lest you miss out on any important breaking-news-type developments in a sober haze.
Club Mehran was a one-off gig which featured a dance floor, running well into the night. Photo Credit: RIFF/OIJO
Alas, I have very little company. The festival, given its pricing model, is filled mostly with people who are on the wrong side of 35, far closer to irrelevance and worthlessness than I. Now, I’m not trying to be ageist. At 29, I understand I’m not far off either. But the life of a music festival is often dictated by its youth. Further, there’s the fact that it’s in Jodhpur, and a lot of music has been carefully curated to keep in mind quality (and possibly budgets), at the cost of the commercial popularity factor. There are also shit loads of foreigners. Are they Refugees? No. Are they Immigrants? No. Are they Outsiders? No. They’re Travellers!
RIFF would probably find itself on several “festival tourism” brochures, plus there’s the fact that Indians always wait for Travellers to validate our cultural traditions before we embrace them. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of Indian visitors at the festival as well. Just that the number of international attendees is quite high. An Australian lady I speak with has attended every single event the festival has to offer — from the midnight sessions in the middle of the desert to the 5 AM dawn sessions — and will probably return next year. She’s holding a cup filled with beer and ice. “This is how we do it in Australia,” she says. “The trick is to drink it quickly.” I know.
The Honeyed Mist of the Kamaicha (15 October – Dinner Time)
The Khan brothers — Ghewar, Firoze, and Darra — sons of the great kamaicha player Sakar Khan, are playing what will become, for me, one of the highlights of this festival. They start off with two kamaichas and one dhol, before a whole battalion of backing musicians joins them on stage for a showcase of Manganiyar folk music that’s almost transcendental, what with the moonlight drowning out the stage lights and the dip-your-feet-in-the-gentle-downstream-river quality of the instrument. The kamaicha has a sense of benevolence and kindness to it — it washes over you. Despite its restraint and smoothed edges, the music it creates is best experienced physically.
The Khan brothers started off their set gently, before expanding the scope over time. Photo credit: RIFF/OIJO
I make the mistake of walking up toward the stage, near the front row seats reserved for royalty and fancy people. Within a handful of minutes, a middle-aged security guard approaches me. He’s wearing glasses. He has a moustache, but not the intimidating kind that you associate with Rajasthan if you own a television. He looks kind but he doesn’t sound it. He tells me I can’t stand there. Without being rude, I tell him there’s no reason for me to not stand there.
“Whatever, do what you want,” he says, giving up on a difficult customer. I figure he’s just doing his job. I hold my ground for another couple of minutes, so that I don’t lose face, and then I slip into the crowd and move to the back. Most of the people in the crowd are good-looking. They smell nice from a distance. Their hair is done up nicely. They’re stylish, fashionable, elegant. They speak well. I even spot William Dalrymple there. But then, anyone who’s been to any place ever will have spotted William Dalrymple at least once in their lifetime. So that’s not saying much.
A performance by musicians from the Manganiyar community, a massive collage of strings. Photo credit: RIFF/OIJO
Kingfisher Strong at Paota (October 16 – Evening)
I catch hold of an auto-rickshaw. The guy asks for a lot of money.
“It’s only 3.9 km!” I tell him. I wave my Google Maps in his face.
“No, we’ll hit a traffic jam on that route. The route I take is at least 7 km,” he says.
He’s lying. There’s no such thing as a traffic jam in Jodhpur. It’s a sparse, open city, with excellent roads that are exceptionally clean as well. Sure, no one really follows traffic signals. Red means go, Orange means go, Green also means go. But that’s not on Jodhpur; it’s a problem afflicting all of India. Except Mumbai, where Red, Orange, and Green all mean STAY because you’re in a jam that will last for three days.
My guy takes me, instead, to a bar in a place called Paota. It’s a dingy room with the news playing. There’s no one inside. The smell of stale peanuts is strong but not overwhelming. The only beer they have, which I can spot, is Kingfisher Strong. I dart out of there and catch the next train home.
Like most places in India, the metres installed in auto-rickshaws are purely decorative
In The Middle of Nowhere (14/15 October – Midnight)
A fleet of e-rickshaws transports guests from the fort entrance to this obscure spot a kilometre or so away. There’s a gate from which begins a long walk into the middle of nowhere. It’s a rickety path, lit up by tiny little bulbs periodically, as you go deeper into the forest before traditional folk sounds engulf dusty air. There’s an oasis in there, accessible only after you’ve put in the effort to find it. One of the events the festival hosts each year is the Desert Lounge, which is an entirely acoustic (no mics) series of performances held in the dark late at night, only the stars acting as a kind of spotlight on the performers. There’s a lake on one side, and a view of the fort behind the artists. Everyone sits on the floor, on these carpets facing the artists. It’s late — the gig goes on till around 2 AM — so some people choose to lie down.
Desert Lounge in the middle of the night in the middle of the desert. Photo credit: RIFF/OIJO
The Great Indian Delusion (17-18 October)
The train compartment I’m in, as I head back to Delhi on an overnight train, is filled with some 50 children, between the ages of 12 and 14. If I could describe the racket excited kids on a school trip make inside a train, I would. But it’s one of those things that’s best experienced first-hand, since words can’t quite do justice to the nightmare that it is.
The Dream is elusive. As the festival had drawn to a close the previous night, after Ben Walsh’s fusion session, instantly the house DJ had put on a banging version of ‘Kina Sona Tenu’ by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. One exit route from the courtyard hosting the main stage was either through the lift, which had a queue of hundreds of people, a queue which you could only jump if you were royalty. The other option was to race down a really steep path. In the corridors, you look up and see thousands of bat roosts (or bat nests). We can’t stop here, this is bat country!
The haunting backdrop of the fort adds a sense of tension to the performance in the middle of the desert. Photo credit: RIFF/OIJO
Several people walking down were humming the earworm hook of the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan classic. News of Arnab Goswami’s requirement of high-level security had broken through, so that’s what people were talking about. Another source of conversation was the ban on Karan Johar’s upcoming film.
The kids in my train start a game of antakshari. Most of the songs they sing are at least 10 to 15 years old. They’re singing ‘Papa Kehte Hain’. How do they even know of it?
There’s the answer. Really, it’s instant gratification. It is Entertainment. It’s Bollywood. And by Bollywood, I don’t mean the songs or the films. I mean the culture. Arnab Goswami is Bollywood. So is Karan Johar. Old Hindi songs are. Old films are. New films are. It is what it is, I guess.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Akhil Sood
Photographs by Akhil Sood
Cover photo credit: www.facebook.com