More women and young musicians strengthen Jodhpur RIFF’s symphony of folk music this year
On the opening day of the Jodhpur RIFF, the Rajasthan International Folk Festival now called only by its acronym, five young Langa musicians stood out this year with their elegant Sindhi sarangis and modest morchangs. The folk songs they sang, accompanied by their rare string instruments, celebrated the season, respected the nature, praised gods and goddesses and enthralled the audience. But they also set a different tune to the much-anticipated annual festival held in Jodhpur.
The 12th edition has more young musicians from Rajasthan’s famed folk tradition of Langa and Manganiyars. The number of female singers participating this year, too, has gone up, indicating a remarkable shift in the programming, aimed at ensuring gender justice. In a male-dominated community of folk singers, also affected by the reluctance of the new generation to follow in the footsteps of their fathers, this is a huge step to save a rich oral heritage.
“The young generation plays a very critical role in the continuity of these remarkable music legacies,” says festival director Divya Bhatia. “Therefore, a critical part of our work is to encourage, support and resource the work of younger musicians,” he adds. The participation of young Langa and Manganiyar musicians this year follows a well-crafted folk arts management the festival organisation has put in place in the past three years. It began with a training programme in 2016 for young people in the state’s tribal communities to initiate them into the musical tradition of their families. It was attended by 40 young men. In September last year, the festival conducted two more workshops — one in Jaisalmer district’s Hamira village for Manganiyar children and another in Barmer district’s Barnawa for young Langa men. Sixty attended the Hamira workshop and 80 came to train in Barnawa.
“Given that there is little support and hardly any resources for these traditions to grow outward, it falls entirely upon the younger members of these artist communities to imbibe what they can from their elders and receive what is passed on to them,” he says.
Several factors have hampered the transmission of the oral knowledge, skill and art. While migration of young people from their rural homes to cities has played a major role, the absence of formal institutions of folk arts, too, has hurt the traditional system of learning mainly by listening. As many as 15 members of the Langa and Manganiyar communities, who took part in the festival’s training last year, are participating in Jodhpur RIFF’s newest edition held in Mehrangarh Fort and nearby venues.
“Singing is not only a tradition for us, but also our livelihood,” says Mohan Lal Sansi, a young singer from Rajasthan’s Churu district, one of the participants at the festival this year, sang, beat their drums and twirled their bodies in unison at the 15th century Mehrangarh Fort — the main venue of Jodhpur RIFF attended by folk music aficionados from around the world. “Since we started Jodhpur RIFF, we have have encouraged young musicians by facilitating training sessions for them, developing and producing performances here and abroad, and positively impacting their livelihoods,” explains Bhatia.
For the first time in its 13 years of existence, Jodhpur RIFF will have a woman leading its hugely popular RIFF Rustle – a large, impromptu collaboration of Rajasthani and foreign musicians. Havana-born Yissy Garcia has been named the ‘rustler’ (a musician who prompts others to perform) on the penultimate day of the festival that concludes on October 14. Born in the Cuban capital’s musical neighbourhood of Cayo Hueso, Garcia is one of the finest members of the newest generation of musicians from the Central American country.
Garcia’s role as RIFF Rustle leader this year underlines the presence of more female singers from Rajasthan’s male-dominated folk music tradition. One of the highlights of the festival this year is Womanly Voices — a big-ticket concert by Rajasthani folk singer Sumitra Devi, who has performed in the Berlin Philharmonie; Mohini Devi, who sings in the jogi Kalbeliya tradition; and the mother-daughter duo Ganga and Sunder, who sing spiritual songs. “Women have always been the primary custodians of many orally transmitted traditions,” says Bhatia. “There was a time when women from communities of professional musicians performed for women patrons. The Langa and Manganiyar singers will tell you that first they learned their songs from their mothers,” he adds. “But the visibility of our women artists declined rapidly during the colonial period in our history, when social mores and conservative morals became more the norm in rural India. Singers like Sumitra Devi or Mohini Devi or Sugna Kalbeliya, even though were born after Independence, have struggled to keep their art alive.”
Over 250 artists, including Mewat musician Babunath Jogi, Hakam Khan Manganiyar, Rawata Ram Shekhawati, Qawaali singer Danish Husain Badayuni, Malian singer Ballake Sissoko, and Armenian singer Valeri Tolstov are participating in the event, held during October 10-14 under the brightest full moon of the year.
(The writer is a freelancer)