How the Jodhpur RIFF creates a level playing field for musicians

Sumitra Devi’s midnight desert park performance

Sumitra Devi’s midnight desert park performance
| Photo Credit: Courtesy: RIFF

A multi-course musical banquet for many palates, Jodhpur RIFF 2023 left a trail of lingering voices and images. To partake of its flavours, you needed to be willing to forego sleep, change locations (literally and metaphorically), and be moved (and humbled) in the presence of stellar arts practices channelled through professional musicians and community music practitioners from far and wide.

In its 16th year, Jodhpur RIFF has emerged as a choice destination for those seeking music across genres. With concerts planned around spectacular entries and exits by the sun and moon, the festival’s aesthetics are also defined by grand historical backdrops offered by the Mehrangarh Fort — which itself means ‘fort of the sun.’

Bansuri recital by Avadhoot phadke. He is accompanied by Mrugendra Mohadkar on the bansuri, Rupak Dhamankar on the tabla and Pratap Avadh on the pakhawaj

Bansuri recital by Avadhoot phadke. He is accompanied by Mrugendra Mohadkar on the bansuri, Rupak Dhamankar on the tabla and Pratap Avadh on the pakhawaj

The festival’s intent is to “reduce separation” shares festival director, Divya Bhatia, referring to the urban-rural, folk-classical, Indian-international, traditional-contemporary and other dualities that permeate the consciousness of music lovers. True to that intent, audiences were treated to performances by diverse musicians, many who have honed their art over generations, all occupying the same stage, telling their stories through song, and sometimes, through dance. Over 300 artistes from seven Indian states and seven overseas countries participated this year. It was remarkable that the festival allowed for space to reflect on how music as commerce and entertainment affects music as culture and community practice.

Memorable moments

Sharma Bandhu performing at RIFF

Sharma Bandhu performing at RIFF

The inaugural session was a delicious teaser hinting at the treats in store. Women in Nauvari (Maharashtrian style nine-yard saris) wielding large drums with aplomb in Dhol Tasha (percussion band); the ringing voices of the Kalbeliya singers Mohini Devi, Sugna Devi and Asha Sapera; the dexterous khartal and dholak players from the Langa and Manganiyar communities ; sarangi and kamaicha presentations by veteran folk practitioners; Tunisian musicologist Jasser Haj Youssef’s exploratory violin tunes; the playfulness of the bhapang ensemble; the unforgettable music of Ars Nova Napoli (from Naples, Italy); the lively music of Suonno d’Ajere (also from Italy); the nimble rhythmic experiments by multi-instrumentalist Miroca Paris (from Cabo Verde and Portugal) are some echoes from the festival’s inauguration.

Estonian duo Kuula Hetke

Estonian duo Kuula Hetke

Among the performances, demonstrations, interactive sessions and boot camps offered over the next three days, most left the audiences asking for more. The enthralling voice of Barnali Chattopadhyay singing thumris; joyous audience participation during ‘Parampara’ (featuring ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakram and his family of musicians); the nuanced conversations between Tarini Tripathi’s Kathak and SAZ’s Rajasthani folk tunes; the clarity of Sumitra Devi’s acoustic midnight singing in a desert park; the meeting-for-the-first-time musical notes when Asin Khan’s Sindhi Sarangi spoke to Rhys Sebastian’s saxophone; and poems of loss and pain from Navdeep Suri’s ‘Khooni Vaisakhi’ (about the Jallianwalah Bagh massacre) set to music and rendered by Harpreet were among the many imprints left by the festival.

Ars Nova Napoli from Naples in Italy

Ars Nova Napoli from Naples in Italy

Play of light and darkness

Jodhpur RIFF’s best moments were at the dawn concerts held in Jaswant Thada, an 1899 cenotaph built in memory of Maharaja Jaswant Singh. At an elevation, the venue afforded a surround view of Jodhpur’s cityscape just before sunrise. The pre-concert soundscape included the call of azaan from mosques, chiming of the temple bells, or a film song floating up with the sound of a vehicle . The musicians were silhouettes against the remains of the night sky as you sat cross-legged on mattresses or on chairs arranged at the back. There was a sense of sacred in the air that was impossible to miss. Wiping out distractions, darkness offered conditions conducive to surrender. And if you were willing, you could be transported by music cultivated over centuries, possibly against a backdrop of divisiveness and discrimination.

Irene Scarpato and Suonno dÁjere

Irene Scarpato and Suonno dÁjere

The dawn concerts allowed for communion and soaking in syncretic song traditions that increasingly become more precious. They featured communities like the Meghwals and Manganiyars whose music gives faith the wholesomeness it lacks in these times of communal polarisation. Mala Ram ji and Bhallu Ram ji Meghwal, and Jalal and Barkat Manganiyar mixed magic into the morning on the first day. The second day presented mindful (and improvisatory) musical approaches by the Estonian musician duo Kuula hetke, while also offering the privilege of listening to the Alghoza, masterfully played by Idu Langa Khan. Carnatic ragas (including customary morning ragas like Bhouli) came newly alive against the backdrop of a resplendent sunrise during the concert of Mahesh Vinayakram, the next morning. Musicians Harpreet and Sharma Bandhu nudged us to see light in darkness as they evocatively relayed the poetry of Kabir, Bulleh Shah, Rahim and other spiritual practitioners in the last dawn concert.

Sugnaram on Ravanhatta

Sugnaram on Ravanhatta

Jodhpur RIFF offered multiple windows to engage, not just with quality folk music forms and its practitioners, but also with the question marks hovering over their wellness in modern times. In the ‘Living Legends’ session dedicated to maestros ‘Kohinoor’ Bundu Khan Langa and Bade Ghazi Khan Manganiyar, Divya Bhatia’s sharing shed light on how uneven the playing field is for folk music practitioners. From being asked to enter a posh venue through the service entrance to being misled into signing off rights to their song legacy by city-based filmmakers, these practitioners are often at the receiving end of caste-based discrimination, commercial inconsideration and skewed urban-rural power dynamics.

To audiences and music aficionados, Jodhpur RIFF didn’t just provide opportunities to simply soak in song (and rejoice in the fostering of folk forms through such platforms), but also to pause and ponder over shadows looming on music as a way of life — as breath.

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