Exploring sacred music in Rajasthan

Earlier this year I attended the World Sacred Spirit Festival in Jodhpur, which fuses sacred ritual and music with a dash of the profane.

Lithuania’s Indrė Jurgelevičiūtė performs at the World Sacred Spirit Festival 2018

The sun is yet to rise and I’m in a tuk-tuk, rambling down back alleyways that split and wind like tributaries to a stream, passing cows and street dogs in the blue wash of Jodhpur’s Old City.

We’re headed for the opening performance of the World Sacred Spirit Festival. The venue is the Jaswant Thada; a tomb for a departed Rajasthani king made from layers of intricately carved white marble.

We sit at the foot of the cenotaph like loyal subjects, waiting as the still-hidden sun approaches the horizon. Lithuania’s Indrė Jurgelevičiūtė steps onto the stage. With streamers in her hair she strums an instrument resembling an ancient harp. The sound is full and resonant, rich in overtones, and with a twinkling metallic edge. As her voice slowly rises the temple behind begins to glow, taking on the orange light of the sunrise. The air is filled with small sparrows, tweeting tiny accompaniments.

Indrė’s voice is hard to place, hovering as it does between the sounds of the Mediterranean and Middle East. However her instrument — the kanklės — grounds her performance in European Paganism. Its a meditative instrument used for healing and protection. This morning it builds and fades in beautiful waves, melodies dancing over steady bass notes. As the sun stretches further across the city, birds flow across the sky, forming circles and spirals, settling in the trees and the mausoleum, as light slowly creeps across the marble staircase behind the artist.

When Indrė has finished, the sun has built into a blazing orange globe, amplified by a thick layer of pollution. I stare over the city a while before walking towards Mehrangarh Fort.

I could remember spotting it as we flew over. First there were miles of shrub and stone, and then the dry, red dirt of the Thar Desert. Then out of the haze came Jodhpur, radiating in the desert and clutching a few green fields. At its heart hulked Mehrangarh, towering over the surrounds.

The festival directs me to Chokhelao Bagh, a Rajput garden first planted in the mid 1700s and recently restored to its former glory. I walk along rows of banana palms and desert apple, pomegranate and orange trees, as women in striking red saris sweep the garden paths. Then, after purchasing tea in a terracotta cup, I sit in the shade before the stage.

Soon musicians from the nearby village of Barnawa — a small farming town in the heat of the desert — arrive with their instruments. They are Langas, a caste of Muslim musicians who have performed along bloodlines for generations. Music is not taught outside the caste, so the pressures of modernity alongside the fragmentation of their community has put their tradition under threat.

Eleven sit on the stage, each wearing a turban of riotous colour — rich reds, green, orange, fuchsia and yellow. Their white clothes are offset by intricately stitched decorative scarves, seemingly alive with colour.

Three men rest ancient looking sarangis on their shoulders and the sole of their feet. This beautiful, bowed stringed instrument mimics the grace and beauty human voice. Their divine cries provide the foundation of the Langa musical tradition, supported by percussion and five vocalists. One man plays wooden clappers called the kartal with considerable gusto, punching the air and leaping to his feet to accent poignant points of the performance.

As they perform the vocalists throw their arms in the air, flicking their hands in ritual movements, shouting, crying, wailing, signalling to the sky. I see a Westerner before me with eyes closed, hands moving in spirals, lost in some wonderful trance. His partner watches him for a moment, smiling, and then almost imperceptibly shakes her head.

I return to the Jaswant Thada at sunset, where Ariana Vafadari’s sings Zoroastrian prayers in a beautiful, operatic Persian style. As the bassist trails off, Ariana stands perfectly erect, staring inscrutable into the setting sun, her piercing black eyes showing small discs of light. As the coming night transformed the colours of the lake and sky, a flock of birds took to the air, punctuating the performance with the sound of two hundred flapping wings.

At night, the fort’s palace doors are opened to reveal marble rooms filled with food stalls and a well-stocked bar. I soak in the smell of dal, masala, paneer, curry and freshly toasted roti.

After filling my belly, I watch The Shahi Qawwals, a black-hatted group performing in front of an enormous projector screen. The performance is billed as an “immersive audiovisual experience with a Chishty Mehfil-e Samā”, and it doesn’t disappoint. When the Qawwali quietens the film takes over, immersing us in ritual imagery from Ajmer Sharif Dargah.

Leaving the fort is a beautiful sight. I linger over the twinkling lights over the city below, as a cool breeze runs through the air. Walking home, the gateways and arches of the fort are thrown into stunning relief.

With last night’s late finish, I’ve sadly missed the dawn performance, so I decide to take my time to enjoy breakfast overlooking the old city. A long, droning voice sounds in the distance, building echoes and choruses as the sound passes through the multiplicity of lanes and alleyways. Soon the voice is joined in a chorus which rises and and falls only to rise again. They are then swallowed up by half a dozen azaans sounding throughout the city.

I walk again through the lanes leading to the fort, greeting the locals, occasionally staring up at the eagles which circle overhead.

I arrive in time for The Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian Duduk Ensemble. They begin with a haunting, minimal drone, which gradually drifts into a mournful Armenian tune. As Haïg expands the melody, his accompanist holds his long, controlled drone, seemingly never taking a breath. The drone gently washes away my sense of time, and puts me in a trance. The effect is a beautiful sadness; a vision of this world and all its fleeting beauty, tragic but redeemed. When it is over, I struggle to gather myself.

While I wait in line for more tea, an older lady shares her thoughts:

“If I listened to it for another moment I would have committed suicide. It was beautiful, but so sad.”

The World Sufi Spirit Festival began as a way to celebrate Mehrangarh addition to the UNESCO Heritage List. For the first decade, the festival focused purely on Sufi music — which makes sense, given the proximity of Ajmer Sharif Dargah, the most revered Sufi shrine in the country. This year however, the name has changed to ‘World Sacred Spirit Festival’ to represent the festival’s broadening of scope.

At the press conference the festival’s Artistic Director Alain Weber explained to change as an attempt to reach across and incorporate the heritage of sacred music in Africa and Europe, as well as to reach new audiences and generations. Having not attended previous festivals, it’s a little difficult to evaluate how successful he has been. For most of the daytime performances, crowds seem to hover around one thousand people. They’re a mix of Europeans — French, German, English, Spanish — Americans, and Indians. Locals seem to be generally underrepresented, though during the evening performances the crowd swelled with the royalty and upper classes of Jodhpur: princesses, journalists, and a considerable contingent of French expatriates.

The act of removing Sufi ritual from the religious context, and presenting it as an artistic performance to predominately Western audience brings up interesting tensions. As a viewer, I am unsure what to make of it. Certainly I feel connected to the performance on some deep level, but there is much that I do not understand.

After a few days of being exposed to such rich tradition, it’s hard not to feel that we have lost something in the West. German philosopher Peter Sloterdjik would have us believe that the religious impulse has been secularised and channeled into a million different channels in modern society — in sport, politics, art and television — but his account still leaves out the yearning for transcendence, for connection, for unity. It was this I was able to glimpse at in the brilliant shadow of Mehrangarh.

It is the day after the festival, and I am walking through the streets of the old city in the midday sun. Suddenly, from some distant district comes an eruption of noise; frantic drumming and frenzied wails. The sound is immense. An incredible Qawwali drifts through Jodhpur, echoing down lanes and alleys and doorways, enveloping the city with inspired prayer.

Enjoy this piece? Hit ‘Follow’ to stay in the loop with my writing — or follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

Lachlan is Sydney-based musician, writer and meditator. Buddhism / philosophy / literature. https://www.facebook.com/lachlanrdale