Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dancing with the sitars at India's newest music festival

Sarangi meets beatboxing at the Rajasthan International Folk festival, a high-spirited musical celebration that fuses India's past with its present

A recent exhibition at the British Museum brought artworks produced for the Maharajas of northern India at the height of their influence to Europe for the first time. The mesmerising illustrations depict one long party of music, food and romance, which 200 years on seems somewhat otherworldly. But for me, attending India's newest music festival in Jodhpur last month felt like stepping into one of those paintings, as I was able to appreciate firsthand the incredible cultural heritage of the region.

The Rajasthan International Folk festival was established in 2007, with an aim to help preserve the musical traditions of India's largest state. It is an area defined by the vibrant colours and sounds of all its art forms – from patterned textiles to expressive dance – offsetting the bleakness of the Thar desert that occupies such a vast amount of the land.

Performances take place at the Mehrangarh Fort, a former Royal palace that stands high on a cliff above the town, providing the best vantage point to appreciate the indigo hue of the blue city's cubic houses.

As a seasoned festival-goer of damper climes, I am used to obsessing about the elements. Here, this isn't an issue, as the monsoon has passed; performances take place late into the evening as the days are so swelteringly long. After dark, the spectacular arches and courtyards are transformed into a breathtaking series of candlelit venues, with the brightest full moon of the year beaming down on an intimate gathering of a thousand or so music lovers.

Jodhpur itself is an established highlight of India's tourist trail, but festival organisers hope the event will encourage visitors to stay longer. For the rest of the year, the fort is open as a museum, documenting the building's regal past. There are extravagantly decorated boudoirs, devoted entirely to the pursuit of pleasure, along with elephant proof spikes adorning every entrance in case of invasion, and an unrivalled collection of artefacts including covered palanquins, which were used to protect women from the male gaze as they travelled. Outside, steep, cobbled streets lead down to an immaculately kept series of gardens, maintained in the original design of all those years ago.

Although the main goal of the event is to provide a stage for Rajasthani musicians, what makes it so unique is the specially commissioned collaborations for one-off performances. On my visit, the programme ranged from folk artists playing alongside Ustad Sultan Khan, one of India's most renowned classical artists, to singer Rehana Mirza from a nearby village duetting with Bollywood star Rekha Bhardwaj. Sunrise and sunset devotional concerts take place at Jaswant Thada, the royal family's burial ground, where we sat to observe the movements of the sun and moon, with a sitar or sarangi soundtrack. Locals and travellers alike basked in the air of spirituality.

But the highlight of my weekend was a project that brought together beatboxer Jason Singh and guitarist Kirk McElhinney, of Manchester band the Safires, who developed new compositions with a group of Rajasthanis, playing brilliantly named instruments: the morchang, gungaroo, kartal and dholak. The resulting work was premiered to a packed 15th-century courtyard, rebranded for the night as Club Mehran. Rapturous applause and high-spirited dancing – "It's going off!", one of the Mancunians exclaimed delightedly – confirmed that their fusion of old and new styles defies all notions of time.

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