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  1. 1. the sound of music Anchor Songs For The Gods The World Sacred Spirit Festival reveals delightfully contrasting aspects of Jodhpur—juxtaposing the loud, chaotic town with mellifluous music under starlit skies. Words Harini Sriram Photography Arun sarin Shye Ben Tzur (centre), a poet and musician from Israel, performs alongside Johnny Greenwood, guitarist of the UK rock band, Radiohead, a brass band from Ajmer and the Manganiyars of Rajasthan march 2015 3938 March 2015
  2. 2. (Previous page) Mukhtiyar Ali sings Sufi poetry with an ensemble of musicians (This page) Cherifa (left, in white), a poetess and musician from Morocco, sings of stars and skies as she dances with the rest of the musicians onstage G azi Khan Barna clinks two wooden blocks. The crowd erupts in cheers. He is dressed in traditional Rajasthani attire complete with a colourful turban. His weathered face looks radiant, there’s a hint of a smile on his lips and his eyes glow like amber. He is now in some sort of trance, swaying gently as he plays his khartal. Barna is part of Divana, an ensemble of Manganiyars, nomadic musicians from the deserts of Rajasthan, who are performing at the Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur as part of the World Sacred Spirit Festival (WSSF) to an audience that is clearly getting goosebumps at this stage. I’m in Jodhpur primarily for two reasons—to understand the essence of ‘spiritual’ music, and gorge on pyaz kachoris and mirchi wadas. But mostly for the former. Organised impeccably by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust (established by Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Jodhpur), WSSF celebrates the sacred—an idea, a theme that finds resonance in the voices of the Rajasthani Manganiyars as much as in the exuberance of the Moroccan Berbers. This is the eighth edition of WSSF; while the first few editions of the festival were held at the Ahhichatragarh fort in Nagaur, since 2012 the courtyards of Mehrangarh have also been reverberating with the strains of Sufi poetry and Persian chants. The festival travels every year from Nagaur to Jodhpur, with the lineup remaining pretty much the same at both venues. The Nagaur leg of the festival is meant only for guests at the fort, but the performances in Jodhpur are open to the public. Part of the magic of the festival lies in the setting. Because, when it comes to festival venues, few can trump Mehrangarh both in terms of heritage and the sweeping views it offers. The fort is steeped in history and legend. It is believed to have been built in 1438 by Rao Jodha, who ruled Marwar then, and the city of Jodhpur was named after him. The story goes that when Jodha decided to build a fort atop the hillock in the region, he had to evict its sole occupant—a hermit, who cursed the land with water scarcity. Though efforts have been taken to harvest water within the fort and in the city, the area is generally arid and drought-prone. For history and architecture enthusiasts, there’s a fabulous audio tour around the fort that you might want to take. There’s also a ziplining tour (in the fort) run by Flying Fox that gives you a different perspective of the city. The lazy evening sun gently lights up the fort, and I follow the chords of what sounds like a sitar. It takes me past gardens in full bloom, with sunlight streaming through bougainvillea flowers as if they were stained glass. I walk up a flight of stairs and see the Blue City sprawled in front of me like a miniature set made of Legos. I try to count 40 March 2015
  3. 3. the number of blue houses but soon realise I’m being silly. Occasionally, a bunch of blushing kids would emerge from one of the houses and wave to us. From where I stand, I see the calm and sparkling Ranisar lake; on the banks of the lake, a group of people lie arched on the grass, their heads resting against bolsters. Some of them are perched precariously on steps leading up to the top of the fort, listening with rapt attention to Pandit Kushal Das, a distinguished sitarist from West Bengal. He plays a piece in Maand, a raag that has its roots in Rajasthani folk music. I’m now in a cocoon, a bubble, smiling to myself, foolishly reassured that all’s well with the world again. Later in the evening, at Daulat Khana Chowk, in the fort, I find myself absolutely captivated by the haunting Andalusian hymns of Francoise Atlan, a French-Jewish singer, complemented by Sukhdev Prasad Mishra on the Carnatic violin. Purists might cringe at this rather bizarre pairing, and dismiss it as yet another experiment in fusion, but then they should have been there because, in all honesty, it works like a dream. After a particularly soulful violin and tabla jugalbandi, Atlan says, “It’s difficult to sing after what they just played, but I will try.” It is this simplicity that makes these musicians endearing, and their music—though unfamiliar to a novice like me—makes me feel weightless for a few seconds. It’s time for Nour Ensemble, a group of French and Persian musicians who, along with the Manganiyars, serve up music so delicious you want to bite into it and let the taste linger forever. Elsewhere, in the massive Zenana Deodi courtyard, Shye Ben Tzur, a Jewish Israeli qawwal, is singing songs about love, faith and gratitude, and the dais is filled with seemingly disparate musicians—Johnny Greenwood (guitarist for UK band Radiohead), Manganiyars and a brass band from Ajmer. No words can do justice to the music they create together. The air is nippy, there’s a strong chill wind spewing dust and sand. Night descends like a huge inky canvas clustered with a million stars. We are perched some 400 feet above the city, the high walls of the fort sealing off sights and sounds from outside. I’m sure these courtyards have seen blood—you can still see battle marks on some of the gates —yet, sitting under the stars, wrapped in a shawl, with some new friends and great music for company, I feel strangely peaceful and at ease. (This page) Mathias Dulessy, a French musician, doing what he does best (Next page) Sabir Khan weaves magic with the sarangi; Gazi Khan Barna plays his kartal Part of the magic of the festival lies in the setting. Because, when it comes to festival venues, few can trump Mehrangarh both in terms of heritage and the sweeping views it offers march 2015 43
  4. 4. March 2015 00 The following day, I set out to explore the city and its markets. The afternoon sun is merciless and I’m now at the main market near the clock tower. The area is chaotic, to say the least; vehicles zip past from all directions, honking relentlessly. The road is choc-a-bloc with buildings, each uglier than the other. This could be any town in India at the moment. Women in brightly coloured saris—fluorescent orange, fuchsia, bright green—walk down the roads, unmindful of the noise and clutter. Perhaps these colours make up for the otherwise barren landscape of Rajasthan and the blank expressions on their faces. The streets are choked with garbage and green-and-yellow autos that are piled up one behind the other. These autos are slimmer than the ones in other cities, and I’m told that they are designed that way simply to negotiate the narrow, congested streets that the city is rife with. I’m at the famous Janta Sweets Home with two other friends and we sink our teeth into crispy pyaz kachoris and spicy mirchi wadas. The kachoris are filled with mashed potatoes and onions; they are tangy probably due to the addition of aam choor (dried mango powder). We wash our heavenly snack down with paper cups of steaming hot masala chai. MV Spices in Sardar Market, near the clock tower, stashes Indian spices from chillies, aam choor and garam masala to saffron, cardamom and even herbal powders that claim to do wonders to your skin and hair. There are several shops selling quintessential touristy things—bandini and lehriya dupattas, kurtas, saris, mojris, bags, jewellery. However, most shops have fixed price tags, so don’t even bother bargaining. Alright, maybe just a bit. Back at the fort, I meet Li Daiguo, a US-born Chinese musician who performed earlier at the festival. He tells me he’s been performing since he was five, and is trained in both Western and Chinese classical music. Li is a maverick musician, a prodigy of sorts, who dabbles in multiple musical styles and instruments. He does beatboxing, plays the pipa (a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument), ethnic flutes, the cello, violin, viola; he works with musicians across genres and geographies, from jazz to beatboxing, from Zimbabwe to Japan. He speaks of physical spaces and energies, adding that an artiste who is truly free (liberated), has the power to create that energy in any situation, in any space. Later that evening, I soak in the songs of sexuality by Chaar Yaar and Madan Gopal Singh, a Sufi singer from India; sway to the Mongol rhythms of Mathias Duplessy, a French musician, and Mukhtiyar Ali, a Sufi singer from Rajasthan; dance to the beats of Midival Punditz, a fusion electronic duo from Delhi. Li’s words make sense to me. Of course, the fort is marvellous, but it’s the free-spiritedness and depth of these musicians that make the festival what it is. I had always thought that a spiritual experience had to be solemn —but after three days of being footloose in a little city, I realise that the paths to spirituality are many. For some, it’s yoga; for others, it’s music. I had always thought that a spiritual experience had to be solemn—but after three days of being footloose in a little city, I realise that the paths to spirituality are many 44 March 2015 (This page) Francoise Atlan, an Andalusian singer, collaborates with Sukhdev Prasad Mishra (left), a vocalist and violinist from the Benaras Gharana (Facing page) Listening to the music of the Langas of Rajasthan at the break of dawn
  5. 5. March 2015 00 The foundation for the World Sacred Spirit Festival ( was laid eight years ago in the small town of Nagaur in central Rajasthan, following a conservation project that the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, established by Maharaja Gaj Singh II, had done at the Ahhichatragarh fort. Nagaur is considered the second most important centre for the Chistiya Sufi order (after Ajmer) in Rajasthan, and the festival was conceptualised to promote Sufi music under the patronage of famous UK musician Sting, and was meant to be a celebration of the restoration effort. But, as Karni Singh Jasol, director, Mehrangarh Museum Trust, tells us, “Nagaur was not on any kind of map, and we wanted the festival to reach a larger audience. We were bringing in amazing artistes from around the world but only guests at the fort could enjoy it. So, four years back, we conducted the festival in Jodhpur too, and threw it open to the public. Last year, we felt the need to expand our horizons, look beyond Sufi and bring in diverse musicians from across the world.” WSSF is a direct result of that urge. Alain Weber, artistic director, WSSF, believes that the festival is all about a return to the roots; it’s about identifying artistes who share a common culture and style and bringing them together on one platform. Though it’s hard to pick one standout performance, Weber is of the view that the Langas and Manganiyars of Rajasthan are stars in their own right, simply because their grasp of music is amazing. It’s this adaptability and versatility that makes their musical style blend seamlessly with Iranian, French, African and even Israeli music, he adds. Alexandra de Cadaval is the co-director of WSSF. World Sacred Spirit Festival 46 March 2015 (Clockwise from top left) A Manganiyar dholak player is all concentration; Suphala, a tabla artiste from the US, enthralls the audience with her performance; Ballake Sissoko from Mali plays the kora, a stringed instrument from Africa; the crowd dances to Midival Punditz
  6. 6. Navigator Jodhpur, the second largest city in Rajasthan, is known as Sun City and Blue City. It is best known for royalty, forts and its fiery cuisine. Where to stay Bijolai Palace, a Treehouse Hotel, a restored hunting home of the erstwhile maharaja, has well- appointed rooms. It’s far from the chaos of the city yet just a few kilometres from the city centre (www. Places of interest A trip to Jodhpur is pointless without a visit to Mehrangarh fort. Also visit the Umaid Bhawan palace (part of it is managed by Taj Hotels) and Jaswant Thada (a memorial made of marble). Shop Find great deals on mojris, clothes, jewellery and bags in the markets around Ghanta Ghar (clock tower). Eat Café Mehran and Chokelao Mahal Terrace in Mehrangarh fort; Janta Sweets Home for kachoris and mirchi wadas. Getting there By Air There are daily flights (Air India and Jet Airways) from Delhi and Mumbai. By Train Jodhpur is well- connected by trains with all major cities. with Delhi, board the Mandor Express, and from Mumbai you could take the Suryanagari Express. By Road Jodhpur is 595 km from Delhi and 976 km from Mumbai. Buses ply both routes every day, and private taxis are also available. Evening concert at the Ranisar lake in Mehrangarh fort march 2015 4948 March 2015