A heady five-day affair embracing the rich musical roots of Rajasthan, the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, aka ‘RIFF’, is one of India’s most innovative and intriguing festivals. Co-Founder Madeleine Hann recently spent a night in Jodhpur to catch the 2016 RIFF and here’s how her experience went:
Held at the majestic 17th century Mehrangarh Fort in the Blue City of Jodhpur, which Rudyard Kipling referred to as “the work of angels, fairies and giants”, RIFF brings together more than 250 musicians and performers from both Rajasthan and across the world. International artists join hands with local musicians to create new sounds through innovative collaborations.
Jodhpur is, for many, a must when visiting Rajasthan, and epitomizes all that the region is best known for; from golden deserts and crumbling forts, to luxurious palaces and opulent hotels. Uniquely, it still has its own living royal family and ruling maharaja, descendants of ancient dynasties who have passed down rich cultural legacies, and a vibrant cultural scene bursting with music and dance. The Jodhpur RIFF was created by the current maharaja, HH Gaj Singh II, in order to provide a stage to the region’s hugely talented but largely unheard folk musicians, as well as to bring life and visitors back into their magnificent 15th century fort. Rolling Stones’ front man, Sir Mick Jagger, is the International Patron.
Timed to coincide with Sharad Purnima, the brightest full moon of the year in north India, the dates of the Jodhpur RIFF are slightly different each year, though always fall in the month of October.
Having arrived at the fort in the afternoon, I was immediately whisked off to my luxury tent by a bumpy Jeep ride through the ramparts. During the festival, the maharaja (or rather his hotel group, Jodhana Heritage) pitches 20 luxury tents inside the fort; very convenient for those who want to embrace every moment of the festival, as I did. Each spacious tent is carpeted and fitted with all the amenities one would expect of a hotel, including an en-suite bathroom, air-conditioning, and a comfy bed. At the far end of the campsite, meals are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner under a billowing canopy, with views over the blue-painted walls of the city below.
First on my itinerary was to explore the museum portion of the fort. This would be my fourth time at the museum though it never gets any less magical for me. It’s widely and justly considered to be the best of Rajasthan’s many palace museums, boasting a rich and varied collection including a golden throne, miniature paintings, centuries-old textiles and fascinating weaponry. A highlight is the splendid 18th century Phool Mahal (or Flower Palace in English), and the 19th century Takhat Mahal, which was the rulers chamber and is elaborately decorated with fine miniature paintings of Hindu gods, goddesses and dancing maidens. The interesting glass baubles hanging from the ceiling were added in the 1930s. Thanks to RIFF, throughout the day a variety of traditional Rajasthani dances were performed throughout the museum; from the martial looking Gair dancers, to the joyful Chang Nritya.
As dusk approached I caught the Living Legends II performance. A hundred or so of us seated around the chattri (dome) were treated to 90 minutes of Sufi poetry and vocals from Sawan Khan Manganiyar. Reclining on white linen cushions and soaking up the spell-binding sound of the Manganiyars, whilst a huge bright moon lit the night sky above, I knew I was somewhere special. I don’t think there could be a place more enchanting than this for a music festival, where beyond the makeshift stage the magical Mehrangarh Fort looms before me.
I then headed to the main stage – the Old Zenana Courtyard – for the evening’s main event, which kicked off with a haunting performance by the Manganiyars playing the kamaycha. Unique to Rajasthan, the kamaycha is today one of the world’s rarest instruments, and we were treated to a performance by one of its few living masters and arguably the most skillful, Ghewar Khan Manganiyar. The Kamaycha is a stringed instrument played with a bow, made of mango wood, and covered with goat’s skin. A small number of strings are made from goat intestine, whilst the other strings are made of steel. The sound of these weird and wonderful instruments echoing off the fort walls was an unforgettable experience.
The evening continued with Ross Daly and Kelly Thoma, from Crete, performing the lyre (the lyre is a Greek pear-shaped, three-stringed bowed instrument, central to the traditional music of Crete) Later, Ben Walsh, from Australia, collaborated with master percussionists of Rajasthan. DJ Dolphin Boy, inspired by the groove-based scene of the 60s and 70s, had us dancing on the ramparts until the early hours.
The next morning, before catching my flight back to Delhi I had time to attend the In Residence segment at Chokelao Bagh. During this intimate and focussed session, Dr. Vijay Verma introduced the audience to an eye-popping number of brilliantly named unique local instruments; including the algoza, the nah, the murla and many more. Rarely heard or played today, the Jodhpur RIFF plays an integral part in keeping the fast-disappearing traditions of Rajasthan’s desert people alive. Speaking on the significance of Jodhpur RIFF, HH Gaj Singh II said,
“The Rajasthani folk musicians are at the core of Jodhpur RIFF. It is important that they feel a sense of pride and dignity, a sense of home and are able to present what their peers and elders consider authentic. At the same time, they realise that there are opportunities for them as artists in their own right — to create and to collaborate with exemplary musicians from across Rajasthan and around the world. And Jodhpur RIFF gives them both, this is why festivals like Jodhpur RIFF are important.”
When to go
In 2017, the Jodhpur RIFF will be held from the 5th – 9th October.
Where to rest your head
To really be at the heart of the action, we’d recommend staying at the Royal Tents inside Mehrangarh Fort. Or, for true opulence, stay at the Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace, a 20th century art deco palace which is still home to the maharaja himself (albeit in a private wing!). Raas is a personal favourite of ours, offering one of the most spectacular hotel views in Rajasthan.
We’d love to assist with the planning of your holiday to Rajasthan. At Indian Excursions, all our tours are private and tailor-made to suit your individual tastes, budget and requirement. To get started, please do get in touch. Or, for inspiration, you might like to browse our suggested RIFF 2017 itinerary by clicking here.