BY SUPRIYA NEWAR
A cultural festival in a quaint Rajasthan village, Momasar, keeps it simple and earthy even as people from the cities and foreign countries flock to the rural haunt for the experience
As I land, there is a car waiting at Jaipur airport for me and without a minute’s ado, we head westwards towards Shekhawati. My destination is Momasar, a small village that lies in Bikaner district of Rajasthan, near Sridungargarh. The village is all set to celebrate its annual festival, Momasar Utsav, which promises to bring together 200 artistes and craftsmen over the next 48 hours and I am eager to soak in the vibes, atmosphere and culture.
As we catch the sun going down on the Jaipur-Bikaner highway which is a smooth, five-hour drive, we navigate the last 45 minutes through dark, bumpy village roads that suddenly burst upon a riot of colour. We are in Momasar and the village is bedecked and festooned with wall art and ribbons and an air of gaiety. The festival director, Vinod Joshi, who has been associated with the Jaipur Virasat Foundation and the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) and is deeply passionate about the indigenous traditions and culture of Rajasthan, greets us warmly and officially welcomes us to Momasar Utsav.
A detailed programme schedule is shared. The next two days are to start at 5.30 in the morning and end only very late in the night. The festival is spread across the village, at different points. At a renovated haveli, in courtyards, in the open fields, under the open skies and at an old, much revered temple. In anticipation of an early start, I decide to retreat to my tent which is a few minutes away from the main village square. There is a significant drop in the temperature and a lovely nip in the air.
The next morning begins with a live recital of the mellifluous notes of Bhatiyar on the sitar under a deep-domed shamiana that offers natural acoustics sans microphone. Pt Hariharsharan Bhatt hails from Jaipur and is a veteran sitarist. We watch the sun come up as the stars melt into the morning sky. A tea break later, a group of seven Meghwals, led by Punmaramji Meghwal from Boya, Jaisalmer, takes over. In their signature all-white kurta-dhoti attire that is off-set by colourful, well-tied safas, the Meghwals sing bhajans of Lord Ram and Krishna. Their voices are earthy and soulful and the dholak provides just the right pitch for percussion support. They strum their tamburas or beenas as their voices waft into the vastness of the land. What is special is a chance to listen intimately, to every word and note and even ask them to explain some of the songs which they gladly do. Later, I get a picture with Punmaramji with both of us holding his beena, which by then is covered in Barmer-style clothing.
If the morning has been mellow, the day is anything but! The Momasar Utsav stands formally inaugurated by noon and we leave the sands behind to get into the busy town square which is buzzing with energy. By then I have met several other enthusiastic attendees who like me have come from urbanscapes but have made long journeys for their love of culture and music. There’s a writer from Delhi, a traveller from Norway, a couple who dabbles in theatre from Jaipur, and many others.
The mela grounds are a melee of colour and sound. There’s a massive nagada placed in the centre of the courtyard whose thump and bellow fill the skies. All along are stalls selling various handmade, traditional Rajasthani items—Barmer-work cushion covers, clothes, organic soaps, bangles, jutis, home décor and more. There’s another row that is taken up by folk musicians who give live demonstrations of instruments like the ravanhatta, morchhang, surnayi, khartal and more. Though I’m drawn to the musicians instantly, I am distracted by the duo of Motu-Patlu, who are clowning around in their gold- and silver-dyed hair, looking for samosas, cracking jokes and playing the fool. They delight the gathered village kids no end.
When the nagada drumming pauses, the trapeze act takes over. A daredevil youth, dressed in a colourful vest, climbs up a tall bamboo only to walk on a tightly bound rope and reach the far end. Egging him on throughout his act is a commentator who stays on the ground but rattles on about the kartab, the khiladi and the khel. Almost everyone’s mobile phones are clicking pictures, and many a mouth is agape in wonder. But we are far from done. What is a village mela without a beherupia, an impressionist, who wears dark make-up, sneaks up to you and emits loud chants and grunts! There’s a sapera, a man on stilts, a camel; enough and more props to make you marvel, to leave you engrossed and delighted in a colourful burst of sounds, sights and senses.
In all the chaos, there’s a quieter stall with a totawala, a parrot-fortune teller as well and quite a few are queuing up to the rather wise-looking gent. For fun’s sake, I land up too but being a good bania, the gent first collects his peshgi or fee and then goes on to make all kinds of predictions and guesses based on the card pulled out by the parrot. As I walk away after five minutes, fairly amused, I observe that the parrot consistently picks out the same card the next three times! But the predictions differ each time and are quite fun.
If one end of the haveli premises is fun and feisty, the other end is more artistic—a calligrapher occupies a corner along with a 3D artist, a pen and ink artist and a face sketcher, a Nathdwara artist and a painter. All of them have their art on display and also enthral visitors with live art. After
exploring each, I decide to spend the next couple of hours talking to musicians and getting a chance to witness them making their instruments by hand—a sight as marvellous as it is inspiring. Each of the above mentioned instruments is made by using extremely simple, everyday little things that are available in abundance—a piece of chiselled iron, stretched pieces of goat skin, sheesham wood, horse-tail hair, cowries, beads, electric wire, ghungroos and so on… but when these pieces come together in masterful artistry, they produce sound that has lasted centuries and evoke a sentiment that transcends time.
With the sun beating down and my energies a bit spent, I decide I’ve earned a break and a lunch which turns out to be a delicious spread—moth ki roti, gate ki sabzi, bajre ki khichdi and a few other traditional items that never taste the same back in Calcutta, no matter how well they’re prepared.
Bhanwari Devi, after the sumptuous spread, is just perfect. A much-acclaimed folk artiste, she sings in her signature voice, sans microphone, her son accompanying her deftly on the harmonium. Her voice, at once plaintive and searching, carries with it the scent of shifting sands. She performs to a packed audience at the Jaichand Lal Patawari Haveli with her ghoongat on, but later obliges me with a wonderful picture without it. Hakam Khanji comes in next with a kamaicha ensemble. One of the oldest instruments played by the Manganiyars, the kamaicha is a particularly difficult instrument to play but Hakam Khanji, at 80, astonishes us with his agility, his dexterity and of course his musical prowess. The ensemble boasts of one of the brightest, youngest players as well and after their formal performance in the haveli, they gather under a peepul tree where I listen to them up close and chat with them informally. They reveal that some of their kamaichas are more than 200 years old and, other than requiring a bit of tuning, continue to go strong even today.
Bhomiyaji Maharaj is the much-revered dwarpal or reigning Lord of the village and has a temple dedicated to him. As the story goes, hundreds of years ago, he rid the village of an evil spirit and since then is looked upon as the protector of the entire village. But that evening, the Bhomiyaji
Maharaj temple is decked up for a mahaarti, which is carried out by a senior purohit who’s come all the way from Pushkar. Hundreds of gathered villagers and outsiders like us hold small diyas in our hands and witness the mahaarti.
There is music under the stars after dinner in the open fields where charpayis and chairs are laid out. Ravanhattas in hand, a group of Bhopas, dressed in their flowing and flaming red attire, perform Pabuji Phad against a beautiful scroll that depicts traditional folk deities of Rajasthan.
And finally, a group of Langas play their sarangis in unison.
The next morning also starts with a sitar recital and some yoga. The first formal programme of the day in the open is Harijas by Ramchandra Gangoliya and group, who’ve come all the way from Malwa. This group of six sits under the shade of a large tree and captivates a sizeable audience with their Sadgurubani, Gorakhnath, Kabir and Meera bhajans. What’s remarkable is that Ramchandraji’s daughter and wife are both
part of the group and the other members too are all part of the same family. Besides a dholak and a pair of small drums that are caressed by a brush-like apparatus, there is the manjira, the harmonium and the tambura.
Just like most festivals, Momasar Utsav too saves its biggest crowd-pulling performances for the closing day. Manganiyars make an appearance once more but the crowd reserves its loudest cheers for the dancers—the Kalbelias swirl to the thunder of the nagada, a group performs the graceful Ghoomar and yet another does Kathak. The closing act is held at the Taal Maidan to accommodate the large crowd.
I’ve been going into the villages of Rajasthan and listening to folk music for over two decades. I’ve had the tremendous fortune of listening to the best of the best, closely and exclusively. And yet, Momasar Utsav has secured a special place in my heart. For its intimate settings. For its authentic experiences. And for the fact that it chose to treat music bigger than any single star musician; that it chose to recognise and salute time-tested traditions over individual talent and that the entire village came together to be suffused in and infected by Momasar magic.
(The writer is a bibliophile, music aficionado, and author of Kolkata Classics, a book of verse)