As my taxi changes gear from highway to village-dirt-lane, a street dog barking furiously runs along side us for sometime. I can hear strains of music wafting through the morning stillness. And we head in that direction.
Musicians from the Islāmic faith singing bhajans at dawn in the courtyard of the quaint Hanuman Dhora temple, opens the festival. State Minister for Finance, Arjun Meghwal, who is here to inaugurate, sits cross-legged on the dhurrie with turbaned old men in white and women in bright red Rajasthani saris, with their heads covered. A few parked government SUVs to my left and camels to my right. Desert sand beneath my feet and peacocks looking for breakfast, complete the picture.
I am at Momasar, a small village 250 km north-west of Jaipur. It is the 6th edition of Shekhawati Utsav, organised by Jaipur Virasat Foundation that works to keep and promote traditional art forms of the state. The two-day festival showcases 200 artists from various regions and attracts a few thousand people, mostly from nearby villages, to this remote hamlet. Among the audience are also a handful of die-hard fans from abroad.
I meet a group which is from the U.S. and various European countries. “Marc and I chanced upon this festival last year and this year we are here to perform. Yes, we were suggested city gigs but we settled for this unique village one,” says Markus from Germany. In a first, this edition features a non-Rajasthani band of Marc Sinan and Iva Bittova.
With a local guide, we stroll through the maze of lanes for local attractions such as temples and century-old charming havelis. Patwari ki Haveli, an exquisite heritage building of Momasar, is the venue of ‘Music in the afternoon.’ A group of women sing welcome-songs at the massive door. Among the range of activities in the courtyard include men spinning yarn from drop-spindle, rope-making demonstration and young students of wood-craft displaying their creative works. “This reflects the motive of our Foundation - preserve and encourage tradition in all forms,” says Vinod Joshi, director of JVF and the force behind this festival, which is also about him giving back to his birth place.
Along the wall, Kathodi performers present a unique image as two men play a vertical wind instrument, a man on scraper and another rubs a thin metal rod placed over a brass plate to produce the drone effect. “They live in the forest and make their own musical instruments,” says Joshi. A flight of stairs in the haveli leads to a space, open to the skies where 80-year-old Safi Mohammed sings with gusto.
As the light starts to fade, we head to a farm. A dimly lit makeshift platform offers space for more folk art traditions. A red-turbaned, white dhoti clad man with anklets thumps his feet and moves his arms to the beat and the singing of two men playing the maante drum, a large claypot – their silhouette creates a surreal effect.
Marc and Iva’s music is a novelty for the villagers. The day ends at midnight at Taal Maidan with ‘Kuchamani Khayal,’ a performance based on the story of legendary characters Raja Harischandra and Rani Taramati. This is a folk-theatre tradition from the Nagaur region, and on the decline. The format resembles that of therukoothu.
The morning events of the next day are curated to involve children. ‘Baal Mela’ features a few thousand young boys and girls from 13 different schools in the village to get them re-acquainted with their rich roots. “This is crucial for the future of what we are now involved in,” says Joshi, who is keen on covering the entire spectrum in his quest. The children get to see artists who do not make it to the stage this year, apart from competitions and workshops.
For the grand finale in the evening, hoards of villagers stream in. The brightly lit Taal Maidan is buzzing. The Rajasthani decor for the stage is apt. A kaleidoscope of folk forms unfold that include dhol-thali, kalbeliya, gair, bhapang, kachhigodi and sahariya swang dance. It all ends in the wee hours of the morning. Though a comfortable hotel stay is some 35 km away, to experience folk art at its provenance is an experience. While Langas and Manganiars are invitees on world stage, JVF aims to bring the world to their homes.