If you were to glance at the schedule pamphlet handed out to the attendees of the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (Jodhpur RIFF) – which took place from 10 to 14 October in and around the Mehrangarh Fort – you’d realise that the festival expects you to party all night and then be there for the 5.30 am RIFF Dawns performance. That’s how hardcore it gets, except with a diverse billing of artists from around the globe, plus Rajasthani folk legends and notable Indian classical names alike.
With educative workshops and performances for local school children, dance workshops for all ages and a session on new Rajasthani poetry and writing, Jodhpur RIFF just about leaned into offering more than music, but performances are certainly the focus. There’s an air of divinity (or at least spirituality) when you hear bhakti music from the likes of Jasnath ji ke Bhope, who even had fire-spitting performers. Several seasoned artists — Hindu and Muslim — paid obeisance to their local deities and although much would be lost in translation (the festival hosts sometimes strained to make somewhat reticent Rajasthani folk artists to explain their songs), it was a mood-setter.
The early morning sessions offered Rajasthani folk in the form of the Meghwals of Marwar on 11 October and bhajans from Bagha Khan and Gemra Ram on 12 October. The following day, the festival packed the house for four performances: the strikingly surreal Armenian-Swiss folk-jazz of Authentic Light Orchestra performing just before sunrise, a handpan performance from versatile vocalist Mahesh Vinayakram, British zither artist Andrew Cronshaw evoking the sunrise followed by younger Rajasthani voices like Darre Khan from Jaisalmer and sarangi artist Asin Khan Langa. So pivotal to the festival experience is RIFF Dawns that it also closed the 12th edition with 28-year-old Punjabi voice Bir Singh.
RIFF clearly draws a lot of international audiences considering the standing it has built over more than a decade. Indians too fly in from different parts of the country, perhaps seeking a music experience for the soul. The festival’s programming tells us that they aim to provide much more – from the high-energy groove party of Maloyan act Votia (from the Reunion Islands) to American DJ Jose Marquez spinning global sounds over hypnotic electronic well past midnight, the chuckle-worthy unplugged Mewati musicians and Badayuni qawwals' shayari under a bare night sky and much more.
Malian kora artist Ballake Sissoko was another big draw, for his calming, multi-layered sound that all came from just one instrument at the Old Zenana Courtyard stage on Saturday. As is tradition at RIFF, some cross-cultural collaborations are mandatory. You might just say it's the one aspect the festivals pushes quite hard, even if the onstage fireworks aren't really present on stage. Some collaborations take many months of planning and execution, like the Irish-Rajasthan collaboration titled Citadels of the Sun. Presenting five movements of a heightened music experience in Chokelao Bagh on Friday, the musicians crossed paths seamlessly between fiddle, flute, bagpipe, bouzouki, sarangi and dholak. It stretched on a bit longer than necessary, but perhaps it was the artists' eagerness to present as much as possible.
Rajasthani folk music is still at the centre of it all, with Mehrangarh Fort hosting public performances throughout the day when the main stages aren't active. Clearly capable of adapting while retaining their identity, the final day also saw an energetic but short performance by a Rajasthani Brass Band, complete with khartal and conductors on stage. While long-standing artists such as Kachra Khan was on stage more than twice, it was other folk artists' spontaneous collaborations during sets by Sissoko and later, by Carnatic music legend Vikku Vinayakram that sparkled at RIFF.
Ghatam proponent for more than five decades, Vikku Vinayakram helmed proceedings for his special showcase called Parampara on Sunday. It featured his son Mahesh Vinayakram, his grandchildren Gurupriya and Guruprasad, plus kanjira wizardry from Swaminathan Selvaganesh. Where the previous night at the courtyard was a heavy global folk fare — powerful, groovy Polish music from Karolina Cicha and then, veteran Hungarian band Muzsikas' focused, enchanting song and dance performance — RIFF was clearly not expecting Carnatic musicians to dive into konnakol jugalbandis, bhajans and mind-bending time signatures.
The closing night of performances was especially diverse, considering the Jaswant Thada stage — with a clear view of Mehrangarh Fort in the back — hosted a time-appropriate performance by Hindustani classical singer Pushkar Lele. The singer started off low and melancholic, employing raag Yaman and in a moment of total aptness, sang 'Chanda Ji Aa Hi Gaye' as the Sharad Poornima moon appeared on the horizon.
Later on when the moon was at its brightest, clearest hue of white, Cuban drummer Yissy Garcia and producer-percussionist Mary Paz conducted the customary RIFF Rustle, a late night, all-star jam that included several festival performers just spontaneously called on stage to add their voice. While there's always a certain amount of waiting on cues and wandering eyes looking for the next move from Garcia or other musicians on stage, the crowd moved up from their chairs to the front to dance all night. Garcia was the first woman to be given the responsibility of RIFF Rustle. It added to the festival’s conscious push towards putting more women artists on stage, including a showcase Sumitra Devi from Jetharan, Mohini Devi from Jodhpur and mother daughter duo Ganga and Sunder from Pali, who delivered a powerhouse performance on day two.
Jodhpur RIFF kept its promise of providing an experience like few others in the country and it's clearly going strong on the curation front. When you have tickets for the morning session going for Rs 200, you know that there's still a good amount of accessibility to it all.
All images via Jodhpur RIFF OIJO.
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Updated Date: Oct 19, 2019 11:13:32 IST