With some fantastic music, a worthy purpose, and the odd mega rock star dropping in, the Rajasthan International Folk Festival in Jodhpur is a totally captivating experience
Around six o’clock, I got the call. I was enjoying a cold Kingfisher beer on the roof terrace of the Pal Haveli hotel. The panoramic vista made it a great spot to take in Jodhpur’s sunset, a mellow backdrop to the bustling streets below. It was a delightful evening, with calming blue skies. The orange sun was making its final descent behind the imposing Mehrangarh Fort, spreading a beautiful array of warm colours across the city’s sprawling, arid terrain. Soon, the brightest full moon in the Hindu Vedic calendar would hang in the sky, highlighting the opening night of the first Rajasthan International Folk Festival.
‘You are invited to join the king at his private drinks party tonight,’ said the voice on the other end of the phone, snapping me out my reverie. I assumed it was an elaborate wind-up from one of the Brits I had befriended. It wasn’t. It was, in fact, HH Gaj Singh, private secretary to the Maharaja of Jodhpur, delivering a genuine request. I finished my beer, lapped up the last of the day’s sedative sunshine and made my way to what was to be a night I will never forget: an evening of kings, rock legends and some very fine music.
Since my days in Toploader, I’ve acquired a love of travel and a penchant for world music. A four-day extravaganza of folk music, arts and crafts in Rajasthan at the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort sounded captivating – especially as I hadn’t had the pleasure of visiting India before. Jodhpur is a delightful city and a great introduction to this sensuously rich country. The constant honking of hundreds of rickshaw horns, delicious Indian cuisine, cows wandering the dusty streets and strange scents filling the air make it a unique and raw experience.
With a population of a mere one million, Jodhpur is far more manageable than some of India’s bigger cities. And there’s no doubt that it’s also a staggering beauty. Situated on the eastern fringe of the Thar Desert and known as ‘the blue city’ after the bright indigo wash of the houses, Jodhpur is the second largest city in the northern state of Rajasthan. Despite the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it has a distinctly rural feel, with the local people, the Marwaris, offering a warm welcome to the tourists and other visitors who pass through.
The centrepiece of the city and setting of the festival, the Mehrangarh Fort sits high on the sheer-sided sandstone outcrop. The fort ceased to be the royal residence back in 1947 when the maharajas moved to the Umaid Bhawan Palace, one of the largest, most opulent palaces in Asia, which also functions as a hotel and is, fortuitously, where I am staying during the folk festival. The moment I arrived, the doormen with their Jodhpur moustaches (the curly sergeant-major type) made me feel stately. The rooms are large, with gorgeous king-sized beds and modern touches, but it’s the views of the city that steal the show.
The Oxford-educated maharaja, or Bapji as he is affectionately known, still lives in the west wing of the palace. I’d heard he is a bit of a character, highly respected among the community and has friends in high places. (He hosted Liz Hurley’s wedding at his palace.) For the past two days, rumours had been flying round that Mick Jagger (my all-time hero) had flown into Jodhpur for the event. Bapji is the managing trustee of the Mehrangarh Fort Trust, dedicated to the preservation of Rajasthan’s traditional arts and crafts. The festival aims to boost the livelihoods of the talented musicians and craftspeople of Rajasthan, who are facing poverty with the loss of traditional patronage and the erosion of rural communities. Folk music is becoming increasingly marginalised here and in danger of becoming extinct. An endorsement from Mr Jagger would surely go a long way towards securing a bright future for the festival.
After the phone call from the maharaja’s secretary, I made my way to the fort. The drinks party was taking place after the festival’s opening procession – and what an opening. All the stops were pulled out to create an unforgettable visual experience. I entered the grand gates, lined with royal guards holding flame torches, and joined the large procession preparing to ascend the cobbled path winding up to the fort’s roof.
I struggled to keep up with the captivating performances along the way. Devotional Terah Taali dancers, dressed in long, brightly-coloured, pleated skirts, hypnotically struck cymbals to the accompaniment of drums. Further along, Ghoomar folk dancers spun and pirouetted under the moonlight. In one beautifully decorated doorway, I noticed a gaggle of street performers dressed in white robes. Sitting cross-legged, deep in concentration, some beat skinned finger drums while others wailed in prayer. My legs began to tire with the steep climb to the roof, but the summit was close.
Perfectly groomed camels dressed in glittering jewels stood near the top. They seemed to be the only living creatures unaffected by all the commotion. It was a spellbinding affair, accentuated by the
towering ramparts of the imposing fort. Looking up, the sandstone edifice was dizzyingly impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a spectacle quite as magical.
It had been a torrid attack on the senses, and I was gasping for a cold beer. My appointment with the maharaja was pending, and I felt a little Dutch courage wouldn’t go amiss either. The festival bar was situated at the top of the fort, and the view of the city through the turrets is jaw-dropping, with the twinkling of the street lights fizzling into the horizon. Swallows flew overhead. It was as romantic a setting as you could imagine.
The main concert that night, The Grandeur of Maand, was held at Singar Choki Chowk, a courtyard where the maharaja’s accession took place in 1952 when he was four years old. Maand is an elegant form of court singing that flourished under the patronage of the Rajput kings, and songs are usually about bravery, drinking, separation or unrequited love. Vidya Rao sang to an eclectic crowd in a spellbinding performance of subtle quality. The natural acoustics in this fort are outstanding. The first concert was a runaway success and had set a mind-blowing standard.
As the satisfied audience made their way from the fort, I held back for my private drinks party with Bapji. Soon I was shown to a small doorway where, earlier, an old man had been serving opium tea. I was ushered to a private terrace with sublime views of the fort. There were around 20 guests (dressed more smartly than I was) flitting from one group to another, sipping G&Ts. ‘The king has asked for the journalist who’s writing about the festival,’ claimed an official-looking guard. As I was led nearer to the small group, I noticed the maharaja chatting to a very familiar figure – my hero, Mick Jagger. My heart started to beat a little faster. The Rolling Stones were one of the main reasons for me taking up the guitar. I felt I owed him. He was warm and welcoming, as was the maharaja. We exchanged our views on the evening’s music and how beautiful it had been.
The next day I woke late and enjoyed a long brunch at the hotel’s serene restaurant, Pillars. The festival is spread out at a leisurely pace over three days and four nights, providing plenty of time to fit in all the concerts and workshops. The workshops start at 10am each day, showcasing local skills that have been nurtured for generations, such as block printing, jewellery lacquering, instrument design and puppetry. All are available to try with the assistance of some seriously talented craftspeople. Later in the afternoon, I attended the block printing workshop, which turned out to be much harder than I had anticipated, but thoroughly interesting.
It’s the evening shows where the musical magic is made. The fort comes alive at nightfall, with the romantic torch-lit walkways and arenas a perfect setting for the musicians. The former royal apartments and gardens, screened verandas, courtyards, terraces and ramparts of the fort are all used as locations.
By day three, I found myself fully immersing into the festival workshops, daring to try such alien skills as bead-painting and even henna-tattooing. With all the great music buzzing around my head,
I plucked up the courage to learn the impossible-looking Indian lute, much to the amusement of a growing group of English tourists. Let’s just say my competency on the guitar sadly didn’t translate. The workshops are a great way for festival-goers to interact and learn more about the culture and offer an alternative to watching the concerts.
The final concert before I headed home was the largest. It was held at the Old Zenana Courtyard, which had been converted into a 500-seat main stage. The Indian Ocean band, with their pumping rock fusion sound, had people dancing on their chairs. They combined the improvisational depths of Indian classical music and the cathartic intensity of rock to create an electrifying sound. It was the perfect way to wrap up the extremely successful festival.
After yet another enjoyable evening I sat back and tried to digest just how phenomenal the festival had been. It had not only been one of the most surreal and enchanting festivals in the world, but I had met my hero and spoken with a king! I thought about what Bapji had said that first evening. He highlighted his wish for word of this festival to spread and for it to grow. I think he will get his wish. It is a mesmerizing experience, full of colour, atmosphere and, above all, sublime music that I am sure will be heard for many years to come.