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.

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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.

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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 Banglanatak.com 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 –

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/389167/sufi-music-young-voices.html

 and also in World Music e-mag INSIGHT in Germany –

http://www.insight-worldmusic.blogspot.in/ (please find the photo below at their site and click)

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The Mad Mad Chennai (December) Festival

100_0369 Come December, the city of Chennai in Southern India resonates with music and dance. What had begun as a festival organised by one or two musically bent groups or Sabhas back in the 1920s, today it has exploded into a matrix of mind-boggling jamboree, thus making it probably the largest and longest running festival in the world – it runs the entire December and percolates well into January. Yet, large part of the world is still unaware of this massive expression of classical art, but the informed ones lap it all up. File0005 Interestingly, a festival of this magnitude has been happening with not a penny from any government body, but funded entirely through private, corporate sponsorship and the Sabhas. File0003 A typical festival day lasts about 14 hrs., interspersed with demos and lectures on the subjects and genre. Newbies to established find platform thus blazing the way for new talents to surface. File0004 There appears to be no end to the stretch of this festival as the overwhelming response seems to be only on the ascend, year after year. File0002

Here’s an overview of the festival, written a few years ago by yours truly for a Hawaiian based publication –

ChennaiMusicNDanceFest (if unwilling to click this PDF, below is the text )

The Best Keeps Getting Better

For nearly 80 years, the annual Chennai Music Festival has amplified tradition with talent and innovation
Anantha Krishnan, Chennai

It’s the middle of December and the festival of music and dance that I have come to witness is just about to begin. One of the largest music celebrations of its kind in the world, it features a month of performances that take place all over the city.
Unlike the classical Hindustani music of North India, the Carnatic music of the South is more structured, lyrical, ornamental and strict. Due to these formalities, it offers less opportunity for improvisation but is more representative of time-honoured tradition. “Carnatic music seeks more to enlighten than entertain because of its Vedic origin. This is an art for God’s sake and not for art’s sake, ” says one knowledgeable musician.
Lord Siva’s “original band ” is said to have consisted of celestial musicians playing mridangam (drum), tambura (drone), cymbals, vina (stringed instrument) and flute. Today, a traditional South Indian classical performance might feature these five instruments along with the ghatam (clay-pot) and the violin. In South India, music and dance have developed as an adjunct to worship. Devotion is the driving force of this art form, which is comprised of songs in Sanskrit as well as in all of the main southern languages: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. According to South Indian tradition, the purest form of teaching has always been the oral method, in which training is passed along personally from teacher to student. Because of this, many of the great South Indian compositions have been lost simply because they were never written down.
Bharata Natyam is the featured style of dance at the festival. It is the oldest of the four major dance traditions of India and the main classical dance of the South.
The Chennai Music Festival offers a rare opportunity for new artists to be discovered and for established performers to hold their ground in the hearts and minds of the festival’s dedicated attendees. Celebrated annually since 1927, this grand music extravaganza has always been organized and promoted by Chennai’s Music Academy, an educational institution that was formed one year after the first festival took place and is today the oldest and most respected music institution in South India. There are over 40 such schools in Chennai alone, and they all join the Academy in offering more than 1,000 music and dance performances during this festival month. The concerts themselves are graded, with juniors performing in the afternoons and seniors in the evenings. The afternoon slots are generally admission-free and not crowded, but the evening concerts are packed. That’s when the stars come out to shine.
Though violin has long been part of the South Indian classical ensemble, there has been a recent trend toward bringing in other Western musical instruments, such as the mandolin, guitar and saxophone–as well as a variety of keyboard instruments. Carnatic music is still the style of choice and the expectations for excellence have not diminished. While these new instruments are very popular, they are still considered a novelty.
The dancers are also experimenting. There are new dance categories with names like
“dance-drama ” and “celluloid classics.” This last division features young high-steppers performing dance sequences from old Tamil film classics. One of a handful of overseas participants this year included a dance group from Singapore performing traditional Chinese dance.
Finally, there is one non-musical specialty of the festival that cannot be neglected. Distinguished and distinctive South Indian cuisine like dosai, vadai, pongal and uttappam can always be found in a variety of preparations at a number of Chennai’s famous eateries, casually referred to as “canteens.” I must say that these canteens are as much a crowd-pleaser as are the performers. Certainly they make as much or more money. When I asked one plump fellow what made him step into one of these establishments even during the high point of an excellent concert, he replied with gusto: “It is in the tradition, sir. A music-lover will have his snacks while visiting the festival during the music season. The music and the canteen go together.”
Canteen visits and instincts for socializing can make an audience forever mobile and audible in a concert hall during a performance. This can be somewhat disconcerting for those who are not used to it–especially connoisseurs from the West who are accustomed to a certain reserve in the art of music appreciation.
A young man named Gopu, sitting next to me, said, “This is the way a Carnatic music lover experiences a concert. It does not make him any less of a fan. Yet as these artists of today travel the world and get used to the quietly disciplined venues elsewhere, they are starting to demand similar behaviour in Chennai halls as well.”
During this festival season, there are a number of bhajan groups out and about. These dedicated souls are not formally trained. They qualify for their music only through their heart-rending devotion. Yet they are unforgettable. Many a morning, I woke up to this joyful singing. Peering down from my hotel window, still in my pajamas, I regretted not being right down there on the dusty road to catch these joyful and carefree renditions belted out by bhaktas (worshippers) so fully immersed in the bhava (devotion) of their music they hardly noticed the sun rising.
Because the death anniversary of the great South Indian composer Thyagaraja coincides with the festival, many committed musicians now travel on pilgrimage to his burial place on the banks of the river Cauvery in the tiny hamlet of Thiruvaiyaru. These ardent souls can be heard singing the saint’s legendary compositions far into the night.
Even when the festival is over, Chennai residents are reluctant to let go of the party spirit. Certainly, at times like this it seems this ancient musical tradition will live forever. Yet as my taxi goes scarily winding and speeding toward the Chennai airport, I ponder the despondent thoughts expressed by one music lover who was concerned that the arts of South India were dying. Even as he was talking to me, I could not help but think: “Although some legends of music may appear to be lost, new genius is undoubtedly in the making, and great innovations are certainly on the horizon. Nothing great is ever lost.”

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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swaramud

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rabab + sitar+ swaramud

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tabla + dholak

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swarabath

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rabab + swarabath

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senkuttu yaz

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Bamboo_Pipe

panpipe

cymbals + gong

Damaru+

Damaru + kanjira + davandai + indramu

Fish_Yaz3

matsya (Fish) + kurma(turtle) Yaz

Flute+

flute + tribal shehnai

Folk_Dance

thappattam folk dance

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thappattam group

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

and a pro-version in performance –

Folk_Musicians

folk musicians

Horns

horns, mostly used by tribes living in the nilgiri mountain – thiruchinnam, bhoori and kombu

Jalatharangam+Xylaphone

jalatharangam (china) + kaashtatarangam (xylophone)

Kartal+Jewsharp

anklets + morsing (jews harp) +chiplas

Kuruni+Melam

Urumi + pambai

here is pambai and oudoukkai (damaru) demo –

Mayil_yaz

mayil (peacock) yaz

Nadaswaram&Thavil

nadaswaram + thavil

Nagara

nagara

Oboe

conch + shehnoi + magudi

Panchamuka_Vadyam

panchamuka vadyam – 5 faced percussion

Panchamuka_VadyamA

Rudra_VeenaA

veena kunju + swaramandal + rabab + rudra veena

Rudra_VeenaB

veda-veena

sruthi

Thappattam

thappattai + dhasari

Veena

veena

Yaz (2)

vil (bow) yaz + panchaki veena

Yaz

Naga yaz (snake harp)

Narayana Veena

Narayana Veena

Narayana Veena

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 –

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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.

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

Pandarpur – a kinda ‘Woodstock feel’ in India….

…. intimacy, yes, with higher consciousness and not between man and woman…get ‘high’, yes, through music and not by getting ‘stoned’……..

Ashada Ekadesi, the most auspicious time in Pandarpur is round the corner (July 19th) and here is a blast-from-the-past –

In the early 1980s I lived in Bombay. On my way to Chembur rail-road to catch train to work, a catchy chorus music would emerge out of an obscure street-side temple. The musicians inside would be in their typical but soiled-white Maharashtrian outfit of dhoti, shirt and Nehru cap that reflected their simplicity, soaked in poverty. This was my first exposure to this genre of music – Abhang !

Since then, an Abhang cassette tape of the Bollywood singing diva Lata Mangeshkar travelled with me to the shores I went. On my return to the roots, I went back to what is now called Mumbai and also to Chembur to rediscover Abhang but with no success. As it is not Bombay of the 1980s anymore, I reconciled to ‘Mumbai’ and returned home to the city of Chennai down south, just with a couple of Abhang CDs in the bag.

Voila ! an ‘Abhangmela’ right near my house, within a month of return, something that a Maharashtrian city could not offer when looked.  Taking in the mela music for a week, the spirit stirred for the ‘real’ – the place is Pandarpur and the time is Ashada ! Off I went through a divine design, which I would rather not get into here, but following is what unfolded –

Abhang at one…

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Abhang at another while ladies blissfully make Roti for dinner, with live music as the backdrop

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on the banks of the holy Chandrabhaga river

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music on the street and everywhere…

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a kumkum (vermillion) seller

following is a piece by yours truly, published in the Hawaiian based publication –

http://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=1452

here’re a couple of abhang audios – by the legendary Bhimsen Joshi and the diva Lata Mangeshkar –

Rongali Bihu – an Assamese delight

jaapi

jaapi

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 –

Bihu wards...

Bihu wards…

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as my 10 year old loyal Kodak camera broke down, the following photo credit – web images –

jaapi dance

jaapi dance

pipa blower...

pipa blower…

dhol and the dancers

dhol and the dancers

gogona dancer

gogona dancer

Bihu1

please click below for a video clip –

World Sufi Spirit Festival

Jaswant Thada Mornings...

Jaswant Thada Mornings…

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Mataji Temple dances

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Kalbelia

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Kalari

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Nile sufi

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Garden concert

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Mashak at Moti Mahal

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Qawwalli

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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

http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-sufi-spirit/article4580576.ece