Ustaad Gaffuriddin Khan’s rendition of the Mahabharata is far removed from the traditional reading of the epic. But that didn’t stop the audience at the ninth edition of the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, popularly called Jodhpur RIFF, from applauding the musician. For music enthusiasts from around the world who descend on the 14th-century Mehrangarh Fort, the venue of the ongoing Jodhpur RIFF, any version of tradition is enough, so long as it remains traditional. As per Khan’s version, when Hanuman meets Laxman for the first time, he swallows the warrior, mistaking him to be a thief. While the rest of the world would find this difficult to believe, for those in the Mewat region spanning huge chunks of land in Rajasthan and Haryana, it’s their version of tradition. This folk version of the Mahabharata from Mewat set the tone for Jodhpur RIFF over the weekend.
“The folk tales of Mewat, sung by the musical maestros of the region, take liberty with the story of the Mahabharata,” says Vijay Verma, anthropologist and former curator of the Mehrangarh Fort Museum in Jodhpur. Khan’s rendition, an experiment alive with tradition, resonates the philosophy of RIFF, which has succeeded in promoting and preserving roots music. “Our interest is in nurturing and continuing the tradition. We present a variety of styles and forms, and encourage and support the artistic development of traditional musicians,” says festival director Divya Bhatia. Welsh musician Angharad Wynne, who is participating in the fest this year, praises the “living tradition” of Rajasthani folk music. “The western world is losing its traditional music. The work of Jodhpur RIFF is fundamentally valuable in preserving tradition,” says Waynne, who is planning a collaboration between RIFF and Wales musicians to promote heritage.
Collaboration is the theme this year at Jodhpur RIFF, attended by over 250 traditional musicians from Rajasthan and countries like Brazil, Australia, Wales and Scotland. The nearly 3,000 members of the audience who buy expensive tickets that cost up to R12,500 for a full festival pass, cheered the Brian Molley Quartet, which performed with four Rajasthani folk musicians on the second day of the festival on Friday. Rajasthani musicians Asin Khan Langa, Bhungar Manganiyar, Saddik and Latif Khan joined the Scottish band led by its frontman Brian Molley. “If we can generate new opportunities for music by learning, experiencing and creating something new, we can find new audiences today,” beams Molley, whose band performs mainly jazz music.
Four days prior to the Jodhpur RIFF, the Brian Molley Quartet and their Rajasthani counterparts shut themselves up in a makeshift studio at a five-star hotel in Jodhpur to create their first album together. “The album comprises jazz, world music and Rajasthani folk,” says Molley. The working title of the album, to be released early next year, is Journeys in Hand, reflecting the collaboration of the musicians from the two countries. “We expect our new band of Scottish and Rajasthani musicians to be performing together around the world,” says Molley.
One of the factors that has contributed to the perceived success of Jodhpur RIFF is promoting traditional Rajasthani musicians. “We promote these artistes locally, nationally and across the world, and secure gigs for them, directly or indirectly, which has a positive impact on their livelihood,” says Bhatia. As per him, the constant support encourages the artistes and the next generation to “consciously and actively consider their traditional art form as a serious vocation”. For traditional musicians nurtured by patronage from audiences in village communities, wedding receptions and festivals, support is a byword for sustainability.
Many like Wynne from Wales and Molley from Scotland are eager to replicate the Jodhpur RIFF model to support traditional musicians and thereby preserve a significant heritage back home. Mark Salmon, a music enthusiast and backer of traditional craft in Thailand, arrived in Jodhpur with his girlfriend Nan Phongthananikonn, a radio DJ, seeking an opportunity to preserve traditional art in his own country. “We are impressed by how the culture of traditional music has been brought back in Rajasthan. We will take our experience in Jodhpur back to Thailand to work with our generation of Thais to promote our own traditional culture,” says Salmon, a first-time visitor at RIFF.
Faizal Khan is a freelance