Sharq Taronalari on the Silk-road



Words like silk-road and Samarkand had always conjured up a sense of antiquity in my mind and many a time have I seen the picture of a beautiful standing structure that almost looked like Taj Mahal, not knowing it was called Registan Square. I have been wanting to travel there one day and what better time to do it than Sharq Taronalari, a music festival that I heard about only a few years ago. The 5-day biennale of traditional Asian music is being organised at the Registan Square in Samarkand since 1997. And the city of Samarkand is under the UNESCO world heritage list.





2019 festival featured artists from 31 countries. The performances were evaluated by a jury consisting of musicologists and composers from different countries. On the closing day, awards were presented to the winners under various categories for three places besides a Grand-Prix winner.












Museums, handicraft centres and hotels in Samarkand hosted exhibitions that presented the history of the festival in photographs, products of national handicrafts and musical instruments. Within the framework of the festival, an international academic and practical conference entitled “Prospects for the development of traditional musical art of the peoples of the East” was held during the day. Musicologists from more than 10 countries did the presentations while the musical performances were slated for the evenings.

The closing ceremony saw hundreds of local musicians and dancers perform at the sprawling square with the Registan madrasas as the backdrop.

Teams from Tajikistan (the “Badakhshan” collective) and from Russia (the “Ayarkhan” collective), as well as representatives of Uzbekistan – Azizjon Abduazimov and Ulugbek Elmurodzoda, were awarded third place diplomas, a cash prize of 2 thousand USD and gifts.
The second place was awarded to “Archabil” from Turkmenistan and “Hatan” from Mongolia. They were awarded a cash prize of 3.5 thousand US dollars, diplomas and gifts.
The duo Komuzchilar from Kyrgyzstan and Parviz Gasimov from Azerbaijan won the first place and received a cash prize of 5 thousand US dollars, diplomas and souvenirs.
By decision of the jury, Uzbekistan’s Mekhrinigor Abdurashidova was awarded the Grand Prix of the XII Sharq Taronalari International Music Festival.


Mali – Encore


Guess the title is apt for a country that’s known more for its music than any other. Though music was indeed the reason that drew me to Mali some 30 years ago, the interest has since then stretched out to other entities such as its ethinic diversity, culture, the colours, markets and of course the people and their hospitality. In general, I don’t travel to a country more than once, but had to make an exception for Mali too among a very few other places. This time around, it was after a gap of 16 years and the living-colours and rhythms could be seen and heard below  –

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Mali’s ethnic diversity is among the most colourful and  facinating. Following offers a glimpse into the ethnic wear of Bamanan, Bobo, Bozo, Peul, Dogon, Khassonke, Senouto, Soninke, Songhai, Toureg, Jogorame and Maure ( not in that order)

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Rhythms galore –





Affable Massambou below has worked with some of the leading musicians of Mali including Ali Farka Toure and Oumou Sangare –





Folk arts of North Eastern India


The horn played above in the beginning is called Penpa

The seven sister states of North-Eastern India (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura) are rich in folk and tribal traditions for centuries. Though largely converted to Christianity by the missionaries during the colonial times, one could still find native traditions alive. The state of Assam alone accounts for some 90 tribes and over 220 ethnic groups in all states. Each group has their own attire, dialect and culture. Handicrafts of bamboo and cane, wood-carving, hand loom-weaving are common.


A Karbi girl in pekok(top) and pena (bottom)





An Ahom girl in chadar (top) and mekla (bottom)





Bihu being Assamese, notice all the men wear ‘gamocha’ as a head-band. It’s a cotton towel woven out of white thread with intricate embroidery in red at the ends. This piece of cloth is highly revered and serves as a cultural identity in the state of Assam.

The cymbal played above in the band is called Bhortal




Dangs of Gujarat




Dang dance is performed by Dangi tribe of Dang region of Gujarat. This dance is usually performed during Holi and other festivals, also at fairs, ceremonies and rituals connected to worship. It is quite swift, vigorous and highly rhythmic. Musical instruments used are percussive Kahaiya and Dholki  besides short shehnai. Men and women stand alternately in a circular form and dance by going round and round, creating various choreographic patterns. They may have their arms around the shoulders or waists of the neighboring dancer. The movement builds gradually and reaches a fast tempo before winding to a halt. The women climb on the shoulders of men and form a human pyramid. The two and three tier formation moves clockwise and anti clockwise.


The Dangs live in the rocky, hilly forests of western central India. They are primarily located in the Dangs district of Gujarat State.

They have always lived close to nature, depending on it for survival. Animals are respected and treated as equals. For this reason, they are often called the “children of nature.” The Dangs district contains many protected forests that the Dangs are allowed to use for cultivation and residence. They live in one-room bamboo huts made with thatched roofs.

Despite their poverty, the Dangs enjoy singing and dancing. The villagers are skilled in creating objects out of stone, wood, and clay. Hindu artisans often help them with such crafts. Tattooing has also become an art among the Dangs.

The majority of the Dangs practice ethnic religions, and all of them are involved in ancestor worship (praying to deceased ancestors). Their lives revolve around rites, rituals and folk beliefs. Many are animists, believing that all objects have spirits. Trees, animals, demons, serpents, and spirits are worshiped through magical rituals. Wagh-Dev, the tiger god, is their sacred animal god and their emblem of worship.

The Dangs believe in magic, witchcraft, and sorcery, along with their many tribal gods and Hindu deities. They believe that the supernatural world contains both good and evil. Their constant fear of the spirits keeps them revolving around a circle of prayers, rituals, offerings, and sacrifices. The Bhagat (priest and medicine man) is thought to be the ultimate “good man.” He is believed to be a spiritual man who communicates with the gods. He is considered a friend, a philosopher, a guide, and a healer.




Folk dances of Mizoram





Chheihlam is generally performed over a round of rice-beer and it reflects joy and exhilaration. While a pair of dancers dance in the middle, others squat around, clap, sing to the beat of a drum. Those sit around take turn to join in the middle


Cheraw is one of the popular folk forms of Mizoram, also found in other north-eastern states of India. I recall watching a similar performance done by an ethnic group from Taiwan. It is as well found in other far-eastern countries such as Philippines.

Men sitting face to face on the ground tap long pairs of horizontal and cross bamboo staves open and close in rhythmic beats. Girls in colorful Mizo costumes of Puanchei, Kawrchei. Vakiria and Thihna, dance in and out between the beats of bamboo. This dance is now performed in almost all festive occasions. The unique style of the Cheraw is a great fascination everywhere it is performed. Gongs and drums are used to accompany the dance.

The bamboos, when clapped, produce a sound which forms the rhythm of the dance. It indicates the timing of the dance as well. The dancers step in and out to the beats of the bamboos with ease and grace. They need to keep up with the timing with high focus and concentration, as they jump in and out alternately. A misstep by a single dancer may throw the entire set off and may result in injury too.

The origin of this dance form dates back to 1 CE

Chawnglaizawn is a popular form of a community called Pawi. It is performed by a husband to mourn the death of his wife. The husband would be continuously performing this dance till he gets tired. Friends and relatives would relieve him and dance on his behalf. This signifies that they mourn with the bereaved.
Chawnglaizawn’ is also performed in festivals and to celebrate trophies brought home by successful hunters.





Thol Bommalattam – Shadow Puppetry



This is an ancient form of entertainment and story-telling that continues to this day, though sparingly. It uses articulated cut-out figures made of thol (leather) that are made to dance, act, fight, nod, laugh so on between  a source of light and a screen. This art form is still found in many countries across Asia, notably China, India and Indonesia have always been major players.





European merchant ships played a role in importing this art form to parts of Europe.












Puppets are held close to the screen and hands and legs are manipulated with attached canes. I took a peek behind the screen while the women work and hundreds of puppets strewn across the floor. The team members were scurrying around to pick the right characters for the scenes to follow.






Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata form the repertoire, used to be performed by itinerant artists on temporary platforms during temple festivals. It is believed puppet-theater dates back to 3rd century BCE. The puppets in general are three to four feet tall.





Folk Traditions of the states of Bihar and Haryana





Haryana has rich tradition of music and dance for various occasions such as wedding, festivals and so on and for seasons such as harvest, sowing of seeds, monsoon and so forth.The music in general falls into two categories, classical such as songs for Teej, Phag and Holi and rural or country music that narrates legendary tales.


Phag is a seasonal dance by the farmers, expressing the joy of bounty crop.
















Here the folk songs deal with various events in the life of a common man.

The following songs called  Sohar that are performed during childbirth









The influence of Bihari music is seen in countries such as Mauritius, South Africa and the Caribbean islands where a large number of Bihari indentured labourers were taken by the British during the nineteenth century.

Momasar – a Rajasthani village festival


Stage for home-grown folk arts

As my taxi changes gear from highway to village-dirt-lane, a street dog barking furiously runs along for it finds a foreign moving object in its neighbourhood in this early hour of the day. We outdo the dog by a long way, and I could hear strains of music wafting in through morning stillness. I ask the driver to head in that melodic-way. Musicians belong to Islāmic faith singing Hindu bhajans in the courtyard of quaint Hanuman Dhora temple at dawn opens the festival. Villagers sitting cross-legged on the blanket are taking in the bliss. White-clothed and turbaned elders walk in at their pace while head-covered women in bright red Rajasthani sarees gather in a corner on the blanket. A few SUVs to my left and camels inside house walls to my right. Desert sand underneath my feet and peacocks trot at higher elevations looking for breakfast, this hour is indeed sublime !


A village 160 miles north-west of Jaipur in Rajasthan is hosting the 6th edition of Shekhawati Utsav, organized by Jaipur Virasat Founndation that works to keep and promote traditional art forms of the state. The festival runs for 2 days, staging 200 artists from various regions and attracts a few thousand crowd to this remote hamlet, mostly from nearby villages and also a handful of die-hard fans from abroad.

We break for tea and simple refreshments at a local temple-hall. I meet up with a group who come from US and various European countries. “Marc and I chanced upon this festival last year and this year we are here to play. Yes, we were suggested city gigs but we settled for this unique village one” says Markus from Germany. In a first, this edition would feature a non-Rajasthani band in Marc Sinan and Iva Bittova. Energized by tea and with the help of a local guide, we stroll through the maze of lanes for local attractions such as temples and century old charming havelis that are painted with frescos, belonged to wealthy merchants of yesteryear.

Music at rural settings

I enter Patwari ki Haveli, an exquisite heritage building of Momasar, for ‘Music in the afternoon’. A group of women sing welcome-songs at the massive door. An array of activities in the courtyard include men spinning yarn from drop-spindle, rope-making demonstration and young students of wood-craft display their creative works. “This reflects the motive of our Foundation – preserve and encourage tradition in all forms” says Vinod Joshi, Director of JVF and the force behind this festival, which also serves him as a pay-back to his birth place. Along the wall, Kathodi performers present a unique image as two men blow into a mouth-piece of a vertical wind instrument, a man on scraper and another rubs a thin metal rod placed over a brass plate to produce the drone effect. “They live in the forest and make their own musical instruments” says Joshi. A flight of stairs in the haveli brings up a compact hall that is open to the skies where the 80 year young Safi Mohammed sings with gusto often tossing and turning the tanpura on his hand, more than strumming on it.

A quick stop for snacks at the temple hall and as the light starts to fade, we head to a farm. Though it is dark, I could get a sense of the expanse of the place and feel my respiratory system is more at ease now. As the wind blows across under starry sky, a dimly lit make-shift platform offers space for more folk art traditions. A red-turbaned, white dhoti clad man with anklets thumps his feet and waves his arms around to the beats and singing of two men playing on maante drum, a large clay-pot – their silhouette leave a surreal feel. While Marc and Iva sounds are a novelty in village-ears, the day ends at Taal Maidan, an open-air ground, at midnight with “Kuchamani Khayal”, a folk-theatre tradition from the Nagaur region of Rajasthan and is very much on the decline.

Curtain downs with a bang

Second day begins with ‘Baal Mela‘ that features a few thousand young boys and girls from 13 different schools in the village to get them re-acquainted to their rich roots and help them understand that tradition and progress could go hand in hand. “This is very crucial for the future of what we are now involved in” says Joshi, who sounds keen on covering the entire spectrum in his quest. The children get to see artists who do not make it to center stage this year, yet perform amid children’s’ competitions and workshops.

On the grand finale evening, hoards of villagers stream in one direction, young girls giggle their way in, boys bond with arms around shoulders while women look in unwind-mode with their day chores done with. Now my taxi struggles its way through this mass in this otherwise no traffic zone. As I reach brightly lit Taal Maidan, the place is buzzing, children play in sand chasing each other, flies and bugs have a field day around high wattage lamps and even crawl on people, excited in their sudden-found-illuminated-lives. The stage that exudes Rajasthani decor is all set for the show. An endless kaleidoscope of folk forms that include Dhol-thali, Kalbeliya, Gair, Bhapang, Kachhigodi, Sahariya Swang dance unfold on front that last well into the wee hours.

Though a comfortable hotel stay is some 25 miles away, the festival affords to experience folk art at its provenance. While Langa and Manganiar musicians are hot invitees on world stage, JVF aims to bring the world to their homes.

















This piece by yours truly was carried in India’s national daily –



Sufi Sutra Music Festival

DSCN0764Lately, the usage of the term Sufi in India, be it in music, dance, fine arts, festivals, amongst young and Bollywood, makes one wonder if the term is indeed understood or  it  is only a fad that sweeps across the country without really getting a sense of what it’s about. I get asked questions when I say going to a Sufi festival, both from within and without India, and from musically inclined contacts – what is Sufi, are Qawwali and Sufi same and so on. Perhaps the association of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Bollywood brought about this wave in India, or it is the ‘secular’ India suddenly waking up to a sect of Islam, not sure as I was away from the country and started hearing the term here only on return.

Mystical dimension of Islam is Sufism. This school encompasses music and dance as part of the meditative process to attain that union with the divine, though the link between music and divinity existed since time immemorial, be it in shamanism or animism. Another school of Islam opposes music lest that it has the potential to intoxicate the mind and lead one away from the path of attaining Allah. Well, that is my limited take on the term.

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Having said that, the focus here is the music festival. World music is still hard to come by in India and understandably so for the mind-boggling variety and wealth of music around. After all, the origin of music ever is said to be Sama-veda, one of the four Vedas of Hinduism. But, these Sufi festivals are indeed a welcome treat for they showcase performing arts from other cultures, though a Langa group from Rajasthan and a Qawwali group are invariably part of such festivals, probably included more to justify the ‘Sufi stamp’. In addition to very many obscure Sufi festivals across the country, the three major annual ones, at least I know of, are World Sufi Spirit Festival at Jodhpur with a regal touch, both in terms of venue and admission price, and backed by the likes of Aga Khan Trust and the Royal family of Jodhpur; Ruhaniyat, an itinerant gig that packs 5 or 6 groups in just one evening; and Sufi Sutra, a free for all festival that lights up the city of joy – Kolkata (Calcutta). Having done the first two in the circuit earlier, this year I soaked in the music at Sufi Sutra.

At the first look, the venue of the festival was rejuvenating with lots of green and flowers. It was Mehar Kunj, a park adjoining the popular colonial landmark, Victoria Memorial. The walkway inside the park was lined up with billboards of the participating bands. Black and white photographs of historical Calcutta took up a small niche. The stage and the seating looked as it would at any other outdoor concert venue. A band that was scheduled to perform in the evening was rehearsing on stage with no audience presence as I was guided to the morning workshop session at another section of the park with sprawling lawn.

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The workshop sessions were quite informal and provided opportunity for visiting bands to introduce their genre, both verbally and musically, as a prelude to their formal act in the evenings. It was also the time to interact with the audience and answer queries they might have, jam with local musicians and get the rich exchange and learning curve going. While the audience indulged in circle-dance, media was busy with photo-ops and interviews at back-stage with artists who were done with their morning slot. Two bands were presented at these sessions. Handicraft artisans had spread out their exquisite wares along the periphery of the lawn giving the event a multi-faceted touch.


The evening scene was quite a transformation from what I saw in the morning, as the crowd swelled to capacity, illumination ran up the trees in all hues and the stage was set with state-of-the-art sound and light equipments. Constant supply of steaming tea and the music more than made up for the dip in January evening temperature. Three bands performed in the evenings at this three-day festival.

El Bola (Spain), Mu (Portugal), Radiant Arcadia (Denmark), Win Bang (Iran) Barkbroder Extended (Sweden) and Arnob & Friends (Bangladesh) were the bands participated this year.


In my books, Sufi Sutra beats other festivals on all fronts – ‘music for all and music for peace’ motto, great venue and decor, friendly staff, opening avenues for local folk musicians and handicraft artisans, laid-back atmosphere, providing opportunity for people to get their feet wet in World music by keeping the festival open for all and of course, which festival offers you limitless supply of no-charge-tea ! Given the limited resources in India, it’s quite remarkable that an organization could venture in uncharted waters (world music) and stage something like this – Kudos to team for pulling off such an act that I would say exceeded some of the outdoor acts I have seen abroad.

Though the city of Kolkata didn’t have a call for me all these years, in the last 1 year I found myself there on 3 occasions – first, to ‘reconnect’ with my time in the Amazon at Sundarbans, as its called the Amazon of Asia, second for the Sufi Sutra festival and quite recently for the World Hare-Krishna festival (ISKCON) – so, it’s certainly turning out to be a happening-city! No metro (subway) in the world can beat the clean, ad-free, efficient and air-conditioned ride for a mere Rs.5 – though a new kid on the block, no wonder it was voted as the #1 metro in the world on the PBS documentary I watched a few years ago! And the eco-friendly clay tea-cup used at the street-side shops was a welcome sight yet walking through the labyrinths of Kumartuli where the potters churn out gleaming Gods and Goddesses was simply magical !

An artistic director of one Sufi festival rightly asked me once why there was such Sufi-craze in India with so much of Hindu music in its bag, while his counterpart at another festival rightly answered that Hinduism embraced all faiths with open arms. Yet, I personally wish to see India stages a festival on the lines of Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, sans Indian classical but providing platform to multitude of regional and state-wide genres of Bakthi (devotional) music and as well invite rich world sacred music traditions that include tribal, shamanistic and animistic categories. Abhang, Nama-Sankeerthan, Samprdhaya Bhajan, Oduvar tradition, Thirupugaz singers,Theru-koothu,Yakshaganam,Garba andDhandia, Kummi and Kollattam, Bauls of Bengal, three styles ofChhau, Somana Kunita, Pavai dance, Bishnoi bhajans, Bhagavatha Mela are the art forms that are much older than Sufi or any such traditions and many of which trace their roots to Sama-Veda. These are just right off the top of my head and the list will be endless if dig deeper across the country. These art forms are currently pigeon-holed to respective regions and that too on a very negligible scale. With plenty in the backyard, if India doesn’t showcase these hoary but dying traditions to the world on a common platform, no one else will and they are not likely to get invited to Iran or Pakistan as we find bands from such countries here, nor for that matter at the money-spinning, agent-oriented World music venues and festival destinations. Probably the first organisation in India, Prakrithi Foundation in Chennai, has started hosting an annual festival in the clichéd caption ‘Thiruvaiyaru Sacred Music Festival’ on the banks of river Cauvery, with a little mix of other flavours but only adding more classical vibes to that town Thiruvaiyaru that already has a strong association with that genre.

Following is an interview by yours truly of Win-Bang, the band from Iran that was featured at the festival, carried by the daily Deccan Herald –


 and also in World Music e-mag INSIGHT in Germany – (please find the photo below at their site and click)


India’s Musical Instruments of yore

In principle, any object that produces sound can be termed a musical instrument though through ‘purpose’ the object attains that status. The history of musical instrument probably dates back to the beginning of human origin and probably even before man began to talk. The purpose of early musical instruments was very likely ritual, as a hunter may make a sound to signal a successful hunt, or a shaman might use a animal-hide-drum in a ceremony. Then again, in the Indian context, the numerous gods and goddesses of age-old Hinduism sport various musical instruments – Krishna plays flute, sage Narada walks around with tanbura, Saraswati plays veena, Siva’s carriage Nandi plays mridhangam while Siva himself plays damaru when he does the cosmic dance and so on. Musical instruments evolved over the years when cultures around the world started to develop the process of composing and performing for pastime and entertainment.

The instruments may be largely classified into following with few ‘Indian’ examples –

stringed – yaz, tampura, sitar, veena, gottuvadyam

wind – flute, nadaswaram, mukhavina

percussion – tabla, tappattam, thavil, urumi

then the non-vibrating membrane instruments called idiophones – jalra, jalatharangam

I did learn E.Gayathri, a well-known Veena player based in Chennai proposed to the local museum (est. 1851) that they did an exhibit of the musical instruments that were kept locked in their rooms for over 100 years. These were the collections done during the English rule and never went on display. Having heeded, there were a total of 65 instruments on display. It was just a week-long special-exhibit and that was reason enough to lure me to the museum, otherwise stayed away for years – how many in the world get to visit local museums regularly, anyway !

Happy to share what was seen – apologise about the quality and reflections seen in the pictures as they were glass-cased in a lit room –

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rabab, sitar and swaramud

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tabla and dolak

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rabab and swarabath

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senkuttu yaz

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narayana veena


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panchamuka vadhyam – a 5-faced percussion

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bengal folk musicians

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thappattam folk dance of tamil nadu

no stage, props, costume, choreography – just a typical village festival with thappattam players –

and a pro-version in performance –

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a thappattam band

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thiruchinnam, bhoori and kombu – horns used by tribes living in nilgiri mountains

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damaru, kanjira, davandai and indramu

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kashtatarang and jalatarang

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sangu, shehnoi and magudi

here is pambai and oudoukkai (damaru) demo –

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nadaswaram and thavil

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kuzal (flute) and tribal shehnoi

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sakota yaz

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karthal, morsing and chiplas

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matsya (fish) and kurma (turtle) yaz

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veena kunju, swaramandal, rabab and rudra-veena

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urumi and pambai

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naga (snake) yaz

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cymbals and gongs


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mayil (peacock) yaz (harp)

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notes :

Panchamuka-vadyam, the 5-faced metal drum once used to be part of Siva temple orchestra is now being played only in 2 temples in Tamilnadu – at Thiruvarur and Thiruthuraipoondi. It is played with both hands.

Rabab is the national instrument of Afghanistan and confined to Afghan, and may be in parts of Pakistan and Kashmir

Yaz (harp) finds mention in Sangam Tamil literature (dates back to 200BC) and was wildly used in Tamil culture for ages

Nadaswaram &Tavil are on the way out, save temples and weddings in Tamilnadu state. This is a family tradition belonging to a particular sect, passed down from father to son. Today, the younger generation march toward colleges to get their engineering degrees and seek greener pastures rather than lug around an oboe to make a living. The fathers are happy about this change as well, having gone through hard-times in their musical lives. Lack of patronage at concert halls is also a contributing factor.

Kanjira and Morsing are featured as part of South Indian classical Carnatic concert repertoire though not common; Urumi is still used in Tamil folk music while Nagara is seen as part of Eastern Indian tribal and folk groups. Bamboo flute is played in all of India though becoming less common in classical versions. Cymbals are very much part of devotional music in all of India. Jalatharangam is again in endangered list as no one is keen on packing a bunch of brittle and delicate china along. Thappattam is wildly played in the Tamilnadu villages during village festival, temple festival and other occasions including funeral.

Narayana Veena – my guess is this ancient Indian musical instrument travelled along Buddhism and acquired the name of Gugin in China, Kayagum in Korea and Koto in Japan

Of the Indian instruments, Tabla probably has the widest reach in terms of popularity – thanks to Pandit Ravi Shankar for having had it as an accompaniment. Then in certain regions like Africa where Ravi Shankar might not have performed, Tabla is known more through Bollywood music. Baaba Maal from Senegal, a country on the fringes of the metaphorical Timbuctu, and one of the top names in the worldmusic circuit once told me Tabla was his favourite percussion. As told by my Senegalese friends, another well known musician Thione Seck had his own “Bollywood band” with complete instrumental repertoire before switching over to singing in his native mbalax genre.

Bommalattam – puppet on string

In the Tamil language, Bomai meaning doll and Attam is dance -This is one of the simplest form of outdoor/indoor entertainment for children, even during my growing years, at schools, halls, market places, fairs, temples where the theme would be anything from Indian epics to moral stories to social issues. The ‘magically’ moving dolls on raised platform would keep the children riveted and tickle their innocent senses. But today, it is just another art form that has vanished into the web-world.

Bommalattam finds mention in the Sangam period (1 CE) literature and the itinerant puppeteer drew large crowd over centuries. Bommalattam combines the techniques of both rod and string puppets. The strings are tied to a ring which the handler wears like a crown on his head or some just hold the strings on hands. The jointed limbs of the puppets enable easy manipulation.

The Marionettes may be made of wood (kalyana murungai/moringa oleifera tree), leather, cloth or other materials. They are then painted, decked with rich ornaments, costumes and headdresses. The ones made of wood is heaviest of all though kalyana murungai wood is of lightweight nature. Generally, a single puppeteer hide behind the screen and manipulate the puppets from above while a small group assist him in handing over the right puppets at the appropriate times. Music, live or recorded accompany the show.

Only about 4 groups in southern Tamilnadu are trying to keep it going, with the patronage of state government and few private sources, and one such group from the town of Kumbakonam recently staged a show in the city of Chennai.

following are the images –






the following images are of Pinnal-Kollattam, pinnal meaning plait and kollattam mean stick-dance – another art form hardly seen these days. This art involves the dancers go around each other in intricate patterns, playing with the sticks,  so that the coloured ropes hung from a single point above that they hold on to form into a plait as they dance around. And then they unravel the ropes by reversing the dance steps.






Clip of Rajasthani Puppet show

below is a video clip of Pinnal Kolattam (note: the dance ends at 11:13)

Rongali Bihu – an Assamese delight

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Jaapi – a traditional hat of Assam

It is mid-April and the Tea-Bamboo rich north-eastern state of Assam in India is dancing. Rongali Bihu is celebrated to mark the beginning of Spring, Assamese New year and agricultural season. Originally a farmer’s festival but now has assumed an urban twist. In addition, the term Bihu is loosely used to refer the folkloric dance and music performed during this time.

The cattle that is important to the agrarian world gets special attention this time while the Assamese women indulge in preparing local delicacies like Pitha , a rice flour dish that has sweet, salty or vegetable fillings.

Various musical instruments are used to accompany the Bihu dance – Dhol (a 2-faced drum), Taal (cymbals), Pepa (buffalo horn), Baanhi (flute), Gogona (a bamboo jew’s-harp), Xutuli (a clay-whistle) and so on. Coming to the dance part, both men and women take part. Men, who mostly play the instruments enter the area first, in line, by beating the Dhol and blowing the Pepa, and the women dancers follow. Dancers get chance to show off their individual virtuosity by stepping aside. The dance itself has definite characteristics in hip, arms, wrists, finger movements and in easy and relaxed steps to go with the beat.

They dress in beautiful traditional attire – The men in dhotis and gamosa. Dhoti is a long unstitched rectangular white cloth that is wrapped around the waist and legs and tucked in at the front and back and gamosa is a white rectangular piece of cloth with red border that is wrapped around the head with a fluffy knot. The women are dressed in traditional Mekhela and Chador that come mostly in red and beige; Mekhela is like a sarong, pleated and tucked in at the waist while the Chador is draped over the upper part. A blouse is worn below the Chador.

The ubiquitous Jaapi hat made of bamboo is used not only in dance but has become the very symbol of the state itself. Jaapi is used as a decorative piece on the walls and is offered as a welcome gift to guests.

Assamese living outside their state form their associations and celebrate the festival with same gusto. They had one in Chennai, the city I live in, and helped me soak in –

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Bihu wards





please click below for a video clip –

World Sufi Spirit Festival

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Jaswant Thada mornings


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Mataji temple dances

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Mataji Temple dances


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Rajasthani bagpipe

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Nile musicians

Please click below for video clips –

the above, at a different angle –

And please click below for an article on the festival by yours truly in an India’s national daily –

note : the paragraph that starts with ‘Zenana Deodi courtyard’ and the one that follows are to be read together, as the editor was at fault in splitting it at a wrong place


Somana Kunita – a folk tradition


 Another obscure folk tradition of India found its way to city stage  –

Somana Kunita is a ritualistic dance performed by two or three artists with elaborate masks. Only men are permitted to perform this dance. Somana kunita is region specific and is performed in the districts of South Karnataka such as Mandya,Mysore, Hassan, Tumakur and Bangalore. Usually only those belonging to okkaliga, lingAyata, besta and kuruba sects perform these dances. Soma is the name given to the masks worn by the performers. These masks cover only the head of the dancer and the remaining part of the body is covered either with an improvised skirt made from a saree of the deity or tight trousers. The masks are almost four times as large as a human head. They are usually made of a light variety of wood such as Pterocarpus santalinus which is commonly known as Red sanders. One of the Somas is red in colour and is truly awe-inspiring. Another mask is yellow and mild in its expression. This Soma is called Kenchamma or IraNNa. There may be yet another soma in blue called karirAya. Behind these masks is a triangular structure woven with cane and covered with multi coloured sarees, as many as 30. This cane structure is called banka. The artist can see the external world through the holes made in the nostrils of the mask. The performers wear many ornaments such as anklets and chest bands made of silver and brass.



The performers dance in a rhythmic manner to the beats of  instruments such as, Are (percussion) dUNu(percussion) mouri(wind) and sadde (wind to keep shruti). Songs about the village deities are sung intermittently. These artists accept invitations to perform at village festivals and annual fairs of the deities where religious fervour pervades and prefer not to perform for entertainment  (what is seen here is just a demo and not a performance).


Somana kunita is a ritualistic folk performance that has survived for centuries but didn’t invoke the ‘spirit’ (no pun intended) when gathered the city flavour this morning, confined in an enclosed space. Then again, Tibetan Mandala and Australian Aborigines’ Sand-paintings are demonstrated at museums across the world….guess it’s the only way to ‘educate’ the urbanites !!



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pretty Tuareg girls

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colourful fulani

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tuareg man


with great musician afel

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ali farka playing the grand finale


and here’s the clip….it was almost 2am, freezing Sahara and yet the great music kept us all warm…..can you find me somewhere on the very front …..???

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oumou in her farm

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salif in bamako


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Legends of mali Oumou and Salif


Because of musical and cultural interest in Mali for long, when I speak of the country, often had to look at quizzing faces with counter question/correction ‘You mean Bali?’ – from such geographical depths, today Mali has shot up to hit the front pages all across the world, though for wrong reasons.

Here’s a piece written almost 10 years ago during happier times in Mali. Incidentally, my first ever published article, a transition from Software to Freelance writing !

Please click –

A Music Festival miles from Nowhere

As the city of Chennai is getting set for yet another music season, preparations are underway for the annual music festival in an unusual environ, 65 Kms north of Timbuctu, right in the Sahara desert. It is reported as the most remote location ever for a music festival. Early next year, the festival will run for 3 days from January 9-11.

Many of us would have heard of ‘Timbuctu’ in reference to some place geographically ‘far away’, but few know that it is located in the largest West African country Mali. Mali has a rich historical background, in the 13th century, Sundiata Keita, the respected leader of the Manding people, had strategically converted the empire to Islam and taken out a monopoly on the gold and salt trade. The remarkable traveler of that period, Iban Batuta speaks high of Mali’s culture and wealth in terms of the presence of gold in his travelogues. Like in India, gold is revered by the Manding women of West African countries even today, and passed on from mother to daughter in a family. Mali still has deposits of gold, second only to South Africa in the continent. The French made in-roads into Mali in 1898 and ruled until 1960 and today Mali is one of the rare democracies in the African continent. The 10.5 million population comprises of myriad ethnic groups with their exuberant styles of clothing and jewellery, speaks many different languages and Bambara being spoken by the majority. Mali boasts couple of World Heritage sites in the Bandiagara escarpments of the Dogon people and the mud mosque in Djenne. It is one of the poorest countries yet rich in culture.

Music is an essential part of Malian life. Indian films are shown and are popular among the Malians, who can name the stars and sing the songs with perfect tongue. In fact, it is stated that some of the leading Malian musicians got their inspiration from listening to Indian film music. Though the similarity is quite striking, Malian music is very much based on its roots with the usage of traditional instruments like Djembe drum, 21 stings harp called Kora, Kamalen N’ goni, Fulani flute, Njarka, Belafon, Calabash et al. Western instruments such as guitar,drums and violin add to Malian rhythm in today’s ’Afropop’ scene. It is said that Mali is the most musical country in Africa and to quote Salif Keita, the renowned musical son of Mali, ’ Mali produces music and musicians just like Saudi Arabia pumps out oil’. Besides Salif Keita, many others who made it to the world music scene include the divas Oumou Sangare and Ramata Diakete, Kora virtuoso Tumani Diabate and the one and only Bluesman Ali Farka Toure, who has a Grammy award under his belt. Ali Farka says that American Blues has its roots in Mali and one can prescribes to that view just by listening to his flowing melody.

Touaregs, or Kel Tamashek (people who speak Tamashek) are the nomadic tribe of the Saharan desert, scattered among Algeria, Mali and Niger. They are probably one of the least studied and most misunderstood people of the world. Their fierce appearance, contributed by ’taouglemoust’, a long turban that extends to cover most of the face to protect them from the harsh sunny and sandy environment, and stories from the past where they would gallop on camelbacks to raid villages of other tribes and carry away slaves did not help their cause much. Their men are known as the ’Indigo warriors of the desert’ as they wear indigo dyed robes that rubs off on their light-complexioned, perspiring skin. During the early 1990s there was insurgency in northern Mali as the Touaregs were demanding more autonomy from the Malian government. As the Malian army came down heavily on them, the Touaregs had to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Peace was restored in late 1990s and the government of Mali started to integrate the Touaregs in every national affair. For four years now, in an effort to rebuild their lives in northern Mali and to celebrate the rich heritage of the their culture, a yearly music festival is organized by EFES, a Touareg association with the invaluable help of certain European partners and the support of Malian Government.

I was one among the few privileged souls to have attended the festival early this year. The Touaregs came on their bedecked camels from villages far and wide and the outsiders from USA and Europe were numbering about 200 and most of them were journalists. The organizers were not keen on turning this event into a ’Woostock’ as that might threaten the Touareg community, after all, this was a ‘get-together’ of the wandering nomads of the desert.

Located at the mouth of the desert, the fabled town of Timbuctu was the starting point to get to the festival site. Hours of bumpy ride among the sand-dunes, sightings of stray camels, the inevitable flat-tire providing the much needed break from ‘head-bump-roof’ journey and marveling the transition from Sahael, arid semi-desert region, to Sahara brought us to the destination. Apart from camel-hide tents for musicians and visitors, a main concert-stage and a canopy for afternoon events, it was just an ocean of sand in every direction. There were no seats and that was fine with everyone as the natural setting was an attraction in itself. Among deserts, Sahara reigns supreme with 9 million square kilometers in area, almost as large as that of all 50 of the United States. It takes up one-third of the African continent. Its name is derived from the Arabic word ’Sahra’ meaning ’desert’. Daytime temperatures can soar upto 50’C and nights can be as cold as 0’C.

For obvious reasons, food and water were much rationed at the festival. We sought refuge in the tents from the blazing sun until 3pm when the afternoon events would begin under a canopy. At this time , it was all Touareg music and their dance called ’takamba’, a fluid movement of arms and shoulders, as the nomads of the desert watched the proceedings from atop their camels. It appeared that some groups were performing for on-lookers for the very first time as they were too shy to even look at the audience. Very likely, they would have performed for their own kith and kin in their settlements until then. As the sun disappeared in the sandy horizon, the main stage started to become active with artists that included Robert Plant of Led Zepplin, the French group LoJo, a native Indian group from Arizona, USA, leading musicians from Mali itself such as Oumou Sangare, Fantani Toure and of course, world-known Touareg bands like Tartit, Tinariwen and Tidawt. Each artist would perform about 20-30 mins. There were about 60 groups performed over 3 days. The music played was not just entertainment but an artistic expression of their culture and tradition. Charcoal-burners were set up in the sand to keep people warm as the shows went on until the wee hours when the temperature dipped to hit the other extreme. Paraffin lamps along the camping area helped in locating the tents. Besides performing hours, music would emanate from the tents as the musicians found the ‘jam-sessions’ hard to resist. The Touaregs kept their down-time busy by organizing camel races and selling their craft to festival attendees. As the towering camel riders roamed the arena, gorgeously adorned Touareg women seemed just ‘taking-in’ the ambience. It was amazing to note the masterly maintenance of their cloths in such a dusty environment. Star-filled skies above the pollution-free desert was a breathtaking sight, before we snuggled into our sleeping bags. The grand finale was by none other than Ali Farka Toure and those who gathered were in trance. Not a single show was delayed and not a single group was missing from the program chart, a remarkable feat considering the location. With the festival coming to an end, it was time to hop on the caravan of 4X4 Toyota Land Cruisers to head back to the real-world. Despite the challenges of getting there, it was nothing but ’magic’ that happened in those dunes.

Back in Timbuctu, one can feel the antiquity of this town even today with narrow sandy lanes, mud houses and people riding donkeys. The story goes that once there lived a woman by the name of Buctu, who watered the camels of the caravans that passed by the town from a well, which is called Tim in Tamashak language and hence the place came to be known as Tim-Buctu. It was the converging point of the Northern Arabic and Berber states with Black Africa. Because of this confluence, one finds Malians in both dark and light complexion. Timbuctu was the most important trading post of yesteryears as the precious salt from the desert was exchanged for gold and grains from the Southern Africa. One can still see camel caravans head to the desert and bring back slabs of salt, a round-trip that would last almost a month, crossing the unforgiving Sahara. At the town museum, age-old Islamic scriptures are exhibited as it was one of the leading seats of Islamic studies. In the early hours of the day, women bake bread in mud-oven on street sides, just like it went on for eons. There are 2 prominent mosques in town, built with mud, and after every rainy season, the whole town would be ‘up in arms’ to do the patching and repairing work. Kids on the streets offering to be guides speak perfect English in a Francophone country, thanks to tourism.

After long negotiations, mediated by African elders in traditional manner, we rented a car and headed to Mopti, a town located at the confluence of the rivers Bani and Niger and known as the ‘Venice of Mali‘. Visitors use Mopti as a base to get to two popular tourist sites in Mali, the Bandiagara escarpment of the Dogon tribe and the grand mosque of Djenne. In Mopti, we took a cruise in the Niger river and visited villages of various ethnic groups. Hippos abound in Niger, surfacing every now and then to breathe. Mopti is a bustling port town where one can see the decorative ‘pirogue’ boats.

A few hours drive from the town square brought us to Mali’s architectural jewel, Djenne. Founded in the 4th century, Djenne has scarcely changed since the Middle Ages. In the 13th to 15th century, Djenne was a rival of Timbuctu for the wealth of the trans-Saharan trade. The city is located on an island in the inland Niger delta, and is surrounded by mud brick walls. The attraction of the town, the Grand Mosque, largest mud-structure in the world transported us to Medieval times. A few years ago, using this mosque as a backdrop, an Italian photographer shot semi-nude models and that did not go down well with the locals. Unlike in Timbuctu, non-muslims are not allowed inside this mosque for this reason. A market in front of the mosque on Mondays bring the most colorful locals from nearby villages and that makes it the most touristy day of the week in Djenne. Sitting in front of the mosque, one can people-watch for hours on end, women in their flowing Bou-Bous, the traditional costume and men in Bogolong, made of mud-cloth.

Dogon country is considered to be one of the most extraordinary places on earth. Built up high on the narrow ledges of the cliffs are the villages. In the 11th century, the Dogons fled from the advancing Arabs and the Islamic invasion, found shelter in one of West Africa’s most inhospitable areas. Houses, granaries and burial sites were all built along 200 kms. long escarpment. This is such a unique place that the United Nations have declared it a World Heritage site. Dogons are animists, worshipping their ancestors and the spirits of nature. Women having their monthly menstrual cycle stay away in quarters built for that purpose. Having preserved their traditions down through the centuries, they are considered to be one of the most original civilizations of West Africa. They are known for their Kanaga masks and wood carvings illustrating their animist views. Elaborate costumes and masks are worn during Dogon dance, and some do perform on stilts. The best way to experience all of the Dogon country is to trek from village to village over rough ground and steep cliffs. When staying overnight in the villages, sleeping on roof-tops is considered adventurous, which starts right at the moment when one steps on the Dogan-ladder to clamber up, falling asleep under the canopy filled with bright stars, feeling the cool breeze unless one is unfortunate enough, as this writer, to get caught in the Harmattan winds that blows sand from the desert and waking up to the sounds of bleating goats.

A sixteen hours ride from the Dogon country in a truck that had people, goats and chicken as passengers, a typical African scenario, brought me to the capitol of Mali, Bamako. The truck would make prayer-stops, when men would jump off and kneel down on nearby fields, facing towards Mecca. Bamako was founded in 1640 and situated on the river Niger that flows 1000kms through Mali. The National Museum in town is an introduction to the history and culture of this fascinating region. Bamako has a large art and craft center where sculptures, weavers, leather workers, jewelers, and metal workers exhibit their skills and trade. Great market is a place to explore stalls that sell anything from Malian music cassettes, to fabrics, beads, brass and gold works and the variety is mind-boggling. Not everyone can take the medicine section, as shrunken animals of all kinds are on display that are believed to cure any occurring ailments. One can catch the known musicians of Mali in action in any of the numerous clubs in town. The Culture center is a great place to learn African beats on drums or few African steps in the dance classes offered.

On my last day in Mali, my host Oumou Sangare, the best known female singer in Mali took me to a ’Bapteme’, a child-christening ceremony to complement my memorable cultural experience in Western Africa.