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Published on: Nov. 21, 2023, 11:12 a.m.
Jodhpur RIFF: Melodies in the desert
  • A dawn concert at the festival

By Suman Tarafdar

Often overshadowed by more conventional tourist hubs of Rajasthan – Jaipur, Udaipur, Bikaner…, the end of the year however sees a beeline by visitors to Jodhpur. For it’s the unmistakable pull of RIFF, the pioneering roots (‘folk’, in general parlance) music festival, now in its 16th year.

Jodhpur RIFF, India’s best known roots music festival, was back again this year with a stellar line-up – a veritable buffet of glorious musical traditions from around the world. During 27-30 October, Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort hosted about 300 performers, showcasing the best of Indian and global roots music, dance, and collaborations between amazing artists. This year saw performers from various parts of the country, as well as from distant parts of the planet, including France, Australia, Cabo Verde, Italy, Estonia.

And they did not disappoint. Like many a music festival, the real activity here too began in the evenings and effectively lasted till the mesmerising dawn settings. And with a backdrop such as the Mehrangarh Fort, which added to the magic of the performances.

Among the changes that the festival brought in the last edition are sections called Indie Roots, an afternoon slot and a dance choreographer to work with traditional arts. “The idea was to explore what ‘indie’ means in our context and the other was to bring in other art forms where music plays a critical role,” says Divya Bhatia, Festival Director.

Common consensus suggested that a stunning performance by Raina Patterson, along with Marco Cher-Gibard, in which an independent contemporary dancer took a traditional story – Narsimha – from a Mohiniattam tradition and added a contemporary musical component to it turned out to be one of the highlights of the festival. Part of Indie Roots, young, city-based, which focusses on independent singers and songwriters connected to traditional roots.

The dawn concerts, as always held in the backdrop of Jaswant Thada, was one of the most popular elements of the festival, the number of artists grew significantly. Outstanding performances included Idu Khan Langa on the alghoza and Mahesh Vinayakram's Carnatic vocals.

More unusual performances included Estonian flautists Kärt Pihlap and Katariina Tirmaste, who wove their personal histories within the performances. Harpreet, who had presented his interpretation of brings in our last dawn of Jodhpur RIFF 2023 with his musical interpretation of the tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh the day before, ushered in the sunrise with compositions of humanist poets such as Kabir and Bulleh Shah.

The iconic Sharma Bandhu with their unique blend of semi-classical music and skillful storytelling, closed out the dawn performances.

Each evening of course reverberated with a variety of melodious magic. The Manganiyaar tradition took centrestage across evenings, a highlight being Bade Ghazi Khan Manganiyar powerful version of Nimbuda. Smita Bellur’s qawwalis including perennial favourite Kab Tak Mere Maula also drew appreciation from the audiences, as always, a mix of the young and old, trendy to traditional – united by their love of folk forms of music. Asha Sapera and her aunts Mohini Devi and Sugna Devi brought to the fort the ever-popular music of the snake charmer community, the Kalbelias.

  • Bhatia: the festival is giving younger musicians hope

    Bhatia: the festival is giving younger musicians hope

International performers were just as popular, Ars Nova Napoli bringing the city’s street music to the Jodhpur RIFF stage, of course with the entire Zenana Bagh on its feet tapping along. Another Neapolitan group was there too, and it’s unusual for the festival to have performers from the same country, leave alone the same city.  Suonno D’Ajere, a trio of Irene Scarpato, Marcello Smigliante Gentile and Gian Marco Libeccio, blended bold vocals with classical guitar and the mandolin. Simplicity and directness is often a hallmark of the performer, and Australian singer and guitarist John Lang, accompanied with Greg Sheehan on the cajon, held the viewers spellbound with their ballads, with subjects often cutting deep.

And, for those who have loved dancing away the night under the starlit desert skies, the club component has also grown, with the offering growing to a collaboration, a band and a DJ, reveals Bhatia. Club Mehran, a regular feature of the festival, brought Tropical Sounds by Nkumba System, a vibrant fusion of Afrobeat and Dancehall, the blending African and Latin American music.

The audience, in the pre Covid era, comprised about 70 per cent domestic audience and the rest coming in from all parts of the world. “Last year we were apprehensive that we were not doing to touch those numbers for international visitors,” muses Bhatia. “But the festival did. A thing that naturally emerged is that for this edition, we have a lot of collaborations with Indian artists. This is part of the growth of the landscape and ecosystem, where all people want to collaborate, including Indians, which was not the case 10 years ago. We will see more Indian artists, but we also see as many international artists as we have seen earlier. I think we have a more mature programme.”

Bhatia feels that the experience of the lockdown and Jodhpur RIFF being one of the festivals that has been able to return, there is a greater interest in the festival. “There is more acknowledgement internationally than we had. Whether that will translate into a more international audience, time will tell.”

  • Asin Khan Langa is one of the star performers this year

Going strong

A decade-and-a-half is significant enough time for a festival and Bhatia takes time out to dwell on its legacy. “In these years, the national and international landscape for the folk artist has changed and we have been instrumental in facilitating some of that change. We were amongst the first, not just as a music festival, just as an international music festival, but also the only festival that really put its eggs into this basket in a town which nobody had on their radar including tourism, who only saw it as a half day destination. And 15 years later, many more of these Rajasthani folk artists are invited to festivals all over. The landscape has changed. Now these artists are in demand all over.”

Like many other festivals that were impacted by Covid induced lockdowns, RIFF too took a sabbatical for a couple of years. The festival made a return last year, with learnings from the downtime. “While we couldn’t do the festival for three years, we were able to support artists by raising money – about £40,000 and were able to support about 2,500 individuals – some for a few months, some for a little more” says Festival Director Divya Bhatia.

“What it brought home to us was how critical it was that the three pillars on which we have done the festival – getting them recognition, facilitating respect for what they are and what they do and then eventually some livelihood. That came home strongly. Some of the artists began to think of other professions – whatever they could get. We realised we had to become more relevant. Festivals have emerged – some better than others. What we are going to grow into is important.”

Bhatia also points out that there is greater hope that many of these folk artists will continue the lineage of traditional music, whose demise seemed imminent a few years ago. “There’s hope. People like Mamme (Khan) Kutle (Khan) have become visible. It has given younger musicians hope, a sense of purpose.” As audiences gather once again in Jodhpur, that is a legacy any cultural institution, especially a festival can rightly take a bow for.

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