Anantha Krishnan takes in the sights and sounds of world music at the World Sufi Spirit Festival in Jodhpur.
The blue-city of Jodhpur houses the magnificent Mehrengarh Fort, which has become the royal setting of very many performing arts lately. The Maharaja of Jodhpur, with his constant presence at such events, generously opens the massive fort doors to the festival organisers so that there is no lack of room for people coming from far-flung places, thus ensuring no “Sold Out” sign boards hang on the ramparts. This time around, it is the three-day World Sufi Spirit Festival in its sixth edition, with the popular rock star Sting as patron, aims to bridge the rich traditions of India with the ones of Central Asia, Africa and Turkey. The weather is a tad nippy in the early and late hours of the day but the music provides enough warmth for the souls.
The venues offer as much variance as the events organised. The early morning bhajans at Jaswant Thada, the royal crematorium and the only venue outside the fort, are blissful, and sets the tone for the eventful day ahead. Though some may feel it is not too an auspicious place to hold bhajans, the stillness and the rising sun serving as the backdrop do give one a spiritual high. Only a few brave souls that could pull themselves from their early hour deep-sleep-mode make it here when it is still dark and chill out. Hot coffee served at the cushions easily offsets the above niggles though.
Harjiram and Okaram of the Meghwal community from the district of Barmer and Bhanwari Devi from Churu district decorate the bhajan mornings.
Dargah front is high-octane with the Qawwalli singers belting out the Sufi numbers and this fort niche thunders with hand-claps and head-shakes all through the day. While Sringar Chowk, a courtyard that had witnessed enthroning ceremonies of the royals, with the latticed windows above hiding the ladies from public view while they watched the proceedings, is the venue for Kalaripayattu, the martial art form from Kerala. Kalaripayattu offers an air of combat, sword and shield era and fits in perfectly at the arena.
Later in the day, at the same venue, Sheikh Ghanan and the sufis of Deir from upper Egypt in their white turbans and splendid galabeyas, the long flowing robe, performs their sufi ritual. They bend their bodies from front to back, from left to right before moving onto a frenzied circling of arms and shoulders, while their breath taking on various planes of panting, puffing and gasping before ends in an exulting release with a “hiss”. Their choros leaders are fervently accompanied by qawwal (flute), defi (percussion) and reqq (tamborine). Such an act gently transports the audience to historic Luxor in upper Egypt for a cultural and spiritual immersion.
The site of the family deity of the ruling dynasty of Jodhpur, Mataji temple is the stage for mid-day bhajans, music of Dholi community from the Jalore district and Nawab Khan’s santoor melding with Langa singers of Rajasthan. Down at the lower level is the Chokhelao Garden, restored to reflect the flavour of 18th century garden of Rajput kingdom with sumptuous greens and flowers, now showcases the future Rajasthani singers through Langa and Manghaniyar children. Their freewheeling competitive spirit is trying to win over the audience or even to win an air-ticket to perform abroad as they are keenly watched by a sizable foreign presence.
The pretty and compact Moti Mahal of the 17th century hosts the Bardic Divas, women voices of central Asia on the first day. Ulzhan Baibussynova on vocal and Raushan Orazbaeva on a string instrument called kobyz are from Kazakhstan. The thunderous voice singing the poems of the Silk Road accompanying the resonance generated by the running of a bow over the strings of kobyz engulfs the tiny hall. Raushan is believed to be the best of the traditional kobyz player today.
Nadira Pirmatova from Uzabekistan takes over from the lady musicians above to sing her high octave, plaintive and moving Maquam which has strong association with the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Nadira strums on her dutar lute when singing the poetic texts in Uzbec and Tajik languages. This session is probably the most meditative one as people sit erect on the Mahal floor with eyes closed and simply drift away.
On the second day at the same venue, a local Mashak (bagpipe) player performs in place of Saeid shanbehzadeh, a bagpipe player from Iran who can not make it as scheduled because of visa issues. The subliminal Bheth tradition folk singing from the Kutch area in Gujarat is followed by the masterly Homayoun Sekh from Afghanistan on the rubab, the cousin of Indian sarod, along with Seiar Hashemi on the tabla have the Hindustani aficionados in the hall nod their heads to the ragas.
Zenana Deodi Courtyard, a large open area swathed by tall and solid walls, is the set for the late evening events. The acts here deviate from the traditional flavour of the day-events and bring in synthesizer sounds more on the Bollywood trail. This throws in a challenge of tuning the ears to other end on the dial at a very short interval.
For most from outside India, it is a slice of “cultural exposure” rather than anything else but the musicians here have their select followers among the large audience. Better milieu prevails at the grand finale by the whirling Dervishes from Turkey, who has everyone in trance. They swirl and whirl across the stage in this chilly dark setting like the twinkling stars in the vast sky above, accompanied by a mellow Meshk Ensemble of Mevlana.
On the less significant front, there are whispers too at the festival on the overload of the term “Sufi” in India in the recent times — Sufi-Rock, Sufi-Kathak, Sufi-Bollywood, Sufi-Festivals at the big metros, travelling-sufi-festivals and the list stretches; Is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s link to Bollywood in the past play any part here? Are the events and the music played at these festivals genuinely “Sufi” or by plugging in a Qawwalli here and there would justify the term? Is the progressive, open, secular Hindu India with its own wealth of music in its bag trying to embrace the musical side of Islam or is it all simply a fad? With my visual and aural senses gratified, I choose to return home while the festival moves on to nearby town Nagaur, a change in ambience but with almost the same cast.