Joanna Lester-George

Whirling at The World Sufi Spirit Festival - review of the 2014 Festival

KOKOindia the Travel Company Facebook Page | March 14th, 2014 | Visit the original article online

“Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life." Omar Khayyam

Towering high above the city sky line of Jodhpur stands the hauntingly beautiful Mehrangarh Fort. Ever since the fifteenth century, this epic monument in burnished red sandstone has been a symbol of Rajasthan’s legendary might. It is also the spectacular setting for the annual World Sufi Spirit Festival.

The event takes place over three days and two nights each February, at both Mehrangarh Fort and at Ahhichatragarh Fort, Nagaur— a rare and unmissable opportunity for performers and visitors to enjoy ancient and devotional Sufi music from all over the globe. The origins of Sufism began in the poetic form of Arabic in seventh century Baghdad, and went on to span many continents and cultures before reaching India over a thousand years ago. Today the World Sufi Spirit Festival is unique in India, welcoming ‘the most beautiful of sacred traditions from the Orient and Africa and sharing Rajasthan’s rich tradition of music.’

I arrived at Mehrangarh Fort on the first evening, ascending the steep (oh so steep!) cobblestoned ramp where dazzling processions of Maharajas on elephant back once rode. A rose pink sky hovered above the blue city far below and the excitement in the air was tangible. I entered the Sringar Chowk,where generations of Rajput princesses had watched Coronations take place from behind veils of latticed marble, and was just in time to catch the famous Sufi musician Chintoo Singh. He was moving seamlessly from a classic Sufiyana folksong into a funked up version of Queen’s “We Will Rock you.” Some though tit was genius, some thought it was sacrilege, but it was good to know the festival held many surprises in store.

For the thirty musical events scheduled to take place over the next few days, the Fort’s many incredible outdoor locations were used to great effect. Guests settled down on comfortable lounging areas (soft white mattresses with bolsters) to enjoy performances in garden orchards, palace courtyards and temples, and the magnificent Durbar Hall of the Moti Mahal.

The Artistic Director, Alain Weber, described the Festival as “Poetry of the body with that of Persian whirling dervishes; poetry of words with ecstatic music expressed by the greatest artists of Iran.” I witnessed this mesmerising spectacle for myself on the very first night, when the Shams Ensemble from Iran performed against the theatrical backdrop of the Zenana Deodi. Once an exclusive inner sanctum for the Maharaja's many ‘wives,’ (disappointingly no longer guarded by eunuchs), the rugged fort walls and exquisite carvings illuminated in red and gold created a magical setting.

The acoustics were mind blowing, the singers’ passionate voices artfully accompanied by the rhythmic sounds of ancient Persian instruments such as the Tambour (long-necked Kurdish lutes) and the Bendir - a frame-style drum played since pre-historic days to celebrate spiritual occasions such as this. Two whirling dervishes in traditional long white frocks and conical hats span in ritual silence behind the musicians,accompanied by dramatic rumblings of thunder. This is exactly what we had come to see — and the audience rose in a standing ovation.