A Fort Full of Folk

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At the inaugural Jodhpur Flamenco & Gypsy Festival
So you’re in Jodhpur in a pair of juttis, standing in a rickety old elevator surrounded by minor royalty and celebrity in silk and pearls, ascending to a pigeon-infested, cannon- studded terrace at the Mehrangarh Fort where you are able to witness a sunset of staggering beauty.

And if you promise the gentleman in jodhpurs that you absolutely will not infiltrate the VIP cocktail party up ahead, you might find yourself walking the fort’s spectacular edge, wind- whipped, with the blue city below and strains of flamenco coming down the rampart through the VIP chatter.

It is this romantic atmosphere that makes the Jodhpur Flamenco & Gypsy Festival—and the other two music festivals held at the Mehrangarh fort—so appealing. Ordinarily, paying Rs 3,000 for an evening of music would seem thoroughly indulgent, if not slightly insane, but the fort is terribly persuasive.

Mehrangarh is the fortiest of forts. Its height, its labyrinthine multi-level structure, the intricacy of its stonework, the romance of its courtyards (pigeon shit and all)—it’s overwhelming to take in all at once. You’re almost grateful to be allowed in.

A fellow guest muses that it is only a matter of years before it becomes unsustainable to maintain, and is turned, like so many other forts and palaces, into a hotel. The kind of hotel, one imagines, that would require coffee-shop reservations for casual entry, and would remind you when you call to make them that there is a several hundred rupee minimum charge per person.

So when you shell out for tickets to the Jodhpur Flamenco & Gypsy Festival—or the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, or the World Sufi Spirit Festival—you are optimistic that your romantic consumer behaviour will go some way in ensuring that this feat of material beauty remains at least somewhat accessible to the non-silk-and-pearl public.

The Jodhpur Flamenco & Gypsy Festival aims to do a lot of things: to bring flamenco music and dance to India, to provide a platform for local Rajasthani musicians, to highlight the shared roots of the two and to facilitate collaborations between them; to trace the trajectory of ‘gypsy’ music across the world, to ‘present a more contemporary view of desert music and dance’, and to keep local folk music alive.

This is a tall order, but there is more. The festival’s artistic director, Roberto Nieddu, an Italian designer and music enthusiast, says the festival is only the first step in a long commitment to creating a platform for gypsy and folk culture. He intends to use the festival as a forum to find sponsors for an institute of study, which explains why it is such an opulent affair.

Chanda Chaudhary Barrai, director of VIP relations and programming for the festival, says it was her endeavour to create an exclusive experience—unlike most other music festivals in India, which she feels are mainly aimed at youth. Chaudhary, who seems to be somewhat of a high-society superstar, was responsible for bringing on board big-money sponsors, such as Chivas Regal and Vedanta, and inviting ‘patrons’— the carefully curated group of donor-VIPs whose money would make the festival possible.

This year, most patrons were invited, with the hope that they would become ambassadors for the festival; only six people actually bought the Rs 1,15,000 VIP weekend pass, which includes hotel, transport, music, food, drinks, pre-parties, after parties, a table in the raised VIP area at the back of the vast courtyard that houses the main stage (from where, one imagines, VIPs must squint at the stage as they sip their Chivas), and access to an exclusive cigar lounge with a view of the stage through little arched windows.

This lavish experience is no doubt a way to persuade patrons to be patrons in the old sense—to part with their money for art. Art takes money. But seeing as Mehrangarh’s upkeep, too, relies on these festivals, it must also be true that art makes money. Wealth— whether private, corporate or royal— makes possible this festival, and director Nieddu is adamant it is necessary. He is conscious that it is expensive, but chalks it up to a cost of its existence.

Normal ticket holders are by no means ill-treated. They are allowed a free run of the courtyard, with a substantial bank of comfortable seats in the middle and several mattress-and- bolster set-ups off to one side. But they must pay for their drinks, and for their dinner—Rs 995 per plate. (Cigars are also on sale, for between Rs 8,000 and Rs 40,000 a box.)

In this plebeian marketplace, you might (if you’d studied the festival website) spot one of the 18 or so Spanish musicians and dancers hanging around, smiling broadly at the stage. You might catch folk-inspired dance performer Queen Harish passing by, glittering under a black cloak. You might meet a French traveller distraught at the difficulty of finding a decent bottle of red wine in the city.

The 20 or so Rajasthani musicians, all from the Muslim Langa community, are the hardest to run into, usually seen sitting in a row to the far right of the stage, slipping in and out of the black curtain behind which the musicians— perhaps the most excited of anyone— are preparing to perform.

Fusion of any sort can be a worrisome prospect. Too often motivated by a kind of fetish for art that can ‘transcend’ cultural specificity, it can turn into an exotic mish-mash. But if not to collaborate with local musicians, how does one justify flying a bunch of flamenco musicians into Jodhpur? And can either art form retain its impact displaced from its original context?

Flamenco, particularly, seems to be a form that resists the stage, though perhaps that’s another romantic notion. Watching guitarist Pepe Habichuela play with a slowly growing ensemble on the second night, it becomes apparent that flamenco is a total art form— visual, aural, physical, social. It is music and dance, melody and percussion, and neither is accessory to the other.

There appears to be no creative entropy either—each instrument adds to the richness and complexity of the music, each member contributing to a collective energy. Every mode of expression is utilised—dancers and vocalists clap rhythmically, musicians chatter at each other as they play, interjecting with exclamations of joy and encouragement. Several travellers in the audience call out too. ‘Ale guapa!’ yells a young woman rolling a cigarette in the chair next to me as a dancer strides on stage.

Several enthused audience members attempting to clap along on the first night discover quickly why calling out is a better expression of appreciation. With its complex rhythms and jazz- like improvisational quality, flamenco is not compatible with the standard 4/4 audience clap. Even the Langa musicians, having rehearsed their collaborations, sometimes fell out of joint with the flamenco players.

There were other awkward collaborations. The simultaneous appearance of flamenco bailaora Tamar Gonzalez and Kalbelia dancer Asha Sapera gave both their highly stylised forms the unfortunate air of interpretive dance, though it was the sort of thing that provoked the painted ladies in the second row to pinch out several ‘Superb, ya’s.

Earlier in the same performance, however, Gonzalez’s molasses-fluid movements paired beautifully with the long, sustained vocal laments of 12-year-old Langa vocalist, Abdul Khan. And on the second night, a jugalbandi between the utterly magnetic contemporary-flamenco dancer Karen Lugo and Langa kadtal player Jakir Khan elevated the collaboration from the realm of spectacle to experience.

Karen Lugo is 27, originally from Mexico, but living and performing in Madrid for the last decade. She has no contemporary training, but her dancing is nevertheless unmoored from the strict formalism of traditional flamenco. She is fluent in its rhythms and silhouettes, but appears to play fast and loose with its syntax.

Creeping onstage, she has the air of a praying mantis—a punched-up, almost sinister version of the already confrontational bearing of the flamenco bailaora. She dances with every sound, musician, rhythm and dancer onstage, responsive to everything. She comes on in a dress with a long ruffled train and it becomes its own entity— she kicks it, lifts it, whips it around. She points her hands like guns. She is sassy, intimidating, a flirt, a ham, a vamp, almost a vaudeville act, facing off with musicians, beguiling the audience. On the final night, hair loose, she seems almost to be dancing with the wind and the moon in addition to Jorge Pardo’s yearning flute and saxophone.

Lugo is proof that dancing is the best, and perhaps the only appropriate response to music.

On the final night, Tamar Gonzalez makes it seem like flamenco was intended to be danced to Rajasthani folk. Her hands are hypnotic—they seem to grab music from the air, curl it into the body as movement, and squeeze it back out toward the musicians.

These collaborations were all rehearsed for days before the festival, but in performance they feel like actual encounters, real conversations. It is here that the festival is at its best.

Roberto Nieddu’s home is part haveli part heaven. There is a four poster bed on the lawn, with white muslin drapes, right next to a shallow, meandering water body. Many of the festival’s star performers are lounging around the covered verandah dining area, puttering, chatting, drinking coffee out of chic stainless steel cups.

In a room full of Indian curiosities, no doubt collected over his 20 years living in India, Nieddu speaks passionately about the importance of preserving India’s rich cultural heritage. The Vedanta representative who spoke on the festival’s opening night invoked this same heritage, and affirmed Vedanta’s commitment to preserving it, as “a responsible corporate house”. (He also spoke of Rajasthan’s “huge wealth of natural resources”, with a markedly graver sense of commitment.) There is a sense of urgency underpinning Neiddu’s earnestness—a sense that something needs saving, and a failure to save it would be a loss to all.

A short while later at the fort, where the festival’s Langa musicians are sitting backstage having chai and kachoris for lunch, 23-year-old kadtal player Jakir Khan expresses his gratitude toward His Highness Maharaja Gaj Singh II (‘Baapji’) and Nieddu (who also refers to His Highness as Baapji). Khan was among the Langa contingent Nieddu took to a music festival in Murcia, Spain last August. This global exposure has given him a sense of optimism about his inherited, ancestral profession— and a great pride.

The day after the festival, I venture into the blue city I’ve been admiring from above. Most of it has only the quiet bustle of a Sunday morning, absent the exotic splendour represented at the fort to visitors. The previous night ended on a wild crescendo of music and applause, and both flamenco and Langa musicians dragged themselves reluctantly off the stage, some still singing ‘Avo ni mare des! Avo ni mare des!’