Now in its ninth season, the Rajasthan International Folk Festival is proving to be a harbinger of change by encouraging more and more women folk artistes to come out and enthrall audiences with their art
FIRST, THE numbers. More than 250 artistes, musicians and dancers, mostly from Rajasthan and some globally recognised, performed over five days in the beautiful blue city of Jodhpur during the ninth season of the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) this year. Like in the past, the fest was warmly received, with the audience sitting through some of the brightest moon nights of the year into the wee hours of dawn, listening to some fine folk ragas, bhajans and instruments—sometimes battling drooping eyelids with infectious zest to combat not just their sleep, but the slight nip in the air as well.
However, it was during one such mesmerising performance that I was struck with surprise to see men dance along with the beats dressed as women. Where were the women? “We don’t let our women come and perform. They are like goddesses,” said Dalla Ram, one of the two men dressed as women. A view substantiated by the fact that the majority of local folk artistes participating in the fest happen to be men.
But what’s heartening to note is that the wheels of change have been set in motion by RIFF to plug this gap. With its ever-widening reach, the festival is encouraging more and more women folk artistes from communities that traditionally look down on them performing publicly to come out and enthrall audiences through their art.
Khete Khan, a khartal player from the Manganiyar community of Rajasthani folk musicians, who came to the festival this year with more than 20 Manganiyar performers, says the difference is like night and day between the way the community thinks and the way the world goes at RIFF. “When we go back to our village from here, we feel that we have gone back 100 years in time. But at RIFF, we feel we have come 100 years into the future,” Khan says. “There is a lot of exposure and it is helping us broaden our horizons. We have started sending our girls to schools and colleges.”
And this change in mindset shows. This time, the troupe, mostly comprising boys and men, included two women—Akla and Dariya Manganiyar—artistes as well. Akla, who sings traditional Manganiyar songs and plays the dhol, says it’s conventionally the men in her community who give public performances. “Women sing, but among themselves,” she says, adding, “But RIFF has given women like me the confidence and the opportunity to perform in front of the public.”
Vocalist and harmonium player Sumitra Devi, who comes from a long tradition of jagran (all-night) singers, is another example of this positive change. Devi, who sings the compositions of saint-poets Meera, Kabir and a variety of Rajasthani folk songs, blames societal changes for the regressive mindset, “In the old days, everybody used to sing, even the women. That has sadly changed now.” The only woman performer in her family, Devi says the exposure and experience at RIFF has helped her grow as an artiste and has also substantiated the family income. Since performing at RIFF, she has not only collaborated with British rock band Mumford & Sons, but also recently performed at the Berlin Philharmonie in Berlin, Germany.
Then there’s Hameed Khan Lawa. A prolific tabla player himself, Lawa has been bringing his now 21-year-old daughter Parveen Sabrina Khan, a vocalist of the Maand style of Rajasthani singing, to RIFF for many years now.
Khan, who was presented by RIFF in the UK as well, gets a lot of exposure and work because of the fest, says Lawa.
“Every parent wants his/her child to shine. I wished the same for Parveen and RIFF helped me realise that dream.
It’s important that every parent think like that and encourage their child,” says Lawa, who sometimes accompanies his daughter on stage with his tabla.
And, of course, who can forget Bhanwari Devi, one of the biggest success stories of the fest. RIFF director Divya Bhatia still remembers the year 2009 when he had invited singer Rekha Bharadwaj to perform with the then hardly-known Rajasthani folk singer Bhanwari Devi. After their performance—the folk artiste performed with a long ghunghat covering her face—the audience went ballistic for Devi, so much so that Bharadwaj felt her performance had not been up to the mark. “After the concert, Rekha-ji was in tears because she thought she hadn’t performed well,” reminisces Bhatia. That performance onwards, Devi’s popularity and demand jumped manifold. Later that year, Bharadwaj even invited her to perform with her at another concert. In 2010, Devi performed alongside musician Ram Sampath and singer Sona Mohapatra at RIFF and Sampath was so impressed that he invited Devi to collaborate with him for an episode of Coke Studio, says Bhatia. Since then, she has performed at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2010, becoming the first woman from the Rajasthani folk tradition to feature there, he adds.
HH Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Marwar-Jodhpur, chairperson, Mehrangarh Museum Trust, who is the chief patron of RIFF, says there’s an immense sense of fulfillment and pride when he sees local Rajasthani folk artistes on stage collaborate with the biggest international names. “For them, it’s a very big thing. They get treated as equals… Lots of local people look down on them, but coming here and performing like this has given them more respect…” he says. The day doesn’t look far when the majority of folk artistes performing at RIFF will be women.
This year, for the first time, Jodhpur RIFF brought Grammy-winner Jewish-Israeli bassist and producer Yossi Fine to the festival. The ‘godfather’ of hip hop, reggae and world music sounds, not only presented a solo set, but also collaborated with local folk artistes for a moon-lit jam to conclude the festival. Here, he tells us what sets Indian music apart from its western counterpart and the future of Indian music, among other things. Edited excerpts:
What made you say ‘yes’ to RIFF? And how was your experience?
I got an email from Divya Bhatia, the festival’s director. At first, I thought it was spam. But when I did open it, I was surprised. I asked him why he wanted me to come. He told me he has been following my work for two years now. My specialty is collaborating with musicians from cultures around the world. But I never really change their music. I just add something that they don’t have which, in this case, was a lot of low frequencies underneath because folk music doesn’t have any. I played with local musicians using sarangi, khamaicha, dholak, khartal and morchang and the experience was phenomenal. One other reason I said yes to coming was that two years ago, I found out a tape of somebody interviewing my mother in which she disclosed something I never knew: her paternal great-grandfather was from India.
Do you plan to collaborate with any of the artistes you performed with here in the future?
I hope something will come out, where we can plan another collaboration. When I go back and it all sinks in, I will come back and know exactly what to do. I hope to expand it into something bigger, maybe a recording or a video… In fact, there is this Indian bassist who I think is sensational. Her name is Mohini Dey. She is unbelievable. In the next 10-15 years, a lot of new-generation Indian musicians are going to dominate the music scene around the world as far as playing western is concerned.
What are the major differences between Indian and western audiences?
The Indian audience really listens when you play. They have the patience to sit and listen intently. This is something the western audience used to have but has lost, and the reason is commercial music. They want to cater to a younger audience with easy songs. These days, children keep pressing the ‘next’ button on their iPods…people listen to music on the speaker of their iPhones… We used to care about our music, we would have special music systems, stereo, headsets…
What’s needed to bring more limelight to Indian folk artistes?
One, more support from the government in helping them tour and perform around the world. Two, frequent collaborations with artistes of other countries (is required). Another thing that I think will go a long way is to incorporate younger musicians in their groups who can add new flavours… some star quality on stage, as people tend to gravitate towards that first…
What was your takeaway from this experience?
Indian culture and music is so old, deep and refined that it makes you very humble because you see that it has been perfected like a jewel over the years. And you hope to put a nice cushion under this jewel to present it in a good way.