The man who we were told is Rajasthan International Folk Festival’s biggest fan has neither swaying hair nor khadi pants. He does not play any instruments, nor sing, nor – as we hoped he might – traipse through the stone passes of Mehrangarh Fort with eyes closed, an eco-friendly jug of water dangling by his side. He appears in the financial news, wearing tailored suits and talking about things like equity and market outlooks. He is solidly middle-aged. He was a fighter pilot, and claims to have never listened to music when he was young. But he is a rare modern-day patron of the fine arts, a man whose religion is good music and who has supported dozens of young performers.
In the middle of India’s biggest music fest for traditional artists – an extravagant affair backed by none other than Sir Mick Jagger and the namesake king of Jodhpur themselves, two forms of royalty – Abhay Aima was waiting for us at a palace.
The chaos of Jodhpur’s old city and the anarchy of its narrow, blue lanes seem far away from Balsamand Lake Palace, where the festival’s performers were put up alongside its most privileged guests. Like all Rajasthani palaces, it is now a five-star hotel. Turbaned guards led us past a row of elegant arched patios. Aima was sitting with a friend in a tranquil garden, drinking chai and smoking a Benson & Hedges. A breeze rustled the leaves of a willowy tree. Peacocks lazed on the lawn, and soft Hindustani music drifted through the air. We sat quietly for a moment in appreciation.
“I keep trying to find where the best music festivals are,”Aima said in the deep, delicately slurred voice of gregarious men at Bombay parties. Morocco is the furthest he’s ever been for a festival. That day at the palace he wore designer glasses and a polo shirt, and his five-day stubble and prominent nose gave him a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sort of look.
“My first time to RIFF was seven years ago. There is a Pakistani band called Mekaal Hasan [that] I wanted to see. And that was the first time I saw Susheela Raman. The atmosphere, the presentation, the kind of surprise elements...it’s all pretty good, you know?”
It’s the surprise elements that make Jodhpur RIFF, as it’s usually dubbed, stand out in the musical festival scene. Its low-key marketing strategy includes both photos of Manganiyar artists, musicians who hail from the desert communities of Rajasthan, and more rockstar-type snapshots of performers like Ravid Kahalani of the funk-rock-blues band, Yemen Blues. But that does little to prepare you for the midnight sufis or the tipsy DJ-ed dance parties at the top of Mehrangarh Fort.
“We are seeding something,”said Divya Bhatia, director of the festival. “It’s not just about the fruit but about the seeds going forward. About the musical community going abroad.”
Bhatia said the festival is focused on the artists, and often rejects sponsorship if it doesn’t fuel their vision. Perhaps that is why the multi-generational crowd that RIFF attracts seems to be as carefully curated as the artists on stage – from Italian flautists and Australian singers to local families with a keen listening ear, for whom the fort is a usual backdrop in their daily lives. And people like Aima, who have both the love for music and the financial network needed to bring otherwise marginalized voices, as Bhatia calls them, to a larger stage.
For Aima, who is 52, the festival was an escape from the drudgery of his day job. As the country head of international banking and wealth management for HDFC Bank, he is one of Mumbai’s top bankers –he deals with a lot of money, and strikes fear into the hearts of many employees. But in Jodhpur he dismissed all that, preferring to talk about the love for music that trickled into his being 12 years ago, and about the weekly mehfils he stages in his terraced Bandra home. Here in his rented palace quarter, he spoke of music with the same kind of devout abstraction that the deeply religious reserve for God.
“Qawwali puts you into a trance. If you transcend your current being, that is the whole goal of yoga [spiritual practice]. It doesn’t matter who you are or who else is around you,”he said. “The music takes me to a transcendent place. The performer must have that level, going way beyond that, he has to be the thing in itself.”
“RIFF also feels like friends coming together,”added Kalpana,the friend he was sitting with, an elegantly dressed woman with perfectly coiffed hair. “That’s magical, that’s the best thing about the festival. You know, it’s such a disconnected world. Here I see connecting, connecting, connecting, and it fosters a true sense of peace.”
“Well, I guess you do have people with the same bent of mind coming together,”Aima replied. “But when music takes me there I’m just off in my own world. I don’t care about who else is around me, where I am, whatever.”
“Right!”Kalpana said. “It’s the setting, it’s the music, it is, for lack of a better word, the ultimate orgasm.”
“You know, if someone plays very wonderfully, I will feel a sense of love. Like they are the most beautiful person in the room,”Aima said.
“Which is [why] we want to be as close to the front as possible, to see their faces. But Abhay is always off by himself in some dark corner.”
When Kalpana said this, Aima had the air of someone who disagreed but was too polite to say so, and was, perhaps, trying to reconcile two different roles. Later, when we were alone, he said, “Boss I’m really just here for the music. And that’s something where I go off in my own head."
Across the city, in another palace-hotel atop a hill, a cluster of musicians teased out the last details of their set in a mix of translated Hindi and hands clapping out the taal of a bluesy jazz song set to Rajasthani singing.
Umaid Bhawan overlooks Jodhpur’s blue-tinted, anachronistic sprawl, and with its marble archways and wide-hipped fountains. You can almost see where Maharaja Umaid Singh held his parties in the early 20th century, dozens of turbaned servants bowing at the fat, gilded feet of Rajput royalty, taking orders and murmuring “hukam, hukam”.
But that Friday afternoon under the unforgiving sun, it was mostly just hot. It was hot outside where the guard took too long to verify names. Hot on the tiles leading up to palace, where a festival organizer, Mana Dhanraj, tried to greet us with bare feet. And hot in the auditorium, grand and gold with tiers of red-carpeted steps, where lanky Dutch saxophonist Yuri Honig, his jazz band, and three Rajasthani folk musicians rehearsed for the evening show.
“Rajasthani folk musicians”said the festival program ever since the line-up was introduced online. No names, no instruments, just the assumption that some local singers would somehow show up on stage next to award-winning Dutch musicians and their perfectly tuned set of music. But on stage in this empty room, there were names, and temperaments, and voices that needed to be heard.
“They’ve learned a lot from us,”said Sumitra Das Goswani, a Rajasthani folk singer, of working with Honig’s quartet. “My style doesn’t change, but they might have to adjust to my singing.”
If Goswani, a native of Pali district, were somebody with a carefully created image and name and agenda, her words may have sounded too proud; Honig is, indeed, an accomplished musician with 14 albums and an international following. But from a 25-year-old folk singer from the village of Jaitaran, a singer who silences crowds with her sharp, clear voice, the statement was delivered– and received– as fact.
Goswani’s is not the image you think of when picturing a star of an international music festival– she’s neither the ancient, desert-weathered folk singer of years past nor the foreign national headlining the stage. She is petite, though softly rounded out, and wears traditional ghaghra cholis in warm pinks and reds. And doggedly professional: throughout the day the delicate features on her pleasant face remain settled in a calm, almost stoic composition, her words measured and simple.
She brought the same sort of stillness to the rehearsal – explaining to the dholki player how to bring his beats in sync with the jazz drummer, or looking up at Honig to carefully memorize the notes he planned to play during her feature piece in the evening. At Umaid Bhavan it was only Goswani who seemed to understand the nuances of each instrument in the ensemble, jazz or Rajasthani. Her hands undulated with the rhythm of the drums or curled up as if to strike a chord along with the pianist. She and Honig had worked together before, and the conversation between her sharp, clear voice and his swanky, smooth saxophone was a comfortable romance of sound.
Just before Goswani’s performance that evening, we found Aima in the shadows all the way to the right of the stage, away from the crowd and against the fort’s huge stone walls, smoking and staring at the stage with rapt attention.He was seated on the ground with Archita Bhattacharya, an employee of his and a Hindustani singer whom he supports. Aima was in a state of solitude during the performances and could not sit still – when the music captivated him, he walked up to the stage, standing with an arm draped over the speaker, walking back when he felt less enthused.
Under beams of steely blue and warm yellow light, and a night speckled with stars, the performance began on the main festival stage. Goswani sat elevated on a platform, wearing an orange polka-dotted ghagra choli with hints of red on her sleeves and skirt.
She told us she was never nervous before a performance, no matter who was in the audience, or how large the crowd. “After so many times, so many songs, why should I be?”
Instead she thought of her family when singing – her brothers and sisters who often come to attend her concerts when she performs in Rajasthan. And her late father, local folk musician Sajjan Das, who trained her from the age of eight with a homemade harmonium in their village. When she sings bhajans or devotional songs, Goswani said, she thinks of how to bring his soul peace through her voice.
When it was time for Goswani’s feature, Honing enthusiastically introduced her to the crowd – about three hundred people filling up the neat rows of white fabric chairs and the aisles of the courtyard. It was the lanky saxophonist himself who had insisted that she play with his quarter for this festival after discovering a “much younger”Goswani singing in a video clip on a producer’s desktop about five years ago.
“She knocked me straight out of the water,”Honig said.
The song she had chosen for the evening, a bhajan celebrating the poet Kabir, was sultry and melodic in this rendition, conjuring both the vast desert and swank of an urban jazz club. For six minutes, the full range of Goswani’s deep voice was on display, her hands again tracing the notes to their height and grounding them in the earth with her fingers clasped close to her palm.
The mood in the fort reached fever pitch when the Dutch saxophonist cut in, picking up perfectly from where she left off, gorgeous, howling jazz flowing out of his instrument like poetry. The saxophonist and Goswani riffed off each other, his jazz and her folk fusing like they were never meant to be apart. Bhattacharya shouted “Oh my god! Oh my god!”Someone spilled their drink. “Fuuuuuuck,”said a twenty-something in Gucci eyeglasses and Converse sneakers. The crowd was near tears, but Aima didn’t speak or move. He was transfixed. The sax went on.
“I can’t even explain in words what’s happening,”he said later. “I would take the sax guy home, yaar. He’s pure, unadulterated sex.”
“Oh, he’s staying at your place, is it?”joked Bhattacharya.
“Well it’s the only time I’m bisexual, man, when I hear that kind of music!”Aima laughed. “And that singer’s voice, it really cuts into your”– he stopped, pointing at his heart.
After she stepped off stage Goswani was led to a room tucked alongside one of the fort corridors, where she settled into a soft armchair to observe the buzz of backstage staff, journalists and artists sipping on beers and refilling their plates. She smiled and half-whispered Thank You when people come to her with effusive compliments. But unlike her accompanying artists, she didn’t make small talk.
“I’m used to this life,”she said of her packed schedule, her days on the road. “I don’t get tired anymore. All of it is bringing me to my dream.”
Her dream is for more people to hear her voice. To sing for the president. To continue visiting other countries, as she has begun to do with the help of the Jaipur Virasat Foundation and artists like Honig, and continue making her family proud. And if YouTube statistics hold any weight in the world of Indian folk music, she is making decent traction – tens of thousands of hits on every video of her singing, with dozens of supportive comments underneath.
When there was a lull in the room she quickly gathered her things to leave. She had to perform the next morning at dawn.
If Goswani has grown beyond her Rajasthan village to take on the world with her music, Aima has forgotten, for a moment, his life as a financial titan to become a classical patron of the arts. In a music landscape dominated by Bollywood, where commercial success is bestowed on the likes of Yo Yo Honey Singh, Aima sees himself as providing a small platform for musicians who are exploring traditional sounds, and trying to get recognized for their talent. The weekly mehfils in his Bandra home attract both upcoming and well-respected musicians, as well as stalwarts in the arts industry like Javed Bashir, the Pakistani playback singer, or Ajay Pohankar, the classical vocalist. He sees them as a way to support artists monetarily as well as provide them with exposure. A mehfil at his home earlier this week, for instance, was attended by Divya Bhatia, the festival director of RIFF. Having met Bhatia some 10 days before the festival, he also convinced HDFC to contribute to RIFF and raised a modest amount of funds for it.
“I’ve been more than lucky, so it’s natural for me to return as much of it as possible,”he says. “So can I be instrumental in helping artists achieve what they want to achieve?”
Bhattacharya, who is a regular fixture at Aima’s mehfils, says they have given her a chance to perform for other artists and directors, and showcase her talent in a difficult industry.
“He’s one of the biggest aficionados of music, and he shows a lot of concern for musicians,”she says. “India has a lot of young talent, but they need people to recognize them. We need a lot of Abhay Aimas to bring the artists forward.’
“In office, Abhay Aima is like a god to us,”she went on. “Everybody is scared of him. But I know him as a different person. Music brings out a different Abhay.”
For the last performance on the main stage, musicians handpicked from various performances throughout the four-day festival came onto the stage for a midnight jam session that would last till early morning. The crowd was wild: the woman standing next to us shook her hands in the air screaming, “How is this possible? This is silly! This is amazing!”while another screamed for her sons to join her at the foot of the stage so they wouldn’t miss what happens when a Carnatic singer takes control of a stage with guitars, hand drums, a fiddle, an oud, dholkis, a harmonium, flute and a khartal. It was noisy, perfect chaos oscillating between moments of the best music you’ve ever heard and the underlying tension of the Carnatic and Scottish singers with one microphone.
In Aima’s corner, a crowd of performers and young attendees had gathered, laughing and sloshing their beers and dancing. But Aima was not part of the celebration. He had wandered off alone towards the stage, quietly watching the performance with one hand on his chin until the last beat.
Ankita Rao is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. Follow her at @anrao or on her website ankitarao.com.
Vivekananda Nemana is a freelance journalist and author of an upcoming book on tribal youth in India’s Maoist heartland. Follow him on Twitter @vnemana, or on his blog, Brown White and Blue.