The Emergence Of Rajasthan As India’s Preferred Festival Hub - Homegrown

The Emergence Of Rajasthan As India’s Preferred Festival Hub

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Throughout my school days and early college years, if there was ever a unanimous decision by the administration, it was usually the one where they all agreed that the best destination for the next ‘class trip’ should be Rajasthan. In the several times that I have visited the desert state its allure remains the same, at times finds novelty or reveals previously hidden shades, but never fades. The land of palaces, here the grandeur and intricacies of human design meet as seamlessly as the hot and cold winds of the desert. The corners, streets and lanes of cities like Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer beckon with folklore–from the mighty Rajputs to the original gypsies. Its where the sun bleeds its warm colours into the fabrics adorned by locals that dazzle against the golden dunes.

It’s no surprise that the many poetic charms of Rajasthan’s deep-rooted heritage have made it one of the premier tourist destinations of the country. In recent surveys Jodhpur has been ranked the world’s tenth most attractive tourist spot in Asia by TripAdvisor’s ‘Travellers’ Choice’ awards whereas Udaipur featured in ‘The World’s Top 15 Cities’ list by Travel and Leisure. However in the past five years, there is another parallel tourist trend that is also steadily building here- the mushrooming of cultural festivals. They not only attract international tourists to the desert state but also the Indian urban, year after year.

Every iconic pocket of Rajasthan seems to have its own seasonal festival. From the globally renowned Rajasthan International Folk Festival in Jodhpur, Jaipur Literature Festival in the pink city, to the highlight of India’s electronic music calendar –Magnetic Fields, the Udaipur World Music Festival , in the lake city, the independent music festival Ragasthan in the desert of Jaisalmer to the newbies on the block like Taalbeliya and the one-year-old Mahindra Open Sky, amongst many more. We decided to speak to the directors, curators as well as artists and audiences alike to understand what binds these festivals’ diverse artistic ethos to Rajasthan.

The Sprawling Spaces Of Royalty

While its true that Rajasthan’s majestic palaces serve as natural infrastructure for large-scale festivals, what meets the eye also lends itself to the greater absorption of art.

“When I attended JLF in 2006 for the first time, I remember being completely blown away by the curation of speakers and their subjects,” says 23-year-old Adrija Basu from Kolkata, describing Asia’s biggest Literature Festival which currently in its 11th edition takes place every January at Diggi Palace. “Though I have to admit when it got too mentally draining, it was the quaintness of the palace which makes one think that it might be a long time before I enter this world. That kept me going.”

Image Credit: The Humming Notes
Image Credit: The Humming Notes

Every iconic pocket of Rajasthan seems to have its own seasonal festival. From the globally renowned Rajasthan International Folk Festival in Jodhpur, Jaipur Literature Festival in the pink city, to the highlight of India’s electronic music calendar –Magnetic Fields, the Udaipur World Music Festival , in the lake city, the independent music festival Ragasthan in the desert of Jaisalmer to the newbies on the block like Taalbeliya and the one-year-old Mahindra Open Sky, amongst many more. We decided to speak to the directors, curators as well as artists and audiences alike to understand what binds these festivals’ diverse artistic ethos to Rajasthan.

The Sprawling Spaces Of Royalty

While its true that Rajasthan’s majestic and sprawling palaces serve as natural infrastructure for large scale festivals, what meets the eye also lends itself to the greater absorption of art.

“When I attended JLF in 2006 for the first time, I remember being completely blown away by the curation of speakers and their subjects,” says 23-year-old Adrija Basu from Kolkata, describing Asia’s biggest Literature Festival which currently in its 11th edition takes place every January at Diggi Palace. “Though I have to admit when it got too mentally draining, it was the quaintness of the palace which makes one think that it might be a long time before I enter this world. That kept me going.”

Image Credit: Travel Triangle
Image Credit: Travel Triangle

Historian and critic William Dalrymple who along with writer and literary curator Namita Gokhale has headed the programming at JLF since its inception in 2008 (previously it was a part of The Jaipur Heritage International Festival), admits that choosing Jaipur as the venue for the festival was purely incidental. “JLF was the brainchild of heritage conservationist John Singh and was under the wing of his trust the Jaipur Virasat Foundation (JVF). So, it made sense to host the festival in the same city.” The festival which is produced by Teamwork Arts, began with an attendance of sixteen people (including some lost Japanese tourists who turned up there) today attracts almost half a million people with its diverse and inclusive programming. “In its second year JLF brought Salman Rushdie. It was his first appearance in India after the fatwa issued against him. That was it, journalists and literary enthusiasts took the highway to Jaipur and from then on it has grown each year,” confesses Dalrymple. So why has the festival not moved to a larger metropolitan considering its scale and size?

“People like coming to Jaipur for JLF. The weather, the palaces, the bazars, the extraordinary burst of colour and design in the beautiful Diggi Palace itself serves as the perfect holiday backdrop. All this plays an immense part in the success of the festival,” explains Dalrymple. Still surely there are other cities in India with a charm similar to Jaipur? “Teamwork tried doing a festival in Kerala,” says Dalrymple answering my question. “It didn’t work. It was too inconvenient geographically for the Delhi folks. While many who did turn up ended up at the beach and missed the programming!” chuckles Dalrymple. Keeping the unique ethos that Jaipur lends to JLF, the American edition of the festival has been located in Boulder; Colorado which is known for its intricate heritage, deep historical significance and unique natural beauty.

Disha Duggar, who lives in Jaipur feels that in contrast to the “hype cities” like Mumbai and Delhi, places like her hometown lend themselves better to engaging with art because of the serenity they offer. “After JLF is over, you don’t go bar hopping, you wander the quiet streets or perhaps go to Amer Fort for the light and music show– yet another slice of history and art.”

Abhay Aima who has attended almost all ten editions of Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) since its inception in 2007, loves the music of folk masters that the festival is largely committed towards. However the 55-year-old banker did confess, “During the festival when I watch the beautiful Mehrangarh Fort light up against the full moon, it’s so arresting. I feel that half the battle to engage is won there and then.” Each year Jodhpur RIFF is timed to coincide with the brightest full moon of the year in north India - sharad poornima.

The Rustic Charm Of Desert Wilderness

One of the greatest monotonies of urban life, after its routine, is a landscape of cement and glass. So if mahals and grand havelis do little for you, imagine having a cup of hot chai or cold beer seated in the middle of a desert, while watching a setting sun against the rhythmic silhouettes of moving camels. Where steadiness is a mirage–the weather soars from 30 degrees celsius and drops to below 1 degree celsius at night.

“We chose Rajasthan because we wanted to take people into the wilderness,” says Supriya Sobti one of the co-founders of Ragasthan that has been setting up a festival township in the desert of Jaisalmer for the past three-years. “I see Ragasthan as an escape into reality. For with limited network and access to social media you are one with both art and nature at the same time,” says Sobti whose team despite all logistical complications transports amenities to the middle of a desert, almost 400 kms from the nearest city. Other engagements like safari rides and star gazing at Ragasthan also allow its 5,000 patrons to discover the forgotten spectacles of nature.

For India’s premiere electronic music festival Magnetic Fields the setup is similar if not the same. The party happens at the heritage hotel of Alsisar Mahal surrounded by endless expanses of sand, which sees an entire tent village come up in December. For the Magnetic Fields team, giving life to this fairy-tale of a setting was partly incidental. “We had been looking for a festival venue for over a year and were actually keen on an urban space with the view of doing something in the middle of a city,” says Sarah Chawla, one of the co-founders of the festival. “After spending hours exploring abandoned warehouses and other similar properties nothing was really clicking with our vision. Alsisar, quite literally fell into our laps on a chance visit to the palace,” says Chawla candidly. The festival, now in it’s fifth edition, uses this canvas of the ancient and modern to mesmerise. Carefully curated light and visual design against the backdrop of old-world architecture, secret late-night parties in bedrooms of former Kings and Queens, and beautiful gardens and lawns where royalty once took evening strolls becomes spaces to recover from the music madness.

Image credit: Abhishek Shukla, Magnetic Fields
Image credit: Abhishek Shukla, Magnetic Fields

24-year-old Sanyukta Shetty who attended the festival for the first time this year confesses that she couldn’t “get over” the experience for a while after returning to Mumbai. “For three days you are locked down in one space with nothing else around you except the all-pervasive sound of music. That kind of focused momentum and energy is like no other,” she says.

Building Communities Of Musicians And Music-Lovers

The ethos that Shetty and others feel at these festivals has much to do with aesthetic, space and the quality of programming as it does with the people who attend it.“One of the reasons destination festivals are gaining so much popularity is because people who come there work hard to be there,” explains Arsh Sharma a musician who has performed at two editions of Ragasthan. “In a city festival you can feel that so many people are there just for the sake of being there whereas if you have to get to the middle of a desert for music, you bet it will only be those who have committed to a community experience.” Echoing similar thoughts, 23-year-old Diiva Garg who is a regular at Magnetic Fields shares, “Perhaps the hardest thing to do for me after the festival is over is saying goodbye to friends I have made through our common love for music.

If destination festivals facilitate communities of music lovers, they also become the breeding grounds for artist communities and collaborations.

“The best music that happens at the festival is not at the stage but around bonfires at night when spontaneous jamming sessions taking place,” says Sobti whose team brings over 400 musicians each year to Ragasthan. Promoting independent musicians from Chandigarh to Guwahati, Ragasthan also features folk musicians from the oldest gharanas of Rajasthan. This February the festival saw folk musicians like Imran Khan from the revered Sikar Sitar gharana jam with Israeli electronic musician BEMET, one of the many endeavours by Rahasthan to promote and reinvent Indian folk music. “We need to cultivate our audiences so they understand the tremendous value of our own music heritage,” explains Sobti.

Image Credit: Ragasthan
Image Credit: Ragasthan

What Ragasthan and other platforms like Coke Studio in the country are doing to give Rajasthani folk musicians the respect due to them today, Jodhpur RIFF pioneered a decade before them. Conceptualised in 2007 Jodhpur RIFF is the brainchild of John Singh and Jaipur Virasat Foundation (JVF) in collaboration with the the Mehrangarh Museum Trust. JVF also happens to be the parent body for JLF. The primary mandate of Jodhpur RIFF has always been positively impacting the livelihood of the traditional performers of the region. For them, Rajasthan has been a circumstantial choice, a space where their patrons and artists reside. If you have ever had the pleasure of listening to Rajasthani folk artists, you know that the masters have voices that can soar to heaven and beyond with a soul-wrenching rasp, accompanied by melodies as invigorating as a sandstorm. What the patrons of JRIFF– Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Marwar-Jodhpur and heritage conservationist John Singh saw was how these ancient forms of music were dying in the modern world. The folk musicians who usually belong to India’s marginalised communities were, at worst, dismissed as artists and at best regarded as mediocre entertainers. As a consequence the 9th and 10th generation of these musicians were reluctant to carry on the tradition.

“One of the reasons we decided on the Mehrangarh Fort as the venue for Jodhpur RIFF was because we wanted the Rajasthani folk artists to feel recognised as the music royalty of Rajasthan and that people would especially come to listen to them. We wanted to give them the respect that was long due to them,” shares Divya Bhatia, the director of the festival who curates and produces performances involving over 200 folk musicians and international artists. “We wanted to create an international churn – a global recognition for our folk artists who we believe should be remembered in the same league as maestros like Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain.” Sure enough, ten years since they began this not-for-profit festival which has also been endorsed by UNESCO, Jodhpur RIFF has put Rajasthani folk music on the global radar. Well known artists like Bhanvari Devi, Mame Khan and Chugge Khan and others have all held fort at Jodhpur before they burst onto commercial and international platforms.

Image Credit: Jodhpur RIFF
Image Credit: Jodhpur RIFF

For Jodhpur RIFF the festival in October is only one of the many stepping stones towards bringing Rajasthani folk artists to the forefront of global music. Along with recordings in collaboration with international musicians, they have toured with their artists to Scotland, London, Berlin, Sydney, South Africa, Spain, Australia, Norway amongst other destinations. This year RIFF is all set for their second performance at the CommonWealth Games in Brisbane.

Festivals like Ragasthan, Taalbeliya and Ranthambore Festival in the state have followed Jodhpur RIFF in its pursuit to make urban audiences rediscover the innate talent of local musicians in familiar formats and unfamiliar settings. “Rajasthani musicians have tremendous stage presence. Especially when they perform in their own homeland, it’s almost as if their pride for the land permeates in the air,” says Sobti having experienced overwhelming musical soirees by the folk masters in the desert. 29-year-old Sumitra Das Kamar, a Rajasthani folk vocalist of great repute, loves performing in Rajasthan for different reasons. “I am always amazed at the “angrez” audience at JRIFF that appreciates and respects my community’s talent. To get such international recognition, especially for someone like me who is from a small, humble town is deeply satisfying,” confesses the artist who has been on tour to places like London, Germany and Holland with the support of JRIFF.

These festivals have their own distinct identities in terms of the genres of art they cater to and the people they draw. Still at the heart of it all what draws Indian audiences, armed with their disposable incomes and thirst for escape, is that these festivals are immersive experiences. Can these experiences not be re-created elsewhere in the country? Probably. Probably not. At the moment it seems that Rajasthan is the ideal backdrop for it, beckoning the country with its eternal call–Kesariya balam, padharo mahre desh.

Feature Image Credit: Abhishek Shukla

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