The energy at the Royal Opera House was infectious. Many in the audience were stunned by instruments like the wooden clapper khartal, the bowed kamaicha and the double flute algoza. In their bright ghaghras, two ghoomar dancers added to the magic. For over 90 minutes, singer Kutle Khan and his troupe enthralled with their performance of Rajasthani folk music.
Presented by Nanni Singh’s ShowCase Events on Friday, January 25, Sounds From The Desert had music lovers tapping their feet throughout. It was curated and directed by music industry veteran Atul Churamani and compered by Mihir Joshi. And it was more than great music and dance – the backdrop boasted of some stunning visuals from exotic locales in Rajasthan, lending a perfect ambience.
In the past, Mumbai has had its share of Rajasthani folk music, presented by members of the Manganiyar and Langa communities of Jaisalmer and Barmer districts. The annual Ruhaniyat Sufi and mystic music festival and Paddy Fields folk-fusion extravaganza have regularly had such acts. Theatre personality Roysten Abel’s stage shows The Manganiyar Seduction and The Manganiyar Classroom have attracted the cognoscenti. Various literature festivals have used the genre as a fad. Moreover, thanks to YouTube and Coke Studio, artistes like Sakar Khan, Kachra Khan, Mame Khan and Kutle Khan have had a select band of followers.
Barring Abel’s events, many of these have been parts of a wider set of performances. Kutle Khan’s performance stood out in the variety of instruments used – including the singers and dancers, 15 people graced the stage – and also in its prominent use of the guitar, keyboards and drums. Along with the khartal, kamaicha, algoza, the traditional percussion instruments nagara and dholak, the single-stringed bhapang, the jaw harp morchang, the bowed Sindhi sarangi and the harmonium, one got to hear a clear and distinct blend of sounds. The colourful turbans and vibrant body language enhanced the charm.
Having performed with composer Amit Trivedi, singers Kailash Kher and Susheela Raman, and the band Midival Punditz, Khan is naturally open to experimentation. With his incredible range and earthy voice, he was brilliant on the vocals. A multi-instrumentalist, he also showed mastery over the khartal and bhapang. Anita Kanwar Dangi was a treat as the female vocalist, specially on the song ‘Pardesiya’. Dene Khan impressed on the higher register, and Champe Khan provided supple back-up.
The set list was dominated by traditional numbers, and here, one wished there had been some explanation on their origin and meaning. The crowd, of course, was delighted to hear Amir Khusro’s popular ‘Chhaap Tilak’, just before the interval.
The ghoomar dancers came after the break. Though they looked like sisters, Khatu Sapera and Sangeetha Sapera were actually mother and daughter. Their steps were smooth and nimble, and a movement where a pair of ear-rings was picked up by the eyes was simply fantastic.
The show ended with two well-known numbers. ‘Nimbooda Nimbooda’, made famous by music director Ismail Darbar in the 1999 film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, had many singing along. In the encore, Khan asked everyone to stand up, as the musicians performed ‘Dama Dam Mast Qalandar’. Needless to say, everyone danced and clapped.
A word about ‘Chhaap Tilak’ and ‘Dama Dam Mast Qalandar’. These two songs have been a staple at many Sufi, Rajasthani and north Indian folk music shows. Though they are sung commonly in the desert state, their origins don’t lie in Rajasthani folk – while the former is a Sufi song, the latter is a Sindhi favourite. And though most in the audience do enjoy them because they may be the only tunes they recognise, their choice has become very predictable.
Having said that, Sounds From The Desert was a treat for one and all. The musicianship, flow, choreography, sound, visuals and stage arrangements were all first-rate. Nuggets of information about the khartal and kamaicha were valuable, and some of the solo stretches brilliant.
Narendra Kusnur is one of India’s best known music journalists. Born with a musical spoon (okay, doesn’t fit, but you get the drift), Naren, NK, Kusnur, Narender, Kaansen, Jahanpanna… however else many call him, is a late bloomer in music criticism. He was (is!) an aficionado first, and then strayed into writing on music. But in the last two decades, he has made up for most of what he didn’t do earlier. If ever there is an Ustad given for music writing, NK, would be among the first to receive one. Narendra Kusnur writes weekly on Xyngr. Don’t ask us when.