Thol Bommalattam – Shadow Puppetry

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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.

 

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

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Songbird of Mali – Oumou Sangare

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Oumou performs in the Sahara desert along with Ali Farka Toure

 

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With Salif Keita in Bamako

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With self right after a show in Paris

 

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In the hotel room in Fes, Morocco

A leading female act in the world-music circuit for over two decades and an awardee of the ‘WOMEX artist of the year 2017’, here’s a tribute to this remarkable lady by yours truly in an Indian publication. This is probably the only time an article on this artist appeared in this part of the world as her music waves yet to find its way here.

Please click below –

 

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_CsYhDopBVvY3FUazRaa3Rxck0/view

OR

https://www.deccanherald.com/content/491427/songbird-mali.html

 

 

 

 

 

Folk Traditions of the states of Bihar and Haryana

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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.

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

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Bihar

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

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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

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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 !

Momasar

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 –

http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/A-stage-for-home-grown-arts/article16644617.ece

 

Sex in stone

Well, if you think we have ‘evolved’ in our innovative ways in the centuries past, going by the carvings in stone, the answer is a big ‘No’. I have left out documenting scenes of gingerly orgies, perhaps personal taste unconsciously played out in that omission. The temples in Odisha seem to have been lot more ‘liberal’ than the ones in rest of India. I wonder if the proximity to Khajuraho had its influence here, as the temples in both places built around the same period. Most of the temple sculptures consist of erotic, music and dance in nature giving the impression that it must have been one party-town! At large, the niches on the walls alternate between eroticism, musicians and dancers. No wonder the most sensuous of the Indian classical dance form Odissi has its origin here !

In general, the artists and sculptors seem to have had lot more freedom to express themselves though the administration in those days was primarily under the ruler of the province. There is even an inscription belong to circa 10 CE of the famous king Rajaraja in Thanjavur that says only the administrators are reportable to the court whereas the sculptors have full freedom to express their art. After all, how many gods and animals the sculptors could think of chiseling in, as they needed variety in subject. It is said the reason behind finding such bold and blatant erotic sculptures in the outer walls of Indian temples is that the pleasure-stage has to be ‘passed’ before we ‘reach’ higher-consciousness that is in the form of a deity at the sanctum. And on the ground, after satiating this strong and powerful force of nature, through self-inquiry, one is expected to reach the higher plane. Kamasutra by Vatsayana too written with similar views on life. This perspective is in tune with the four entities, Dharma (duty/righteous living) Artha (wealth) Kama (pleasure) and Moksha (liberation), that Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) prescribes for a common man. These stages help mellow gradually, as not everyone is blessed with ‘sudden-enlightenment’. Whatever be the reason, the sculptures certainly evoke curiosity and interest and draw tons of tourists to these temples. Let alone the text Kamasutra, nothing in comparison did ever exist to these ‘open sex manual’ anywhere else on this planet.

From being so liberal, how did India become conservative? I recall watching a documentary on Africa where the local black women express a confused-look at topless European women on the African beach, and the narrator goes ‘ these women must be thinking when they were ‘topless’, the colonial occupants covered them up in the process of civilizing, and now their colonial descendants come over here and look ‘uncivilized”. Many of the famous Chola bronzes of the 10 CE are topless. So the colonists in India too must have had a role in bringing about a conservative mind-set. Prior to that, the burka-clad Islāmic invaders enforced their fuddy-duddy ways and many Hindu Indian women started to cover to save themselves from invading rapists and kidnappers whose idea was to expand their faith numbers.It is said this is the reason behind the practice of women covering their face today, particularly on the western front states such as Gujarat, Rajasthan as through these regions Islam forced itself into India. These are indicative of an open society that changed with Islāmic invasion followed by Victorian/colonial values from the West.

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Women in Rajasthan today

History in the neighborhood

Given the history and culture stretching back to unthinkable time here in India, it is no surprise we stumble upon the remnents close to our urbanised environs. A bunch of us, like-minded enthusisasts, left in the early hours of one cool morning to travel back in time. Breakfast by the farms, in a make-shift shelter meant for farmers to upload the freshly harvested veggies to towns, was enough to propell us away from the city of Chennai and into the past.

1. Mela Chitambur

This hamlet houses a Jain monestery that serves as the head for the faith in southern Tamilnadu state. Since the faith is an off-shoot of Hinduism, the temple here shares several commonalities with Hindu architecture and beliefs.

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Jain temple

2. Thirunathar Kundru

On top of this hillock are couple of inscriptions in Brahmi and Tamil dating back to 6CE and 8CE. The inscriptions are at the spot where couple of Jain monks observed sallekhana, a prescribed practice of fast-unto-death to purge thier karmas. The writing says 57 days of fast before one of them passed on and the other right next says 30 days. A notable feature of this inscription is the presence of probable-root of the letter ‘ஐ’ in the Tamil language. To commemarate the event, a bas-relief of 24 Thirthankars or Jain spiritual masters are carved overhead on a huge rock.

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intense inscription reading

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writing in stone

 

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landscape around the site

 

3. Nehanur Patti

A place of massive stone works carried out by nature. Underneath the adukkankal (Tamil) or what appears like stones piled up one over the other, are brahmi inscription dating back to 4CE and pre-historic cave-painting of roughly 1000 BC. The Brahmi inscription talks of the existence of a Jain school and the name of the founder –

” Perum pogazh sekkanthi thayiyuru sekkanthanni se vitha palli” (sekkanthanni, mother of sekkanthi of Perumpugozh village has built this school)

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adukkankal

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a phallic rock shaped by nature

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a brahmi reader

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the writing that talks about the established school

and the pre-historic cave painting is found in a dugout roof and looks like done by someone of artistic inclination, reclying on the rock surface as a way of relaxing right after his hunting expedition followed by gratifying lunch. They might have been painted with lime as they are white in colour.

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4. Mela Ulakur

Right in the middle of residential houses of this village stands a stone sculpture of Jyeshta Devi, the goddess of misfortune. Jyeshta Devi worship was at its peak in southern India during 7-8CE but soon by 10CE, she went into oblivion. This sculpture dates back to 8CE or may be even earlier as this goddess is bellieved to have existed in India as far back as 300BC. Today though, numerous images exist but not worshipped. It is believed women paryed to her in the past more to keep her away from their homes. Her image too is not one of beauty associated with many Hindu goddesses but of flabby belly, pendulous breasts and her attendants holding broom. As the villagers here not aware of history, continue to worship her in good faith.

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Jyshta Devi and her attendant

 

5. Passumalai

A steep climb on the hillock reveals stone-beds for the Jain monks and a meditative sculpture of their 24th Theerthankara (teacher) Paswanathar on a rocky wall right across their beds so that the monks could be in constant meditation upon their master. The Brahmi inscription here speaks of a man by the name of Mosi made these beds at the request of another by the name of Sangayiban “Sangayiban eva Mosi seida adishtanam” and the likely period is 3CE

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paswanathar

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monk bed

6. Thondur

Here’s the best part of the day – we get down from the bus and walk in single file on the trail, flanked by paddy fields and honestly not knowing what on earth could be lying in wait – viola, our jaws dropped at the sight below –

a huge rectangular sculpture in the midst of rice-fields where in the Hindu God Vishnu reclyning atop Anantha/Adisesha, the serpent that symbolises eternity, surveying the proceedings on the front. It is indeed an awe inspiring sight because of the ambiance, as such sculptures of the gods are generally found inside the temples. The head of Vishnu is rested to our right which is contrary to normal-left and this may be done such for some specific purpose. There is a speculation a nearby battle field had some significance to it as there might have been a belief a Vishnu in reverse would cast misfortune on the enemy. I’m told there are only two such head-to-the-right Vishnus found in Tamilnadu and the other being in the town of Kanchipuram (Sonnavanam Seida Perumal). The ornamental stone work on the front is again a part of the jigsaw puzzle. The dating of the sculpture could be in the period of the Pallava king Nandivarman III (846-869CE). The crown on the head of the sculpture matches with the ones found in Combodia and that could certainly point to the Pallava’s link to Combodia. The popular Ankur Wat was initially built by a Pallava origin King.

It’s inevitable that speculations run high on such trips. Taking the very script of Brahmi – what is the origin – the Ghandara Script Kharosthi or the Semitic Aramaic or the Indus valley script found its way back in different form after the civilisation ended ? Did Brahmi influence another ancient dravidian language Tamil at all ? Outside of what’s written in stone, it’s hard to pin-point the happenings of the past, by the so called historians or otherwise, but there certainly is no dearth of fun in time-travel !

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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