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

 

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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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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

 

Bihu

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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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kalbelia

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kaleri

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Manganiers

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Rajasthani bagpipe

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Quawwalli

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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

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

Mali

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pretty Tuareg girls

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colourful fulani

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tuareg man

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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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legends of mali, oumou and salif

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oumou in her farm

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salif in bamako

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 –

http://www.hindu.com/mag/2003/12/28/stories/2003122800440200.htm

Melattur Plus…

My great grand father Pichu Iyer

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Veda chanting on house front

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stage set for the annual festival

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facing the temple

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in action

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dance workshop

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the gods on the move….

This piece was written by yours truly back in 2010 and Narthaki site is running it now as the festival is round the corner – please click below

http://www.narthaki.com/info/articles/art319.html

and for more pictures, please click below –

https://melattur.shutterfly.com/