A typical Riff evening begins under the rising moon at the foot of the fort, at Jaswant Thada, a ceremonial platform with sweeping a view of Jodhpur
You could call it the carnival of the moon in the premises of sun-kings. Or an international music festival held over four nights — from dusk to dawn, around the Sharad full moon — under the patronage of Gaj Singh II, the titular Rathor king of Jodhpur. But either way, it’s hard to deny that the most magisterial presence at the Jodhpur Riff (earlier called the Rajasthan International Folk Festival) is of Mehrangarh, the 22-acre acropolis in Jodhpur (named after the sun; from the Sanskrit mihir) in which the festival is staged.
The presence is imbued with a sense of history too. Though the fort’s foundation was laid by sun-king Rao Jodha in the middle of the 15 century, most of its palaces and courtyards were built in the 18 and 19 centuries. It’s likely that there was a tradition of music and dance, especially around the Sharad purnima, right from the early 18 century. Karni Singh, director of Mehrangarh Museum, rolls out prints of exquisite Jodhpur miniatures to make the point. You can see Rathor kings from the early 18 century enjoying music at the fort. So when one goes for the Riff concerts staged in various parts of the fort, the sense that music has bounced off the battlements for centuries adds a dramatic aura.
A typical Riff evening begins under the rising moon at the foot of the fort, at Jaswant Thada, a ceremonial platform with sweeping a view of Jodhpur. On the two Dusk Devotional concerts there, on October 27 and 28, a 100-strong crowd listens to the Meghwal tribe sing of their deity, Ram Devji, accompanied by tandura strings and jhanjh cymbals, and Babunath Jogi sing stories of Shiv’s marriage accompanied by the jogiya sarangi.
The crowd gains in number but maintains the solemnity as the music moves to the Shringar Chowk, a courtyard within the fort covered by a canopy of emerging stars. Here one hears more stirring folk — on one day, Sugna Devi rendering Kalbeliya songs and Latif Khan Langa playing the murli (flute), on the next blind bhajan singer Gavra Devi of Bikaner stomping the stage while singing bhajans by Meera and others, and the nad, a low-pitch horn, played by one of the few remaining players of the instrument, Male Khan Langa. The ghungoor (bells) around the wrist of an accompanying sarangi mixes softly with the wake-up chirps of Mehrangarh’s most enduring residents, the bats.
Each artist is introduced by festival director Divya Bhatia or one of his colleagues. Before Male Khan comes on the nad, Pradip Krishen, a knowledgeable soul who would rather be called an “ecological gardener”, introduces the instrument. He talks of a former player of the instrument, Karna Ram Bheel, the man whose record-stretching moustache started a cottage industry in showy facial hair in Rajasthan in the 1970s. “The nad tradition is to sing a few soft words between the playing, slowly building up a story,” says Krishen. “The trouble was that whatever Karna Ram said through his moustache remained unintelligible. Hence no one ever got the full ballad.” Male Khan, though not possessor of such a heavy moustache, is equally unintelligible. Swooping around in the electric blue above is a barn owl.
An international stage
The musical pilgrims snake up through a succession of arches into the inner courtyards. The main stage is another open-air venue enclosed by the last loop of the battlements, where the old Zenana (women’s courtyard) used to be.
This is where the musical register shifts into an all-embracing format and Riff bares its wings. The music is no longer restricted to folk or to Indian traditions. It’s an international stage where, alongside Indian artists, this year one could hear an eclectic mix of the Australian Aboriginal horn, the didgeridoo, by Mark Atkins, Egyptian oud by Joseph Tawadros, Carnatic classical violins by Ganesh and Kumaresh, Sri Lankan drums by the tall-dark-and-energetic band Naadro, Celtic uilleann pipes by Jarlath Henderson, and harp by Carlos Rojas of Colombia’s Grupo Cimarrón. “We want to make the festival principally, but not only, about folk,” says Bhatia, who curated his fourth Riff this year. “That’s why, rather than calling it the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, we are calling it by the shorter Riff, which resonates everywhere.”
Such openness was not welcome among some of the front-rowers. Vir and Yamuna, for one, found it odd that the festival was drifting from its earlier promise of holding a light to Rajasthani folk and its mooring to the Jaipur Virasat Foundation and Mehrangarh Museum Trust, who put it together in the first place. But most backbenchers loved the mix and danced every evening, often in limb-threatening contortions. By the final night, the late crowd pouring in wasn’t asking where the music, or concert, was — they wanted to know where the “party” was.
Such cultural openness has had a couple of remarkable payoffs. First, this year Riff signed a three-year artist exchange programme with Celtic Connections, a music festival in Glasgow, Scotland. Such international arrangements have existed at Riff, but without the degree of formality. This year, Oz Fest, the India-wide cultural extravaganza unleashed by the Australian government, also brought in a couple of artists, as did the Colombian embassy.
Second, thanks to Bhatia, the festival has nourished a number of cross-border collaborations. For example, this year Joseph Tawadros of Australia formalised a collaboration he started informally last year at the Riff bar one tired evening. He performed a set of six songs on the final night with singer Parveen Sabrina Khan, her father and tabla player Hamid Khan Kawa, and saxophonist Rhys Sebastian from Mumbai.
The openness was also there in the musical after-party on October 27. Starting around midnight on the roof of Chokelao Mahal, a courtyard in Mehrangarh, first there was Ghulam Hussain’s qawwali and then Dutch DJ mps Pilot’s bassy rhythms.
This year also continued with the tradition of the Riff Rustle on the last night, where one musician is given the task of putting together an all-band mix of dance music. This year’s “Rustler” was Rathika Wickramaratne, chief instigator of the Sri Lankan band Naadro, who ensured that the dancing pit crowd raked up enough dust to make clicking difficult for all lensmen.
The next night, though, the crowd was in for the most surreal treat. Past midnight, people had to troop to the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park abutting the fort for an electricity-less, moon-washed night of music. Rajasthani musicians of all hues performed as the lit up Mehrangarh formed a stunning backdrop.
In the best of Riff traditions, there was little time between the last concert and the Dawn Devotionals at Jaswant Thada. A sleepy but resolute crowd listened this year to Bhanwari Devi’s bhopa-bhopi songs, Arman Fakir and his band’s Baul songs, and Kaela Rowan’s Scottish folk songs. The sun slowly cracks open the night’s darkness and the bustle of Jodhpur rises to mix with the unadorned music. And the moon, like the festival-goers, goes back to sleep.
The writer was at the Jodhpur Riff at the invitation of the organisers.