Divya Bhatia: “Folk music and classical music have a lot to gain from each other”


You have been a festival director with Jodhpur RIFF since 2008. How do you maintain your enthusiasm every year?

It’s not hard to get excited about good music and fantastic musicians. And there are so many in Rajasthan, India and around the world! A key luxury of my job is also its main challenge – listening to and watching hundreds of wonderful artists perform, then choosing just a few each year to present at Jodhpur RIFF. We were able to introduce so many great artists and forms of music to our audience. The gems of this year’s itinerary include tales and songs by community elders Langa, Yurdal Tokcan, Emlyn, SAZ (Sadiq Khan, Asin Khan, Zaqir Khan) and Citadels of the Sun.

Many performers this year sang the verses of Bhakti and Sufi poets such as Mirabai, Kabir, Dadu, Khusrau, Gorakhnath and Bulleh Shah. What makes this poetry resonate with contemporary audiences?

We are all sentient beings endowed with a spirit, governed in large part by a universal energy which passes through us all but which is not of our making. This spirit needs to circulate but also to nourish itself. The timeless words of our holy poets to profoundly simple tunes, performed by superb artists, provide this nourishment – across generations, regardless of creed, gender or social status.

Your last festival was in 2019. How have Jodhpur RIFF and the Mehrangarh Museum Trust supported musicians and other artists during the Covid-19 pandemic?

I was able to raise a decent amount of money on behalf of Jodhpur RIFF through our festival audiences, patrons, partners, friends and supporters under the Mehrangarh Museum Trust. A few members of the team have been involved in helping artists spread across 60 villages in Rajasthan – mainly food aid, but also financial and medical aid. Intermittently, over a 14-month period, three cycles of assistance were provided. We were able to positively impact nearly 2,000 families.

What is the cultural significance of hosting this festival around Sharad Poornima?

We are all related to the moon in one way or another. Our panchang reflects the importance of the moon in our lives. Farmers everywhere follow the weather and the seasons with the moon. Cultures around the world, whether through science or myth, recognize and value the importance of the moon. Recognized as the brightest moon in northern India, Sharad Poornima signifies renewal and continuity. It is the perfect metaphor for our work with the traditional artists of Rajasthan.

A dawn music session at Jodhpur RIFF (Jodhpur RIFF/OIJO)

The Jodhpur RIFF is primarily a music festival, but the lineup includes dance, puppetry and storytelling. What made you realize that this synergy of forms could be appreciated?

Modern societies have learned to enjoy life in an abstract and fragmented way, often creating specializations and separations where none existed before. So it’s great to be able to develop a festival that celebrates the unity of the arts, with music at its heart. There was a time when the whole company lived in holistic congruence and their songs and music reflected essential connections rather than synergy. I like to think that, in their own way, the public can experience this at Jodhpur RIFF.

How do you strike a balance between bringing back popular acts that get applause and whistles and introducing audiences to artists that have an acquired taste?

It’s not a balance; it is a cycle. What is an acquired taste today may become popular demand tomorrow, provided the conditions and experience are right. If an artist or form of music feeds the public today, they will gladly take more tomorrow. This is how we developed an audience with a taste for the energy of Jodhpur RIFF’s living roots, global conservation and exciting collaborations. No headliners, no celebrities, no recorded music. However, this does not happen overnight.

Given your experience in theater and cinema as an actor and producer, what advice do you offer to performers in terms of stage presence and interaction with the public?

I rarely do. Occasionally, I’ve asked performers to smile a little more or look the viewers in the eye. Most folk musicians in Rajasthan have incredible talent and such vibrant, lively and visceral energy that there is a lot to be learned from them as performers.

It seems that Jodhpur RIFF would be of interest to scholars of ethnomusicology, performance studies, literature and folklore. Tell us about any books, films or research studies that have emerged in response to the festival with the public.

Three different movies come to mind. Partners in Crime is a documentary film by Paromita Vohra on copyright issues. The Lost Music of Rajasthan, directed by Jill Nicholls, is a BBC documentary about the philosophy of our work and the festival. Don Coutts To the west is a documentary about a Scottish band called Shooglenifty, their frontman Angus Grant, and their connection with musicians from Rajasthan and the Jodhpur RIFF festival.

Musician Yourdal Tokcan, one of the “jewels of this year’s itinerary”. (Jodhpur RIFF/OIJO.)

Are you making a concerted effort to destabilize the folk/classical binary? What kind of challenges and support do you encounter?

This binary is truly unhappy, and it comes with immense social baggage, which easily throws it off balance. Unfortunately, it is the musicians who have to carry this baggage. I’m sure stories abound, but here’s a related anecdote: I remember producing a shraddhanjali concert, the very first performance at the NCPA after the Mumbai attacks in 2008.

The idea was to start a dialogue between two masters of folk and classical sarangi and have them play together – Padma Shri Lakha Khan Manganiyar on the Sindhi Sarangi and the late Padma Bhushan Ustad Sultan Khan on his classical avatar; both artists from Rajasthan, and both extremely respectful of each other. But when I first broached the idea with them, none were enthusiastic. Lakahaji said “Kaise hoga yeah?” (How will that be possible?) Ustad Sahab laughed disdainfully and said “Ya folk classic ko kha jaayega, ya folk classic ko.(Either classical will devour folk, or vice versa). We had actually witnessed something exactly like this at the very first RIFF in Jodhpur the year before.

What I mean here is that tackling this question is like chipping away at a delicate stone sculpture. You have to be extremely careful not to damage the core of the material. And yet, the greatest resistance comes from the material itself. In this case, it’s the artist. So the real challenge is to create a safe space for artists to explore this dynamic together on their own. And rather than seeing folk and classical as chalk and cheese, they themselves are ready to discover and unravel the immense musical richness that exists within the dynamic. I believe that each of them has a lot to gain from the other.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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