Sacred Spirit Festival 2023: A river of music that washed away my inner debris - Hindustan Times
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Sacred Spirit Festival 2023: A river of music that washed away my inner debris

ByChintan Girish Modi
Mar 23, 2023 08:40 PM IST

From Manganiyar musicians, Carnatic vocalists, Mongolian throat singers and Uzbek dancers to Bauls and famous players of the Mohan veena, the Sacred Spirit Festival 2023 was an aural feast

The Sacred Spirit Festival, held at the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur from February 10 to 12, got me thinking about how easily total strangers can bond over music. It’s as if the collective experience of listening eliminates both the need for introductions and icebreakers and the compulsion to find out if there is alignment in terms of opinion and ideology.

A morning concert by the Jaswant Thada Lake at Sacred Spirit Festival 2023. (Mehrangarh Museum Trust and Bling Ping Motion Pictures) PREMIUM
A morning concert by the Jaswant Thada Lake at Sacred Spirit Festival 2023. (Mehrangarh Museum Trust and Bling Ping Motion Pictures)

The festival made me appreciate how music can quieten the mind and soften the heart. I felt an expansiveness within – a sense of connection with people around, despite the differences separating us as individuals with back-stories and character arcs. It did not matter whether I was listening to a Kabir bhajan or a Thyagaraja krithi, a kaafi of Bulleh Shah or a qawwali of Amir Khusrau, a bayt of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai or a song written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. They were all rivers washing away my inner debris, merging into an ocean of stillness.

Loup Barrow on the cristal baschet at Sacred Spirit Festival 2023 (Mehrangarh Museum Trust and Bling Ping Motion Pictures)
Loup Barrow on the cristal baschet at Sacred Spirit Festival 2023 (Mehrangarh Museum Trust and Bling Ping Motion Pictures)

I suspect that the festival evoked this visceral response in me because the audience was left to encounter the music on its own terms, without any long or boring commentaries from artistic director Alain Weber on how he found the musicians, the order in which he programmed the line-up, or how he blended the traditional with the contemporary. Unlike many curators, he was comfortable with the spotlight being on the musicians rather than on himself.

The festival opened with a breathtaking concert by the Jaswant Thada Lake, with some birds flying in beautiful formations and others enjoying their morning swim. Dada Khan, Latif Khan, Dare Khan and Sujaram presented bhajans about the predicament of the earthly seeker who wonders how to address the divine beloved with a thousand names and arrives at the realization that there is no need to scream from the rooftops about one’s religiosity because the Creator is aware of even the faintest sound in the universe – anklets on the feet of an ant.

The action shifted to Chokhelao Garden with the Chaar Yaar Ensemble – Madan Gopal Singh, Deepak Castelino, Amjad Khan and Pritam Ghoshal – performing Sufi favourites like Aaj Rang Hai, Hori Khelungi Keh Bismillah and Tere Ishq Nachaya. Their beautiful act was followed by Sonam Kalra, who got listeners singing along and swaying in ecstasy with popular numbers like Chhaap Tilak, Naiharwa, Aeri Sakhi and Dama Dam Mast Qalandar. She collaborated with Chuge Khan, Jasu Khan, Anita Dangi, and Prem Dangi, who also presented some Maand songs from their traditional Rajasthani repertoire.

The evening programme outside Jaswant Thada Temple was stunning. JA Jayant who plays the Carnatic flute, and Akshay Anantapadmanabhan who plays the mridangam, mesmerized audiences with their unusual collaboration with Loup Barrow who plays the cristal baschet – an instrument rarely seen in India. Massive in size, it produces a hypnotic sound. The coming together of diverse musical traditions worked because the artists involved were secure about their training, willing to take creative risks, and played to their own strengths instead of competing for applause.

The Stree Shakti Band at Sacred Spirit Festival 2023. (Mehrangarh Museum Trust and Bling Ping Motion Pictures)
The Stree Shakti Band at Sacred Spirit Festival 2023. (Mehrangarh Museum Trust and Bling Ping Motion Pictures)

The enchanting music continued late into the night at the Zenana Deodi Courtyard with Hindustani-Carnatic fusion band Stree Shakti up on stage first. It featured Pandita Anuradha Pal (tabla, pakhawaj, djembe, udu, udukku, dholak, bongo and handsonic), Radhika Srinivasan (Carnatic violin). Paromita Mukherjee (harmonium and Hindustani violin), Ramya Ganesh (ghatam), and R Krishnapriya (kanjira). Apart from their ability to hold the audience captive, it was refreshing to see these women making music together especially as it is common for Indian music festivals to feature all-male bands where only the vocalist is a woman. Stree Shakti showed the audience that it’s time for things to change. The all-woman band wasn’t exclusionary and also collaborated with Rajasthani musicians Gazi Khan Barna (khartal), Latif Khan Hamira (dholak), Thanu Khan Barna (morchang and bhapang) and Feiruz Khan (dhol).

The first day of the festival came to a close with the Hatan Ensemble from Mongolia and the Uzbek Bokhor Dance Company teaming up with Rajasthani Kalbeliya dancers. Listening to Mongolian throat singing, which mimics the sounds of birds, thunder, wind and water was a novel experience. There is something so earthy and ancient about it that it leaves the listener wondering why human beings are so insistent on seeing themselves as separate from and superior to nature. The ensemble’s music was enhanced with the use of instruments like the mouth harp (also called the Jew’s harp), the morin khuur or the horse-head fiddle, and the Mongolian flute or tovshuur.

Hatan Ensemble from Mongolia at Sacred Spirit Festival 2023 (Mehrangarh Museum Trust and Bling Ping Motion Pictures)
Hatan Ensemble from Mongolia at Sacred Spirit Festival 2023 (Mehrangarh Museum Trust and Bling Ping Motion Pictures)

On the second day, audience members at Jaswant Thada Lake and Chokhelao Garden were introduced to the dedha satara or the double flute, and the sarinda, which is a kind of fiddle. These instruments play an important role in the musical heritage of the Langas and Manganiyars, who are communities of traditional performing artists in Rajasthan.

Swapan Das Baul, Arpan Thakur Chakraborty and Khokan Das gave a captivating presentation of the Baul music of Bengal – a mystical stream that draws from Vaishnava, Sufi and Tantric sources – with powerful vocals supported by instruments like the khamak and the dotara apart from percussion. They collaborated with Talaab Khan Barna on vocals, Feiruz Khan on the harmonium and Sawai Khan on the dholak – all of whom are from Rajasthan.

One of the highlights that day was a pleasurable evening of instrumental music by the “mandolin family” of UP Raju, U Nagamani, U Jaya Vigneshwar and U Subramania Raju, showcasing their talent with brief solos and also engaging in musical conversation with each other. They were joined by N Rajaraman on the ghatam and Madipakkam P Suresh on the mridangam.

When the action shifted to the Zenana Deodi Courtyard, there was surprise and excitement in the air as violinist Jyotsna Srikanth with her background in Carnatic classical music collaborated with Jean-Pierre Smadja aka Smadj – a Tunisian-born Parisian musician who plays the oud and is known for blending jazz with electronic sound. “Sangeeta Sanghama” was a befitting name for this experiment.

Audience members at the Sacred Spirit Festival 2023 (Mehrangarh Museum Trust and Bling Ping Motion Pictures)
Audience members at the Sacred Spirit Festival 2023 (Mehrangarh Museum Trust and Bling Ping Motion Pictures)

This spellbinding performance was followed by the equally outstanding New Desert Slide Project with Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Salil Bhatt on the mohan veena, Justin Adams on the electric guitar, and the Master Divana Ensemble featuring Anwar Khan, Gazi Khan, Feiruz Khan, Ghewar Khan and Mehardeen Khan Langa. It was moving to witness the respect and warmth with which these musicians spoke of each other, reaffirming the idea that music and musicians do have the capacity to rise above narrow, divisive politics.

The festival concluded with a morning concert outside the Jaswant Thada Temple on the third day. The sounds of the violin, kamaicha, sarangi and sarinda coursed through my veins as I took a break from people-watching and touched the earth with a feeling of gratitude.

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

The views expressed are personal

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