Songs from the Desert

Soulful soiree: Dusk performances by a local music group


As the first rays of the sun dawn upon the Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur, exquisite strains of Rajasthani folk music permeate the dusty air. Though it is hardly six in the morning, the place is bustling with activity. With performances of over 300 folk artistes that had been spread over three days (23-26 October), there is understandably no time to lose. The Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) that has entered its tenth edition this year, just got bigger and better.

Endorsed by the UNESCO as a ‘people’s platform for creativity and sustainable development’,RIFF is going all out to locate and introduce local talent to the world at large. Acting as a bridge between the traditional folk singers and the international stage, Jodhpur Riff provides umpteen opportunities to these artistes, creating a space for future collaborations.

“The exposure I got through riff is amazing,” Multa Khan Manganiyar, a folk performer in RIFF tells Tehelka. “I have been travelling worldwide for concerts now with internationally acclaimed musicians and now people abroad know and respect me as an artiste.”

Rustle at Mehrangarh Fort


Traditional folk music, widely loved for its soulful rhythm, never fails to mesmerise. Though we are always lining up to lay claim upon it as our heritage, as something to be proud about, it is barely given its due in India. It is this gap that the riff seeks to bridge. “This festival is not at all a fruit, it is a seed,” says Divya Bhatia, artistic director and producer of riff. “We are providing the seeds, it is upto our audiences and artistes to make it fruitful and gain much from it.”

Sadly, local folk artists still face ridicule and contempt. “People ask me why our music is so important and whether its popularity stems out of sympathy,” discloses Manganiyar. “I don’t know how questions like that can be asked. This [folk music] is ours, it’s indigenous, it has been with us for decades. We have been practising it like any other musician.”

Ska Vengers


One of the usual accusations made against these artistes is that they hike up their fee substantially after they have been on a couple of foreign tours. Such increase in fee when demanded by popular musicians are not similarly questioned. In RIFF, the traditional folk musicians are treated at par with any other musician. The multiple interactions between international and traditional folk musicians, for one or more performances, give rise to immense opportunities, both for the artiste and for music as a whole.

So how does the RIFF showcase over 300 sprightly talents each year? It goes musician shopping. Sifting out talents from villages where singing is an essential part of daily life, takes a lot of hard work for RIFF’s music interlocutors. If successful, the team convince the artiste to get onboard. Next, the biggest task still remains: getting international artistes or bands to collaborate with these homegrown artistes for one or many shows. The result has to be heard to be believed.

Papa Julius & Band


The riff is also developing as a space where one can let one’s hair down irrespective of their culture or musical preferences. “Years back, people stared at me even when I wore a T-shirt here,” Rehan, a native, tells Tehelka.” But now they know I don’t care about them. I enjoy this freedom.”

The kickoff day witnessed a crazy throng tapping to music that cuts across cultural boundaries. Offering a live demonstration of music fostering unity, Papa Julius played the reggae along with Rajasthani dhol drummers. Later, the drummers also teamed up with the African calypso for an astounding musical performance.

More than the joy it brings to audiences from round the world, it is the smile it brings to countless unknown yet talented folk artists that sets RIFF apart from all other musical festivals. “We were restricted to our villages for many years. But due to these kind of opportunities we are now getting more exposure and can proudly say we love the life we live,” says Manganiyar.

As the curtain came down on the tenth edition of the RIFF, words of English author, Aldous Huxley floated in the air: “From the bastions of the Jodhpur Fort, one hears as the Gods must hear from Olympus.” He couldn’t have sung a better tune.

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