October 11, 2011

Jodhpur – From Tourist Backdrop to Center Stage

October 11, 2011

Wall Street Journal: Margherita Stancati

Rajasthan’s folk music, for many who have traveled through the state’s tourist corridor, may evoke memories of a particularly nice meal, perhaps set in the courtyard of one of many Maharaja palaces-turned-heritage hotels. There, it’s common for Rajasthani folk bands to be employed to entertain hotel and restaurant guests, who are often as taken by the performers’ proud moustaches and colorful turbans as much as by the sounds of their drums or their sarangi, a string instrument.

But some felt many of these musicians deserved a space where they could perform in center stage, rather than in the tourist backdrop. This has been one of the goals of Rajasthan’s International Folk Festival, better known as Jodhpur RIFF, which is now approaching its fifth year.

“The traditional environment in which [folk music] is perceived is for tourists, partly as embellishment,” Divya Bhatia, the festival’s director, told India Real Time. “It’s seen as exotic and tourist-oriented.”

One of the aims of RIFF, which starts Wednesday, is to project local folk music in a more contemporary and global setting. “Part of the task of the festival is to make the respect and the energy around traditional music more widespread,” said Mr. Bhatia, who has a background in a variety of arts, including theater. “For us it’s important that there is a value in contemporary society of what traditional music can offer.”

Part of the idea behind the five-day festival is to encourage musical collaborations across countries and genres. Many will be looking forward to seeing Manchester-based beatboxer Jason Singh take the stage with Dharohar, a Rajasthani folk band on Friday night.

This edition of the festival will also include Kavita Seth, a Sufi singer of Bollywood fame, as well as “Rupa and April Fishes,” a San Francisco-based band that blends contemporary gipsy sounds with Latino beats and melodies inspired by Indian classical music. They will be performing on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

Other international acts include Dutch saxophone player Yuri Honing, who will be performing with Rajasthani folk singer Sumitra on a jazz-themed evening on Thursday, and Maga Bo, a Brazilian DJ and composer who will be playing on Friday night. Creole musician Davy Sicard, who hails from Reunion Island, and the Band of Brothers, Australians of Kazakh and Egyptian origin, definitely add to the festival’s global profile.

Kudos to festival organizers for scouting small town sensations like Nemi Baba, a former wrestler who renounced all worldly possession in his mid-fifties to go wander in the forest. He is now 108 and is the oldest Rajasthani folk musician around. His upcoming performance at RIFF, if confirmed, will likely be his last, he says.

Other folk musicians scheduled to perform at RIFF later this week include poet and virtuoso singer Jumma “Jogi” Mewati, Shakar Khan, a master of the kamaycha, a traditional bow and string instrument, and the Jaipur Brass Band, known for their rhythmical performances and dazzling attires.

Early birds and late night owls can attend devotional performances at dawn ranging from Sufi music and Buddhist mantra chanting. Some will be curious to see what firewalking is all about – you’ll get a chance to do that on Friday. Those with kids should check out the children’s program, which includes puppetry and magic shows.

Jodhpur’s RIFF still misses big international draws – the musical equivalent of Salman Rushdie, whose presence at Jaipur was a turning point for the festival, firmly setting it on the radar of literati globally.

A-listers still haven’t made an appearance at RIFF. Someone like Mick Jagger, perhaps with A.R. Rahman and the rest of SuperHeavy, could do the trick. Sir Mick is actually a nominal patron of Jodhpur RIFF – but that’s where it ends.

Mr. Bhatia said that perhaps, one day, when the festival becomes a “stronger space,” they could invite Mr. Jagger to perform. Another possibility? Björk, who Mr. Bhatia is also fan of.

(The views expressed above are the personal views of the author)

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