Aristocracy and the art of finding uninhibited joy in a 15th century fort

Aristocracy and the art of finding uninhibited joy in a 15th century fort

By AKHIL SOOD | | 21 February, 2015
The Langas & Manganiya children’s concert in the lawns. | Photo: Mehrangarh Museum Trust
Flittering between moments of meaning and soullessness, Akhil Sood gives an account of the Jodhpur leg of the eighth edition of the World Sacred Spirit Festival earlier this month, and the art of seeking joy in the pure and honest.

Shye Ben Tzur, the Israeli composer, singer and multi-instrumentalist, was on stage fronting a 19-piece band that included dhols, the hartal, the sarangi and kamancha, a brass band, and, on guitars, Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead [!]; also an exceptional composer). Behind them, the majestic wall of the Mehrangarh fort, against which the main stage was placed, simmered in wavering hues of diddly reds and blues as the stage lights danced with each other. It was an imperial frame.

Patronage of the arts is tricky business. The artist is no doubt indebted, as the gratitude that the musicians there displayed for the city's Maharaja showed. Rajasthani folk musicians, the Manganiyars particularly, have become household names in the "world music" (a contentious term used only for convenience here) space; they get the chance to perform for audiences who, even if they don't always understand the music, will still appreciate it and gleefully egg on a collaboration veering toward virtuosic one-upmanship. Mir Mukhtiyar Ali and Mathias Duplessy are regular collaborators now, and their songs from Finding Fanny garnered some of the loudest cheers there. A festival of this sort makes it possible for a musician of the caliber of Greenwood to perform in India, and to trade ideas and inspiration with local musicians.

The folk musicians get paid a total of around Rs 40,000-50,000 for a performance while their international counterparts make ¤4,000 — once relevant parameters for conversion, status, standard of living (and privilege) are applied, that's not a great figure but it's not terrible either. Patronage, maybe indirectly, is encouraging a culture of musical exchange, of promotion of the arts, of aesthetic showcases that, while geared toward the rich — the Nagaur leg of this festival, its original venue, is one that's found a spot on the "festival tourism" itinerary (not nearly as cringe worthy a trend as "poverty tourism") — can be tremendously gratifying. It's also allowing for an ever-evolving search for the definition of fusion — both purposeful and the vapid, derivative kind.

But is deference to the aristocracy also mandatory? The artist, the music, that's where the spotlight is supposed to reside, never at the listener, never the patron. And, does patronage also come with a fundamental implication of entitlement? Why was there a man in uniform deployed to "guard" the stage when Ben Tzur started, deterring people such as this writer from standing up front to experience the music? The first two rows of seating were reserved... for important people. The first five rows were cleared so people could stand and dance only when Midival Punditz, who closed the festival, got on and started with their Indian/electronica hybrid. Thirty people waiting for the one lonely lift there — connecting the performance areas to the entrance of the fort — were asked (told) to wait longer so that the important people could cut in line and get on. Although, to be fair, self-importance, privilege and classist persecution of the other is a strong part of the Indian identity and not just the preserve of the blue-blooded; it's why I walk around with my fingers stuffed into my ears yelling LALALALALA.

There were enough frightfully boring and indulgent sections to justify my disdain for the classical traditions in art. But it’s those moments of uninhibited joy, however fleeting, that we’re always searching for. 

Dropcap OnSometimes, though, these things can be... not condoned, but ignored for a short while, perhaps at times such as these, where the seductive magnetism of the music itself is so powerful and honest. Sacred Spirit utilised the mammoth spread of the huge fort, allowing for the old-world setting of the physical space to add an inexpressible charm. The massive main stage (with a capacity of around 1,000 people) was ideal for the more high-profile acts. Dr Madan Gopal Singh and ChaarYaar (brilliant name) played Punjabi renditions and interpretations of mystical Sufi music. That, coupled with Dr Singh's endearing repartee between songs, his numinous spoken-word narrations, and the collaboration with Rajasthani musicians — whom he referred to as his "friends", a fact not always evident in musical collaborations, and which he did well to highlight — had an air of intimacy perfectly suited for the windy, late-evening twang of the fort, contrasting sharply with the fun but mechanical leanings of Mukhtiyar Ali and Duplessy.

The courtyard played host to more cosy sessions: Ballaké Sissoko's set, which tenderly transformed from an indulgent presentation of the fascinating stringed instrument, the kora, into a showcase of celestial Malian music into a stunning collaboration between African music and the sarangi and kamancha, stood out in the sense that there were no — or very few — attempts to shine or upstage each other; the musicians were doing little more than servicing the improvised composition, splendidly too. The lakeside, accessible via a 15-minute walk through narrow, steep sections and little tunnels, was another lovely little spot on the festival map; each venue seemed to be programmed for the purpose of emphasising the sounds.

And it's not that all the music was oh-so-sublime and life-changing and so on; really, there were enough frightfully boring and indulgent sections — what's fondly referred to in rock 'n' roll circles as soulless wankery — to justify my disdain for the classical traditions in art. But it's those moments of uninhibited joy, however fleeting, that we're always searching for.

Like the afternoon sit-down session in the lawns, featuring a clutch of kids from the Langa and Manganiyar community performing to an adoring crowd. The ecstasy they radiated was infectious; the atmosphere was emphatic and positive, and any flicker of nerves was duly dispatched with each passing round of applause. It concluded with all the young singers — performing with seasoned instrumentalists — introducing themselves, most of them in English in a sprightly shriek. Many of the boys were probably no more than three feet tall and the performance was exquisite; it's really a testament to the culture of music and the acquisition of talent that the folk communities of Rajasthan are ingrained with. Through the fort, the local musicians were the stars, and talk revolved around their ability to pick up alien musical traditions effortlessly because of their musical gifts and the skills they've worked to cultivate.

Greenwood, too, spoke to this writer about the fluidity of Indian music and the dedication and commitment of the musicians here (full interview on Page 28). During the set, evidently orchestrated by Ben Tzur and offering an unpredictable mix of Israeli, Indian and western music, the band members had a chemistry that seemed to bring new life to the music. They were looking at each other, playing off of each other's energy, internalising the process of performance. The thrilling brass band, led by Aamir Bhiyani, stole the show with the cheerful blasts of the trumpet, the trombone, the tuba; sharp, Indianised slides on the guitar were interspersed with picked chords arrangements and melodies owing more to western scales; the intensity of vocals crested and troughed with the dynamics of the compositions. Toward the end, each member was introduced by Ben Tzur (no small feat considering that's 18 names to remember in the midst of an emotive performance), and genuine embraces, soaked in admiration and respect, were exchanged. It was a gentle reminder that it's the emotion of the music that adds meaning, nothing else. Throughout, Bhiyani and his band mates couldn't stop swaying, dancing almost involuntarily. It was joyous.

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