Jodhpur: The ongoing Jodhpur RIFF 2019 heralded its third day on Saturday with a celebration of the lesser known nirguni traditions of Indian spiritual music.
As the first rays of the sun gently lit up the silhouette of the Merhangarh Fort in the backdrop, audiences got a taste of the soft and lilting vocals of Bhaga Khan Manganiyar and Mahesha Ram Meghwal at the RIFF Dawns. Rajasthan has a rich culture of nirguni poetry and especially common among folk artistes are the works of nirguni poets like 15th century poet-saint Kabir, Raidas, Bhagat Pipa and many other Bhakti poets. At the core of nirguni poetry is the idea of a submission and devotion to a ‘higher’ entity not separate from us – an entity entirely devoid of form (nirguni = without characteristics, or formless). This resonates deeply with the folk musicians.
Bhaga Khan sang Kabir’s Joban Dhan Pavan Din Char, and Rajasthani Satsang Bhajan Saadhu Bhai Begam Desh Hamara among others while Mahesha Ram presented Satguru Re Sharane Jaav Ram Gun Gaviyo, Taar Bin Tumba, and many more.
After a guided tour of the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Part, a daily offering for attendees of the RIFF Dawns, those with the dancing bug got an opportunity to attend one of the two Dance Bootcamps at the Festival, the first of which was led by the unbelievable Hanga Kacsó and Béla Szerényi from the Hungarian group Muzsikas. Participants were introduced to traditional Hungarian folk dancing which uses different styles including basic to skillful stepping, bouncing and skipping footwork alongside twirling as well as upward and sideways body movements. Like with musical styles, these styles too, blend into one another, and are often highly individualised by each dancer to create and express a specific set of emotions through improvised movement.
Another fantastic opportunity for introduction to folk styles was the first of the In Residence workshops which featured the various musical styles, communities and instruments of the Mewati Jogi parampara (tradition). The Jogis, a syncretic community of musicians who performed for Rajput patrons, trace their roots to Guru Gorakhnath (founder of the Nath sect) and Ismail nath, hailing from Bengal and guru of the Mev (Meo) Muslim jogi (also credited with having invented the bhapang). The jogis who were healers as well as trained in magic and tantra vidya, also played the role of satirists on social and political issues, a practice that they continue to this day. Custodians of a diminishing culture, the Jogis are broadly categorized into Muslims, Hindus, Shuddhis (converted) and the Kalbelia (snake charmer) communities, each with their own practices but with so many shared traditions that seamlessly perform alongside each other.
Yusuf Khan, part of the younger generation of Muslim jogis, the grandson of renowned Bhapang player Jahur Khan Mewati, brought together stalwarts like Babunath Jogi, Ram Swaroop Jogi, Mehboob Khan and others from three generations of Mewati musicians as they showcased their work and their stories to the participants in an interactive session. Among their presentations were unusual folk instruments such as the bhapang, the jogiya sarangi, singi, the extremely rare algoza, probably one of the last few in existence, the bakra mashaq (goat-skin bagpipes) and the chikara, believed to have been formed from the bow of Shiva. As they shared stories of their culture, passed down through songs via oral traditions, the need for preservation and popularization of these performing legacies as well these instruments and their crafters was palpable.
After these interactive sessions, audiences had the opportunity to spend the day exploring the Mehrangarh Fort where ongoing Fort Festivities included various showcases of music and dance by myriad groups of performers from across Rajasthan.
As the sun started to set in the horizon, beyond the Dhana Bhiyan Chatri, Living Legends II featured legendary musicians and dancers from the Manganiyar and Shekhawati communities. The Manganiyars Hakam Khan from Jaisalmer and Kachara Khan from Barmer, both iconic in their own right, enthralled audiences with their music.
Hakam Khan who has been singing since the age of three showcased his rich repertoire of Manganiyar vocal traditions, particularly that of the dingle, chhand and doha. A master of the jangda style of singing unique to his community, he shared remarkable renderings of epic sagas and ballads, tales of forts and palaces, renditions about rain, and stories of love and loss.
Kachara Khan, who has performed at numerous sufi music festivals in India and across the world, has had a significant contribution in sustaining the sufi traditions of Rajasthan. Also from Jaisalmer, Kachara Khan’s voice reveled his deep knowledge of traditional poetry, giving a rustic, yet melodious texture to his sufi renditions. He presented some of his favourite works including Bulleh Shah, compositions by Meera and a Bhajan and ode to the folk deity and goddess Karni Mata, accompanied by the rich music and rhythm of traditional instruments such as the kamaicha and the dholak.
Rawata Ram Shekhawati, a torchbearer of the farmer-led dance form dhol thali nritya and his troupe of senior farmer dancers showcased their simple, improvised dance typically celebrating the success of a new crop or the beginning or end of a good season. Performed only by senior farmers, it is a part-social, part-ritual performance to please the folk deity Pabuji, known – among other things – as a great curer of diseases, including the plague, and express gratitude for providing food, health and abundance to all. It was a rare treat for audiences as this raw dance form has been rarely presented outside the Shekhawati region.
The audiences then made their way to the main stage for Strings & Beats at the Old Zenana Courtyard which began with a special showcase of some of the most unusual, significant, and legendary songs of the desert regions of Marwar and its vicinity – Legendary folk songs of Marwar. Some of the regions’ master musicians such as Sugna Devi, Lakha Khan, Kadar and Asgar Langa, Daya Ram and Ghevar, Feroze and Talab Manganiyar shared the stage, presenting a carefully chosen repertoire showcasing the richness of the musical traditions of Rajasthan’s professional musician communities – the Langa, the Manganiyar and the Jogi Kalbeliya and included presentations like Baagdali Dhutaari Maan Supyaari, Saavariya Nagar Nanda Mori Ganga Savariyo, Har Rang De Vich Varshala Makan Das Dev, Grahani Mangal Gaayo Re, Haath Daal Talwar Moonth Majbuti Rakhiyo Chavanda Rajpute Mein Majbuti Rakhiyo, reflecting the varied moods and happenings of their lives.
Following the folk musicians was the unparalleled Malian virtuoso kora player and composer Ballaké Sissoko, considered to be one of the most important musicians of his generation. Having learnt the manding kora, a twenty-one-stringed harp at a very young age from his father Djelimady Sissoko, a renowned master, he became the first local kora player to master musical styles typical of the Western guitar while still being able to maintain the traditional West African rhythmic structures required for dancing. At his solo showcase at the Jodhpur RIFF 2019, he left the audience spellbound, transporting them to the heartland of Mali’s traditional music and also showcased his more modern, original compositions of the kora.
Singer, composer, multi-instrumentalist and one-woman-orchestra, Karolina Cicha was next on stage, with accordion in one hand, keyboard in another and drums by her feet. Known for her masterful vocals she showcased both Polish folk songs as well as Tatar folk music which is primarily committed to reviving. The Tatars – a minority Turkic and Finno-Ugric culture, are sometimes understood as part Hungarian/ part Mongolian. Her performance of Tatar folk included instrumental dance music, songs of love and longing, and typical Tatar music featuring the traditional pentatonic scales even as she brought a more modern Polish sensibility to her music.
Gracing the audiences with his appearance, Maharaja Gaj Singh Ji spoke of the impact that the Jodhpur RIFF has had. “The core purpose of this festival has been to pay homage to and also provide ample opportunity and a platform for Rajasthani folk artistes to showcase their brilliant talent and perform in step with the best of roots and folk musicians from India and across the world. It also offers the exposure, both for the musicians to unleash their talent, co-create and collaborate with their contemporaries, as well as for audiences to understand and appreciate the music of this land.“
The final act on the main stage was the legendary 46 year old Hungarian folk band Muzsikas with a highly energetic and interactive performance. They showcased some brilliant folk dances from the Kalotaszeg region of Transylvania including a solo improvised male dance by the very talented Béla Szerényi, typically performed by men during intervals of female performances, in their effort to woo the ladies. They showcased excerpts of folk dances like Czardas which typically are performed by couples over the course of two to three days during wedding celebrations. They also presented rare instruments like the Ütőgardon, a Cello like rhythm instrument played percussively like a drum, where instead of being played with a bow, its strings are plucked and beaten with a stick; and the Shephard’s Flute, which is a much longer and thicker wind instrument, played pointing downwards.
The audiences then headed to Club Mehran for a late night dance extravaganza with Los Angeles based DJ/Producer Jose Marquez, who was at the Jodhpur RIFF for a second consecutive year. Having been brought up on a staple diet of Latin and World Music and with a love for electronic music, his set was a groovy, in-the-pocket, make-you-move mix of Latin and Afro-beat inspired electronic soundscapes.