Let's just agree to agree that caste and class are grave concerns in India. The insulated faux-modernity of the metros — cleverly concealing their deep-rooted prejudices — lies in stark contrast to the ground realities in the rest of the country, particularly a state such as Rajasthan, with its rigid structure of royalty. You could try to change the system, or indulge in dismissive disengagement. So when, at Jodhpur RIFF (Rajasthan International Folk Festival) 2014, I see exceptionally gifted folk musicians in traditional attire clambering over each other to touch the feet of a member of the royal family possibly 15 years younger than them, I shake my head and move on. At the bar, I try in vain to catch the attention of the bartender, who's busy ensuring that the man he refers to as Hukumji — probably from the royal family — is satisfied with the fancy glasses he's being served beer in. It's only when Hukumji, who seems to be a well-spoken gentleman with self-awareness, tells the bartender to tend to my non-blue-blooded needs that he obliges. That sense of deference is ever-present; one of those "Ah, what're you going to do?" things.
It would be incorrect to accuse Jodhpur RIFF, in its eighth year now, of reinforcing these regressive ideals; but is it doing enough to dispel them? And, does a festival even need to take on the responsibility of bringing about social change or tackle something that needs grassroots-level intervention across the board? On the one hand, the many references to Bapji, the eminent dignitaries and the patrons of the festival, can seem grating — there was no Sir Mick Jagger attending this year (bugger), but William Dalrymple was there, and was for some reason asked to come to the front of the stage to address the crowd while the musicians behind were setting up. A festival pass priced at Rs 8,000 automatically alienates a considerable chunk of the audience, leaving mostly foreigners (almost half the crowd) and the high-tea-sippin', cultural-jargon-spewin' intellectual class as attendees (and the royalty, of course). It is obviously a function of finances and logistics, with the Mehrangarh Fort (the venue) not suitable for a large crowd, and the partnership between the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and the Jaipur Virasat Foundation a not-for-profit one. There's an undercurrent of almost-bourgeois elitism, even if unintentional, but the festival's vision, that of creating an audience for folk music, elevating the folk artist and promoting the heritage site, is noble enough. There are no garish sponsor logos clouding our view of the fort. It's actually a festival that's aimed at true lovers of music, not flunkies looking for a good time.
And really, without a Jodhpur RIFF, there would be no Bhanwari Devi — who first broke through at a previous edition — winning hearts on Coke Studio and performing abroad, and there would be no Sumitra Devi, who performed this year, collaborating with the brilliant-but-slightly-underwhelming-on-the-night sax player Yuri Honing on the main stage. There would be no role models for the folk musicians around the country to look up to. We wouldn't have even heard of the Manganiyars. Tickets may be way overpriced, but equally, a large chunk of that money goes to the musicians, over 300 of them playing this year's edition. Folk musicians themselves are realising that they too are "artists", not puppets; their children are learning the intricacies of the art with genuine aspirations. Placing them on the multiple RIFF stages in collaborations with international artists of considerable stature gives them the confidence they need to succeed, in front of a loving audience — not a single flourish, a single crescendo, was left unapplauded with genuine warmth (in fact, a very real positivity in the energy flowed through at all events, with the crowd connecting with the music every step of the way). And, almost as importantly, it shows us xenophile, self-loathing, deferential Indians that our traditional musicians are just as talented and skilled as their non-brown counterparts.Image 2nd
The sessions, spread across four days, included movie screenings, fort festivities through the day, interactive sessions, an acoustic Sufi performance late at night in the middle of the desert, collaborations, performances on the main stage in the evening, even an electronica-folk collaboration that kicked off at 12.30 a.m. on day two — at what was called Club Mehran — and turned into a rousing Delhi nightclub situation in a matter of minutes, and, of course, the glorious dawn sessions, held outside the fort at the spectacular Jaswant Thada. Kicking off at an ungodly 5.30 a.m., these performances began in complete darkness, with no artificial lighting anywhere (except banned cell-phone flashes), before night slowly turned to day — the transforming colour of the sky shading the music itself, adding several deeper layers to it.
Does a festival need to take on the responsibility of bringing about social change or tackle something requiring grassroots level intervention when its own vision remains noble enough?
That's just the thing; a festival such as this one brings a stirring harmony between the music and all the other senses — each element has been curated with great care. The intense, dramatic percussion jam on day two — during which the swirling bhapang, khartal, pakhawaj and the rest of the instruments all took centrestage by turn to create an emotive journey— could be internalised just as easily as Yemen Blues, the Israeli band who closed out the evening playing thumping rock 'n' roll on a folk stage (well, their version of rock 'n' roll fused with traditional elements and multiple genres). A special word must go out to their bass player, who also played the oud (oudist?) — each time he turned on his thundering bass distortion, it engulfed the air and it felt like the entire fort might collapse under the weight of that monster sound and come crumbling down. Equally, sitting alongside a bunch of Manganiyar musicians bursting into peals of laughter every few minutes during the legendary Gazi Khan Hadwa's set was a sight to behold. The performer's hilarious theatrics accompanying the music elicited the laughs, which were a little lost on the crowd who kept staring them down without realising the convergence of awe and good spirits they were intended in.
The foresight of visionaries Faith and John Singh and festival director Divya Bhatia takes shape especially when you see the coming together of the Indian and international artists — collaborations aside (since they exist also as a kind of fan service), just the fact that artists across multiple disciplines can perform on the same stage and garner appreciation when a lot of the music is not superficially that accessible, speaks volumes about not only the curation and the skill of the musicians, but even the open-minded crowd. And while I may complain about their snootiness, it was brilliant watching hundreds of people get up off their comfy chairs at midnight and head to the front of the stage to dance to Yemen Blues.
The highlight of this year's RIFF — aside from the dawn sessions and the couple who wore identical purple T-shirts which proclaimed: "The vacation never ends!" — has to be the exquisite performance by Senegalese duo Malick Pathe Sow and Bao Sissoko. A sense of melancholic longing and understated dignity defined their set, the interplay between the yearning vocals, the kora, the guitar, and the hoddu set against the majesty of the lit-up fort crafting a soulful listening experience. It was overwhelming, even, so I had to get up and head to the Café Coffee Break stall for some joe.