Joanna Lester-George

Whirling at The World Sufi Spirit Festival

KOKOindia Luxury Travels/ Facebook Page | March 14th, 2014 | Visit the original article online

5. nws sufi women shot

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

Towering high on a cliff above the blue city skyline of Jodhpur stands the hauntingly beautiful Mehrangarh Fort. Ever since the fifteenth century, this epic monument of burnished red sandstone has been a symbol of the legendary might of Rajasthan – of countless epic battles, victories and successive Maharajas. It is also the spectacular setting for the annual 'World Sufi Spirit Festival'.

The Festival takes place over two days and nights each, every February, at two very regal locations - Mehrangarh Fort and the more exclusive Nagaur Fort, a three hour drive away. It is a rare and unmissable opportunity for performers and visitors alike to enjoy the experience of world class devotional Sufi music from India and all across the globe.

It is said that Sufism originated in the 7th-century, predating the Islamic Golden Age and going on to span many cultures and continents before reaching India in the 14th-century. Often defined as ‘Islamic mysticism’, Sufism however goes beyond religion. It is a way to articulate with the Divine through passionately spiritual forms of music, poetry and dance. Today the World Sufi Spirit Festival is a unique event in India which, according to my invitation, welcomes "the most beautiful of sacred traditions from the Orient and Africa and sharing Rajasthan’s rich tradition of music".

On the first night of the Festival, the hotel chauffeur cheerfully dropped me off in the vast car park of the fort. I’m pretty sure I heard him chuckling at the expression on my face as I stared up at the long, steep (oh so steep) cobblestone ramp that lay between me and the impressive main gates. Setting off resolutely, I distracted myself by imagining dazzling processions of Maharajas ascending this ramp on elephant back, in the days of yore and amidst tremendous pomp and ceremony.

Upon making it up to the gates (tick), I looked down far below me at the rose pink dusk hovering over the city and felt a tangible excitement in the air as guests mingled at the entrance to collect their tickets. Such grand public events at Mehrangarh Fort inevitably attract a mix of wealthy tourists and Rajasthani socialites, all of whom come dressed up to the nines - clearly an opportunity both to see and be seen.

The opening event of the Sufi Festival was to be held in the Shringar Chowk. The first courtyard to be reached within the vast palatial complex, it was thus located so that public functions could take place far from the private activities of the royal household. I spotted a marble throne in the corner, the royal seat where generations of Jodhpur rulers had taken part in their 'Raj- tilak' or enthroning ceremony. The courtyard was surrounded on all four sides by tall golden buildings, where successive Rajput princesses would have peeked down on the ceremonies below behind their Purdah screens of latticed marble.

I was just in time to catch the legendary Indian musician, Chintoo Singh - acclaimed for his skills with the 'rabab', a Sufi instrument brought to India by Afghan traders in the 12th-century. During Chintoo's repertoire, he moved seamlessly between classic Sufiyana folk songs and funked up contemporary numbers, such as his version of Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You.’ Gauging the responses of the audience around me, it wasn’t hard to spot those who regarded this leap from tradition as pure genius and those who considered it to be pure sacrilege. It was however a sure sign that the festival was going to be fun and held many surprises in store.

There were thirty events in the programme scheduled to take place over the next two days and the myriad of outdoor locations at the gigantic fort were made advantage of with great effect. Guests settled down on comfortable lounging areas - soft white mattresses with bolsters - to enjoy performances in garden orchards, palace courtyards, temple gardens and the magnificent 17th-century Durbar Hall of the Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace).

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 that very first night, when the Shams Ensemble from Iran performed against the theatrical backdrop of the Zenana Deodi. Once the strictly guarded inner sanctum of the Maharaja's many wives (and disappointingly no longer guarded by eunuchs), the rugged fort walls and exquisite carvings all illuminated in gold and red created an extraordinarily magical setting.

The acoustics in the Zenana Deodi were an architectural and mind blowing wonder. The singers’ passionate voices were artfully accompanied by the rhythmic sounds of ancient Persian instruments, such as the Tambour (a long-necked Kurdish lute) and the Bendir (a frame-style drum), both played for thousands of years to celebrate such spiritual gatherings. Two whirling dervishes in traditional long white frocks and conical hats span in ritual silence behind the musicians, accompanied by the dramatic rumblings of thunder in an approaching storm. This is exactly what we had come to see — and the audience rose as one to give them a standing ovation.

I had chosen to perch on a seat high up at the back so I could ‘people watch’ the audience, all bundled up in scarves and wraps against the chilly night air, I spotted an assortment of Colonels in double breasted suits, European ‘Sloanes’ in riding boots, Pushkar hippies in fakir hats and heavily made up Indian ‘princesses’ who added an appropriate touch of bling. Once the applause from the final performance of the night had died down, the Zenana Deodi was transformed into a night club, with DJ Rumi rocking the house to an enthusiastic and by now rather sozzled crowd.

The following day brought with it some much appreciated sunshine and I was keen to get back to the Fort as soon as possible. After tackling the entrance ramp with much more vigour this time, I found the next circled event on my programme to be set in a beautifully peaceful spot amidst the orchard gardens. Fourteen classical poets and musicians from the great Muslim desert communities of Rajasthan, the Manganiyar and Langa castes, were lined up across a long platform ready to play. Retelling the stories of ancient desert poets, they sang proudly and passionately of their heritage - and of the chivalry, love and mysticism of their Rajasthani heroes. Such musical performances celebrating the centuries old links between daily and spiritual life in the region are an art form that is sadly fading out, making the experience all the more poignant.

Throughout the Festival, there were plenty of other groups of talented musicians from Rajasthan who won the hearts of the crowds with their Qawwali performances - a form of Sufi Islamic devotional music originating from the Indian subcontinent. It was the littlest performers of course who inevitably stole the show. With their huge kohl smudged eyes and glittering headscarves, they sang with such purity and innocence alongside their elders, bravely trying to keep up with the incredibly lively pace of the drummers.

One of my favourite acts was Kavita Seth - a Hindi cinema legend, who performed to a rapturous crowd accompanied by the rousing music of her Sufi band 'The Karwaan Group'. The famous Lebanese singer, Abir Nehme, also held her audience spellbound with a powerfully versatile range of holy songs from Arabic and Orthodox Christian traditions. Barefoot in a long black dress and huge bejewelled earrings, her music evoked the rich traditions of age-old Lebanese and Moroccan Andalusian Sufi gatherings, ranging from ancient lullabies to Gregorian hymns. I suddenly noticed the current Maharaja of Jodhpur, the elderly and gracious Maharaja Gaj Singh-ji, being ushered past me to take his seat. As he walked, he was already transfixed by these classic songs, vividly retold from ancient faraway lands and being performed in his own magnificent fortress.

I found every single performance I saw during the Festival to be both highly entertaining and unfailingly moving. So many charismatic musicians, some of them simply tucked away in little porticos along the entrance ramp, sang with such joyful rapture and emotion that every passer by stopped to listen. And oh, the colours! I saw Jogi Musicians from Jaisalmer in swaying dresses of brilliant beads, the Mohammad Ba Jeddoub troupe from Morocco in striking scarlet fezzes and the Baul Fakirs in the traditional multi-coloured robes of the ancient Bengalese mystics. India is never short of colour but this was taking it to the next level for me.

The World Sufi Spirit Festival is undoubtedly the most exclusive and unforgettable way to experience the splendour of Jodhpur’s ‘Citadel of the Sun.’ You are free to wander all over the Fort during the event, whether in search of the next amazing performance or to breathe in the spectacular views from its historic ramparts. A spiritually rewarding experience indeed – and one for which I will undoubtedly return.