Long known for its forts and food, Jodhpur is now home to several musical ventures, viz. Chaandni concerts at the Desert Rock Park and the upcoming Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) in October
The Manganiar of Rajasthan are now known the world over by aficionados of folk music. The Festivals of India took them to the West in the 1980s and they haven’t looked back since. But renown beyond the borders of Rajasthan — in the rest of India and abroad — has changed the music. And something precious is at risk of being left behind forever
Popular demand for particular songs and styles of rendition has always shaped folk music. Musicians have continually adapted elements from other traditions. The problem arises when musicians play to the gallery alone, compromising on the depth and details of their art because audiences only want to hear ‘greatest hits’. This is the predicament before the Manganiar, whose concerts aren’t considered complete unless they sing ‘Kesariya Baalam’ and ‘Damadam Mast Kalandar’. Thousands of Manganiar songs passed down over generations have been pushed aside to make space for these two. And the irony is that ‘Damadam’ is not even a Rajasthani song; it celebrates a saint from Sindh. But when the industry packages them all into one undifferentiated category called Sufi music, these distinctions are simply swept away.
Reversing this trend, reviving songs and styles by encouraging musicians to revisit their repertoire is difficult. But there is now a small, yet growing, audience that wants more than the signature tunes. And the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park in Jodhpur has become the venue for a series of monthly concerts that does just that. The Chaandni concerts unfold as dusk falls and the full moon rises. At one end of a small amphitheatre open to the skies, the musicians sit on a low stage. Behind them looms a floodlit Mehrangarh Fort, the rugged majesty of its ramparts crowned by filigreed canopies and jharokhas.
And then Mame Khan starts to sing, the melody aimed across the desert, carrying on the wind without need of amplification. Ghamse Khan’s bow traces the voice on his kamaicha, the strings yielding a sound that seems like the desert distilled. And when their notes have laid down a shimmering path in the air, Shafi Khan’s khadtaal and Roshan Khan’s dholak join in. Virtuoso playing brings to life uncommon songs about rites of passage, praise for a patron, the story of a saint who brought a child back from the dead. This is western Rajasthan’s cultural memory, the Manganiar its guardians. His late father Rana Khan is counted among the great Manganiar singers and Mame Khan must keep his legacy alive. The future of their tradition is present this evening in the form of Dayam Khan and Roope Khan, tiny boys under oversized turbans, looking up intently at their fathers’ and uncles’ faces, singing their heart out when it is their turn.
The Chaandni concerts were curated by Pradip Krishen, naturalist and filmmaker, bringing together two of his passions, the flora and the music of the desert. Jodhpur’s Desert Rock Park is his creation, its grasses and shrubs an invitation to look at the desert anew, to appreciate how life triumphs in the harshest terrain. The rolling landscape of the Park provides a marvellous airy setting for music which is as unique to this place as are the rocks and plants.
The same venue will be used for some concerts during the upcoming Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) in October. Here, Manganiar groups will play their own repertoire and also jam with other musicians, khadtaal meeting flamenco castanets, kamaicha encountering the rabab (Daud Khan Sadozai from Afghanistan, a noted rabab player, will be there).
Jodhpur has a lot to offer the tourist: stunning architecture, great food, antique furniture and small town warmth. And now, a garden and a music festival add to its charms.