Right now, it’s festival season in India, a time of cool, pleasant weather and a string of celebrations, including the Navratri and Diwali holidays. Jodhpur recently held two local festivals on the same weekend, one sponsored by the royal family and another sponsored by the government tourism board. The sharp contrast between these festivals says a lot about the respective roles of government and royalty in modern Rajasthan.
The Marwar Festival, organized by the government, took place at various locations around Jodhpur, including the soccer stadium and the main market. It involved performances by local musicians, a presentation of abnormally long mustaches, and a turban-tying competition for foreigners. I participated in the latter, and the results weren’t pretty. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to go for speed or aesthetics but ended up failing at both.
For me, the highlight of the festival was a camel show, which entailed finely decorated camels making synchronized formations around the soccer field. Sometimes the riders did elaborate balancing acts to impress the crowd, or to get an even better reaction, they dressed in drag.
The audience for the festival was a mix of locals and tourists, which I liked, but I was disappointed to see that the tourists always got priority seating. I preferred to sit with the locals and ended up making a few new friends.
The other festival that weekend was the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, sponsored by the royal family and taking place at Mehrangarh Fort. It brought together prominent local and and international folk musicians for a four-day series of concerts. I think that the easiest way to convey the difference between the RIFF and the Marwar Festival is to list the RIFF’s two individual patrons: the Maharaja and Sir Mick Jagger. Accordingly, the RIFF was very well organized, very enjoyable, and very expensive. A pass for all four days cost $94 (a high price by Indian standards), while the Marwar Festival was free (a low price by any standards). Most of the RIFF attendees were foreigners; the rest seemed to be Indian tourists.
But you get what you pay for. I went to only one night of the festival, with a line-up that included two traditional Indian folk groups, a Columbian folk band, and a lone Australian touted as the world’s best didgeridoo player. All of them were extremely talented. The Indian groups performed the same languid music that could have entertained Maharajas centuries ago in that same location. The Colombians were high-energy and exciting, especially one guy in a cowboy hat who did a sort of tap dance where he moved his feet faster than I ever knew human feet could go. And my favorite was the didgeridoo player. If you think didgeridoo music is just someone blowing on a hollow piece of wood, then you’re entirely right. But you’re also entirely wrong. The sounds this guy produced were astounding. And partway through his set, he whipped out a guitar and started playing that, too. Then one of the Indian groups came back on stage for some Indo-Australian fusion. One guy had a pair of black clicking instruments (sort of like castanets) and started going absolutely crazy in rhythm with the didgeridoo. It was wild.
Both of the weekend’s festivals were charming and fun, but the RIFF was clearly superior. This disparity should be no surprise, given the difference in organizational resources and audience wealth. While the royal family no longer has any official power, the Maharaja still makes a fortune from hotels and tourism, and he pals around with people like Mick Jagger. The government, on the other hand, has a lot of power but not much money. It’s just another sign that there are now two Indias, one rich and one poor, and they’re growing apart at an ever-increasing rate.
Thanks to Hanuman and Sushama for providing the photos.