Minstrels of the Desert

Cultural festivals in Rajasthan are creating employment opportunities, shattering age-old social barriers, providing international exposure to local folk artistes and reviving their art, says Karan Bhardwaj

Raju Harijan was leading an obscure life as an insignificant cobbler in the Momasar village of Rajasthan till 2013, when he participated in a local cultural festival. His dancing skills stunned fellow residents of Momasar. Besides being great at his job, this man is also a terrific performer of kachhi ghodi, a folk dance. Today, he is an artiste appreciated globally for his efforts to restore the dying dance form. In his village, he is a celebrity, with social barriers of caste and creed forgotten. But Harijan is not alone. He is just one of the many local artistes who have shot to fame with the rising number of cultural festivals being organised in Rajasthan.

Rajasthan has always been popular among tourists for its desert, camels, colours and its culture. But it is only in the past decade that the state’s folk music and dance forms have been recognised for their uniqueness and have found a niche in the Indian music scene. Before that, all genres – from diverse communities such as Langas, Saperas (popularly called Kalbelia dancers), Bhopas, Jogis, Manganiyars, Kamad and various tribal groups – were unceremoniously clubbed together as Rajasthani music.

The region saw rich patronage of folk music and dance from kings until the princely era ended. In modern times, with hardly any takers, these musical and folk communities began to give up their heritage and resorted to other means of livelihood. However, thanks to cultural festivals, that is changing. “The biggest contribution of music festivals is that it lends an identity to individual players and groups among communities,” says Vinod Joshi, regional director with Jaipur Virasat Foundation (JVF) and also the showman of the Shekhawati Utsav, a music festival organised by the state department of tourism in the Shekhawat region. Joshi emphasises JVF’s strenuous work of mapping hidden talent in the dunes and presenting it to the world. “When we discovered these artistes, we found that their music has a lot of relevance to local regions and communities, their conditions, their lands, standard of living and social background. So it was important for us to not only pass on traditions from one generation to another but also establish to a sense of pride among the youth about their heritage,” he says.

The success of JVF’s initiatives comes from the fact that some of their festivals, including the Shekhawati Utsav, are today funded by locals, who now consider these festivals as badges of honour.

Rajasthani Folk Singers

Star Performer

Another star performer, Bhanwari Devi, who has risen to fame with the Jodhpur RIFF, a hugely successful international music festival, is now performing across the world. A mother of nine, the 52-year-old folk singer from the Mandawa village of Rajasthan became a national rage after recording the track Kattey with rapper Hard Kaur and musician Ram Sampath at MTV Coke Studio. She also caught the attention of many with her unique style of performing from behind a veil.

Going Global

Several participating artistes have also made fusion albums with global musicians. This is best described through the example of Maru Tarang (Ripples of the Desert), a record featuring Asin Langa (vocals and Sindhi sarangi), Jeff Lang (vocals and lap steel guitar), Bobby Singh (tabla) and Bhungar Manganiyar (khartal). “I introduced Jeff and Bobby [both Australian] to Asin and Bhungar [Rajasthani], which was the beginning of a remarkable collaboration that has since been presented at numerous cities and festivals in Australia on multiple tours, besides Celtic Connections in Glasgow, Womex in Santiago de Compostela and Moshito in Johannesburg.

They’ve already released an album, Blue City, and are on the cusp of releasing their next. They are doing a short tour this year playing in Bengaluru, Jaipur and at Jodhpur RIFF,” says Divya Bhatia, director of Jodhpur RIFF. Langa and Manganiyar artistes are recording another album with the Brian Molley Quartet from Scotland, being produced by Jodhpur RIFF.

Exchange Of Culture

At the Jodhpur Gypsy and Flamenco festival, a natural bond can be seen between gypsies and the Kalbelia community. “We share similar roots. Gypsies were jogis in India who wandered from place to place to entertain people. We, as Kalbelias, or snake charmers, are also travellers. When I visited Spain last year, everybody liked my performance. I felt no different there,” says Asha Sapera, a regular at Spanish festivals.

However, when it comes to adapting and absorbing music from other territories, nothing can beat the Manganiyars. Their youth is constantly evolving and experimenting with new forms of music. “We cannot play something that entertained people 50 years ago,” says 37-year-old khartal player Kheta Khan, a member of Barmer Boys, a group of Manganiyar performers. He attributes change in his learning to foreign collaborations. “We want to be as enthralling as the foreign artistes on stage,” he says. His younger brother Rais Khan has been a huge fan of classical icons such as Zakir Hussain. “I’ve always wondered that if he could experiment with his tabla, why couldn’t I? After all, creating something new is the hallmark of a great artiste,” he says.

1. Kalbelia dancers or Saperas paint a vibrant picture in the desert land 2. Musicians play the ravanhatta, a local stringand- bow instrument 3. A colourful kacchi ghodi performer 4. A fire dance performance of Rajasthan

1. Kalbelia dancers or Saperas paint a vibrant picture in the desert land, 2. Musicians play the ravanhatta, a local stringand- bow instrument,  3. A colourful kacchi ghodi performer,  4. A fire dance performance of Rajasthan

These music festivals have also improved economic conditions of the otherwise impoverished performers. Manganiyars today charge as high as a lakh, depending on the venue, scale and reputation of a programme. “We are generating sufficient funds to stick to our traditions,” says Kachara Khan, an iconic vocalist who renders Sufiana kalam. Kheta Khan is proud to carry on the 400-year old legacy of the Manganiyars. “We are not dying of hunger. We are participating in concerts and getting recognition and money. We are very happy,” the artiste sums up.

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