The state of Rajasthan – a land route for trade and culture between the Arab world and Asia – could obsess a musicologist for an entire lifetime. With the right guidance, at every five paces you can meet singing genealogists and poetic percussionists, flute-playing farmers and dancing snake priests, living alongside child stars and living legends.
In 2011, I created the Rajasthani Musical Adventure to show off the region’s traditional Indian music. I planned a people-led pilgrimage to the RIFF festival, starting in Delhi and heading west via the musical villages, shrines and characters that feed the festival its musical delights. In the first of a two-part series, I’ll take you behind the scenes to discover how I made the connections (by accident and design) to formulate my Rajasthani music tours.
Hosting a musical pair in Delhi
Roshani and her husband live in Shimla village in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati district, just over half way from Delhi to the Pakistan border. I’d met them a few times at performances organised by the Jaipur Virasat Foundation and enjoyed Roshani’s powerful, childlike but rough-edged voice, and Mahendra’s joyful dancing. I invited them to perform at Shalom – a swanky bar with a good taste in music in the affluent Greater Kailash area of Delhi – with the understanding that I would travel home with them the following day.
The musicians were met by a taxi at the station, driven to south Delhi to change, wash and scatter biscuit crumbs all over my shared house while Shamsundar, their two-year-old son, had a lovely time wandering around the house in nothing but a string waist band. None of my housemates seemed to object and they clapped as Roshani emerged from the bathroom looking fabulous in her red and gold ghagra, choli and odhani, the pleats of which filled up most of the car as we drove to the venue.
Roshani and Mahendra (Photo: Georgie Pope)
It was a great party. The meticulously smart Delhi set bought plenty of drinks and jumped around delightedly in a very urban club, to very rural folk music. Roshani and her husband Mahendra were the stars. They enjoyed seeing their own faces printed on the marketing materials, liked all those rich people enjoying their music and they hadn’t minded, it seemed, the fact that we’d had to keep Shamsundar shut in the car outside the club because he was too young.
We slept at around 1am, and a few hours later, I awoke to the not unpleasant sensation of the minuscule Roshani walking across my back. It was a free massage and a wordless “time to get up you lazy city type; it’s way after dawn”.
After breakfast, we piled into an autorickshaw and jumped on the fabulously shiny and air-conditioned Delhi Metro. Roshani and her family had never seen anything like it, and our small group alternated between excitement and hilarity. After adventures on the escalators, balancing children and harmoniums, we were just settling onto a train, when an announcement came over the speakers:
“It is forbidden to play your music on Delhi metro. Do not play your music while on Delhi metro.”
Roshani and Mahendra, the only musicians on the train, giggled with embarrassment and shook their heads at the other passengers in reassurance.
We got off at Nangloi Metro station – to the far west of Delhi – and sat in wait for our next train. People on the station became intrigued. What was a single female foreigner doing crouching next to these thin, dark village people? A group began to gather to ask questions: “Who is she? Who are you? Where are you travelling to and why?”
It wasn’t enough to say that we were friends, or even colleagues. People wanted reasons and one man, with no authority whatsoever as far as I could tell, wanted to see ID. The questioning group formed a tight, stifling ring, which thickened as more people wanted to know what the fuss was about.
Denied the gauzy protection of a head scarf afforded to all the other women on the station, Roshani included, I waved an irritable hand at the spectators, and told them in ragged Hindi to get lost. Half the crowd agreed that this was fair enough so, without moving, they proceeded to yell at the other half. People started to get angry. I heard a huge hullabaloo coming from the outskirts of the crowd and little boys started to fly off in all directions. Two rough-looking guards became visible, and they were smacking the inquisitive commuters with thick lathis (batons).
Once he’d busted his way to the site of interest, the guard took in the situation with a quick glance: “You can’t play your music here, it gets people too excited.”
“We weren’t playing, brother. We were just sitting,” Mahendra replied reasonably.
The guard had to do something to show he was in control, so he marched us to the stationmaster’s office, where we were offered tea and asked all the same questions in a marginally more official manner.
Opening melons and baring bottoms in Shimla
When we finally got on the next train, I started to ask a few questions of my own. I knew Roshani and Mahendra weren’t from a traditional musical lineage and had to sustain the family by doing some tailoring and other part-time work. Most of the hereditary musician castes – the Manganiyars, Langas, Dhadhis and Dholis – came from the western parts of Rajasthan. Roshani was from a part of the state where there were fewer professionals. What else then, did they do?
Mahendra started to explain, but there was one key word in Hindi that we both knew I was missing. Mahendra kept repeating it, gesturing fervently towards the land we were passing and then smacking his left elbow into his upturned right hand. Roshani took up the action, nodding enthusiastically. This, then, was what they did for a living. I was still a little confused.
It took us all day, after three trains, two buses and a hitch-hike, to reach their cousin’s home in Shimla (they said their house was too poor for me to stay in), so by the time we arrived it was incredibly dark. There were no street lamps and only dim gaslight at the house. As I ate my very late but tasty dinner, and drank a little of the cousin’s whisky, I gradually made out my surroundings. I was in a neatly swept mud-and-dung courtyard surrounded by rough fencing on three sides, and a house and lean-to barn on the fourth. About sixteen people of all different ages slept in twos and threes on charpoys (four-legged woven beds). I was to share my bed with Roshani – about three parts Georgie to one part Roshani.
Photo: Georgie Pope
After finally dozing off around 3am, I was woken just minutes later by large splots of rain falling on my face. Refusing to acknowledge them, I snuggled under my gradually soaking blanket until I was given a firm shake by Roshani who explained in her sweet and somewhat amused voice that we all needed to move our beds into the stinky barn next door. All sixteen of us lay in a snug row, next to the animals. It soon became unbearably hot, so the minute the rain eased off, the process was reversed and everyone sleepily but efficiently arranged themselves outside again.
Very few minutes later, I was woken by an urgent whisper.
To begin with I didn’t know what they were saying, this bright-eyed posse of women hissing at me in the middle of the night. When I caught on, I continued to pretend I hadn’t. Shirking what might have been a very singular experience of female bonding, I turned over and feigned sleep. The women hovered a moment, and then filed off to make their “letrine” before dawn could reveal the row of bare backsides along the ridge.
I spent a lovely day touring Roshani’s village and the surrounding ket, a smallholding of agricultural land. The area is incredibly flat and sandy – if it weren’t for the heat haze you would be able to see for miles. In small woven huts dotted across the land, that I initially mistook for haystacks, I met the extended family when they stopped for shade, between hours of sweaty work harvesting the melons that make a quick lush appearance at this time of year, and then vanish, leaving the land yieldless until next year.
Suddenly, Mahendra’s face cleared of confusion.
“She doesn’t know how to open a melon,” he said to everyone with delight written across his leathery face. Balancing the melon in his right hand, he brought his left elbow smartly down with a crack on its crown. The melon split in several places and he easily tore off a moon-shaped chunk for me to eat. This, then, was how they opened melons and this gesture was how one mimed the word “melon”. “Matera” they’d been saying to me on the train, wildly slapping elbows into palms. Ma-te-ra. Got it.
Finally I was allowed to visit Roshani and Mehendra’s small concrete home. On the edge of the village, it was certainly very simple, but it looked out onto a charming garden with a pretty tree shading two charpoys (beds). Mahendra spent a nerve-wracking half hour attaching a wire to a nearby power cable with the crafty use of a bent coat hanger and a huge bendy pole. When the standalone fan whirred to life Roshani and Mehendra settled down to play me some devotional temple songs in the dappled shade.
I had arrived, I knew, at the perfect choice for the first stop on the Great Rajasthani Musical Adventure.
Snakes, tourists, and the gypsy dancers of Jaipur
Anyone who has set foot in Rajasthan, stepping from a ‘Golden Triangle’ tour bus or heaving a backpack from train station to crawling hostel, will have encountered a member of the Kalbeliya community – the ‘gypsies’ of north-western India. These nomadic people are India’s snake catchers, singers and storytellers, purveyors of anti-venom and players of the pungi (a wind instrument) in Jaipur. You may have been dragged up to dance with the female dancers spinning and gyrating in glittery disco versions of traditional Rajasthani wear or drawn in by a withered old man entrancing a snake with his wailing gourd-pipe. These are the Kalbeliyas, also known as Saperas, and it’s their business to know when you’re in town.
In 1972, urged by animal rights activists, the Government of India issued a directive banning the practice of removing snakes from the wild. The methods used by some snake charmers to render these reptiles harmless by breaking their fangs and destroying their venomous sacs, was – and still is – considered barbaric. The stigma of untouchability among this community was further compounded with a loss of employment.
Before they were entertainers, the Kalbeliyas performed the useful task of catching the reviled reptiles – at one time one of the biggest killers in rural India. They had a vast hereditary knowledge of poisons and cures, and they were called upon to remove snakes from people’s homes without killing them. Since the 1972 ban, they had to innovate and so turned to their traditional songs and dances to entertain tourists. Some, like the world famous Gulabi Sapera, have gone on to create fabulous collaborations with international musicians such as Flamenco guitarist Titi Robin. Though it has only emerged in hotel lobbies and train stations in a highly refined and stylized format since the seventies, the dance – a spinning, shoulder-jigging, hip-gyrating celebration of sensuality – has been appropriated as a traditional dance of Rajasthan.
The relative newness of their tradition notwithstanding, Kalbeliya dance is an important part of Rajasthan’s cultural scene, and I couldn’t go any further on the Rajasthan Musical Adventure without a spin with a Sapera.
“Once again, I found myself in bed with a Rajasthani artist”
In 2008 I had worked on a collaboration between a group of artists known as the Kawa Brass Band – a mad conglomerate of wedding band trumpeters, singers and dancers (regular performers at Womad and the Theatre and Circus Fields at Glastonbury) – and a Hungarian gypsy band called Parno Graszt. The dancer with them was called Suji Sapera: the most incredibly sparkly woman I’d ever seen. Lithe and thin, she carried off the hundred-weight sequinned and tassled dress with the same ease as if it had been a leotard. The gypsy beats of Parno Graszt threw her into confusion for a fraction of a second, but she stuck on her performance smile and soon her hip was jutting in vigorous time to the music of her very distant gypsy cousins.
At the end of the show, the event organizers realized that their accommodation arrangements had not – as usual – catered for the fact that there was a female performer amongst the group. The options were to bundle Suji in four-to-a-room with all these sweaty men, or for her to share with me. And so, once again, I found myself in bed with a Rajasthani artist, but this time there was a bathroom en suite.
So in 2012, in the grounds of the gorgeously refurbished Hotel Diggi Palace (also home to the yearly international literary bonanza the Jaipur Literature Festival), to test out the second stop of my journey, I introduced some travellers to a family of dancers and musicians from a nearby dera (temporary road-side encampment). It was dark, so the hotel staff – with the ingenuity and freedom from health and safety concerns typical to good Indian hoteliers – quickly rigged up an outdoor spotlight for the show.
The travellers – matching the performers in number – sat politely on their seats as the musicians started to play. They shielded themselves from any initial embarrassment with cameras and mobile phones. The gourd pipes wailed into the night, and – without a castrated snake in sight – the group began to be drawn in by the mystical beauty of the sounds, they slowly got to their feet and were then grasped by the hands of the Kalbeliya girls, determined to make them dance.
Tourists are one of the Kalbeliya’s main sources of income, which has the potential for the worst sort of exotica-moneybags relationship and exploitation by middlemen. But tonight, I felt, was an evening of mutual respect. The Kalbeliyas had done an incredible feat by transforming themselves from a twice-maligned people into the purveyors of one of India’s proudest art forms and my guests proved themselves a worthy audience by absolutely outdoing themselves on the dance floor.
We spun and grooved until we were sweating and exhaustedly fell into our seats as the music abated. This, I thought, was the perfect Venue Number Two.
Georgie Pope has been running musical tours of India for the past three years. Before that, she worked for the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) in Jodhpur, India, a celebration of music from the north-western desert state of Rajasthan, showcased annually in the magnificent cliff-top Mehrangarh Fort. In 2011, Georgie created the Rajasthani Musical Adventure to show off these cultural riches. Head to her website to find out more.