Sacred sounds and debaucherous drumming in Rajasthan

Sacred sounds and debaucherous drumming in Rajasthan

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By Georgie Pope
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This is the second in a two part series where Georgie Pope, founder of Sound Travels tours, goes in search of the people and places that will make up her Great Rajasthani Adventure. You can read part one, where she meets the gypsies of Jaipur and a musical family in the village of Shimla, here. This time, Georgie journeys through the final stages of her adventure to find the characters that make Rajasthani music what it is.

One July evening in 2011 I found in my inbox the best email I’d ever received. It was an invitation for me to bring my Sound Travels guests to India’s holiest and most popular of Sufi shrines – the Ajmer Sharif, the burial site of revered saint Moinuddin Chisti – to witness qawwali (a sacred form of Sufi music performed in Sufi shrines across India).

The email was from Salman, the young director of the Chisty Foundation, which oversees the spiritual and administrative wellbeing of the shrine and its pilgrims. A holy man (or ‘Syed’) who has inherited the mantle from his late father, he had heard of my musical journeys from a mutual friend.

“If you would like to experience the Ajmer Sharif in an intense manner, we can offer help to organize a special evening Sufi concert by traditional qawwāls and a detailed ziyarrat (tour) of the Ajmer Sharif. It would be a wonderful way for us to connect with musafirs (travellers of the worlds) among which we are one. Peace, Prayers and Blessings from the Ajmer Sharif.”

What a glorious proposition – and Ajmer was only two hours’ drive from Jaipur. This would be our next stop!

Ajmer Sharif, Ajmer, Rajasthan

Just after I’d been to stay with Roshani in Shimla, I took a night coach to Jaipur, and then got an early bus to Ajmer the following morning. There had been a light rainfall the night before, so the road was clean and smelt good. The windows were wide open, the sun was golden and we stopped for chai half way. Excited about what I was about to discover, I felt that enormous rush of travel glee.

At the bus station I tried the number Salman had sent me, but got no answer. A moment later a slim young man in a white lace skullcap caught my eye. “Salman?” he said. “Um, yes.” I replied, and he ushered me into an autorickshaw.

Spluttering and juddering along the cobbles, we plunged into one of Ajmer’s jam-packed streets, lined with vendors,  crowded by shoppers and rendered even narrower thanks to the merrily flowing sewers cut into either side of the road. The young man sat in front, practically on the driver’s lap, and directed him uphill into ever-tighter streets until we reached a small square where a butcher had laid out his choicest halaal cuts. Leaving me without a moment to register delight or disgust at the oozing scarlet wares, the slim young man ducked into a side lane. I had no choice by to follow him through the maze of tiny passageways.

I had seen photographs of the Ajmer Sharif, domed and majestic and thronged by thousands of pilgrims. Totally disorientated amongst these winding streets, I couldn’t imagine where on earth it would fit around here. Was I following the right guy?

Ajmer, India - Rajasthani music

Setting eyes upon the magnificent Ajmer Sharif

“Sister!” The young man was beckoning me, a little impatiently now, through a doorway to my right. He led me down a corridor to a small room with two thin mattresses on the floor. “Salman?” I queried, hopefully. “Wait.” My guide flung open the shutters on the single window, marched from the room, and left me to do as I was told.

I was slightly awed. My happy travel rush had become a little diluted with apprehension. Was this where I was to meet Salman? In this little room with the mattresses? I wasn’t sure I liked it. I wasn’t quite sure my guests would either.

I wandered over to the window, and leant out to try and get my bearings. The sight was awesome. Below me, in its full glory, was the Ajmer Sharif – sparkling in the sunshine, surrounded by marble flooring and thronged with pilgrims. I realized that the city streets must tightly encircle this huge expanse of communal worship, and that I was in a room set into one of its great walls. I watched people chatting and praying, making offerings and herding their children, buying floral garlands, entering the holy inner sanctum or just sitting and – like me – observing everyone else.

“Come.” Forty minutes later and my guide reappeared to summon me from my vantage point. He led me from the room, down a flight of steps and into a book-lined study with no furniture except a beautiful Persian carpet. Cross-legged on the floor, in a white kurta and embroidered velvet kufi, was Salman. His voice calm and melodious, he was describing to two transfixed students the mystery and power of Sufism. Unacknowledged, I sat down next to them, and listened to the end of the lesson.

He finally turned and smiled at me in welcome. We would eat lunch, he said, and then he would show me the Sharif.

We dropped off our shoes at a side entrance, and as we entered the holy shrine, bits of rose petal got wedged between my toes. My head was covered by now with my scarf, so very little of my whiteness was apparent. Of the tens of thousands of pilgrims there, I was the only foreigner. Salman handed me a piece of cloth and a huge basket of rose petals, and then led me to the inner sanctum, where the tomb of Moinuddin Chishti lay under a hundredweight of flowers, surrounded by more holy men of the temple, and an intense crush of people. Salman helped me squeeze through the dangerously tightly packed bodies, and towards the wooden railing encircling the tomb. Himself a Syed, Salman was able to stand on the other side of the railing, from where he could help me offer my prayers to the great saint and receive blessings in return.

A great velvet cloth was thrown over my head and I felt the crowd heave me against the railing. As I fought the claustrophobia I heard Salman’s reassuring voice murmuring in Urdu. He blessed me and my family, the success of Sound Travels, and the safe arrival of my guests. In the dark, under the heavy velvet, I was extremely moved.

As evening descended on the Durgah, the ceremony of the lights began. The shrine was set aflame with lamps and fairy lights, and the Syeds lit candles in the inner sanctum. I sat outside with hundreds of others as the place lit up around us, and finally the qawwali musicians gathered to sing their love to the saint.

For the next hour I listened, enraptured by the masculine chorus of praises and watched as as the musicians gathered handfuls of money from a euphoric crowd. They never took their eyes off the entrance to the sanctum, and waved angrily at listeners who blocked their line of vision to the resting place of their beloved saint. The crowd thickened and then gradually dwindled, and I was shown back to my room with the mattresses. I lay down to read a book on Sufism and the salat al-isha, an evening call to prayer, floated over me, as I dreamt happily of the trips I would organize to this magical place.

Nathoo Lal Solanki, the most charismatic percussionist in Pushkar

I’ve known Nathoo for some years now. He plays the nagara drums – like kettle drums but smaller and louder – with an awesome skill and wit. He is no unsung hero, having toured over fifty countries (his passport consists of three passports stuck together, stuffed with valid visas for most countries in the world) and known to nearly every performing artist in Rajasthan.

We were sitting in the uninspiring setting of the VFS office in Delhi, sorting out a visa for him to travel to the UK for yet another show. It irritates him to have my help with these things, because he’s applied successfully for more visas than I’ve had hot rice and dal. But I am better at the online systems than him, so he has to put up with me.

As I was telling Nathoo about my plans for bringing tourists on musical adventures in India, he immediately perked up. If there’s one thing that rivals Nathoo’s musical ability, it’s his entrepreneurial zeal, and I am never afraid of exploiting his skills – I’m generally convinced he’s fleecing me.

“You bring your guests to Pushkar. I’ll teach them to play nagara and make a beautiful concert by the lake. You don’t have to worry. I’ll organize everything.”

I wasn’t worried, but I still thought I would visit Pushkar to look at hotels and work out details of the trip, so in the afternoon following my inspiring visit to Ajmer, I took a taxi over the Aravalli hills to Pushkar – less than an hour’s drive away.

Pushkar, India - Rajasthani music

I had barely had time to put down my bags in the hotel, when a porter knocked at my door and informed me that my friend was waiting for me at the reception. Nathoo was not going to let me enter his city without a proper welcome.

“Why are you staying here? You could have stayed at my house! Or a much better hotel. Don’t worry. Next time I will organize everything.” He told me as he gave me a huge barrel-sized hug.

I squeezed onto his motorbike between him and his son and we whizzed across the wonderful, tourist-tat filled, spiritual, hippy-incense smelling town that is Pushkar.

I’d been wondering about Nathoo’s home life. What must it be like to be married to a man who travels the world, sometimes accompanied by one of his sons (all three accomplished musicians), who hangs out with all sorts of foreigners, musicians, hoteliers and wheeler-dealers high and low, while you remain behind in a simple concrete house in Pushkar?

His wife, a solid, smiling woman, took me in her arms in a hearty embrace, the moment I stepped over the threshold. Taking me firmly by the arm, she sat me down on a bed in a small room full of women and children. There was a pregnant woman lying behind me and two ladies with babies sitting on the floor tucked under a blanket with three older women, who grinned at me broadly. This, then, was what life was like at home: full of women.

I was handed babies and asked about my marital status and the like, until Nathoo – who had disappeared for some time – emerged in the doorway with a bottle of whisky. In the yard outside, I could hear someone playing a nagara rather weakly.

Image by Georgie Pope

“Time for a concert, no Georgie-ji?” Nathoo offered.

I disengaged myself from the ladies room with the familiar but uncomfortable feeling that I was being treated as an honourary man and accepted the attractive offer of a drink: three parts whisky to no parts water.

The hesitant drummer was Nathoo’s youngest grandson, sitting in his father’s lap and being shown – at two years old – how to hold the sticks. Upon my arrival, Narsi – Nathoo’s second son – seized the little hands around the sticks, and started to play a funky groove. The other women appeared and, sitting close to the duo, started to sway and move their wrists, gesturing for me to join them in their seated dance.

Nathoo poured another stiff shot which I refused with a laugh – but it wasn’t for me. His wife took the glass and raised it to an image of Kali, painted in bright colours behind me on the whitewashed wall.

“It’s Kali’s day” Nathoo told me, which didn’t surprise me too much; given the size of the Hindi pantheon you can expect to worship at least one god on any day of the year. What did take me aback was Nathoo’s wife’s next gesture: she held the glass against the wall and drizzled whisky over the goddess.

“First drink for Kali”, Nathoo explained.

Without touching the glass to her lips, Nathoo’s wife then drained the remainder of the liquid. She refilled the glass and everyone did the same.

Image by Georgie Pope

The men of the family then gathered to play a stunning and impossibly loud series of pieces, changing pace and toying with our expectations by rattling off impressive solos before settling back into the groove again. The whisky glass circulated some more, and then the women took over discarding the sticks and playing with their hands and singing in the most uproarious manner I had ever heard. It wasn’t a beautiful sound, but it was certainly a wonderful thing.

I was not allowed to remain seated, so I danced and danced until my bare feet blistered against the blankets, and my head reeled from the whisky. Encouraged to respond in ‘Rajasthani style’ by the ever-ready Nathoo, I pushed banknotes into the hands of the singers who stuffed them in their bras between slugs of whisky.

At around midnight, someone produced dinner, and then I was delivered back to my hotel by one of the sons. The following morning I woke up with a terrible hangover and almost missed my bus back to Jaipur. I hadn’t done much of the research I’d planned and was going to have to leave the arrangements for my tour completely up to Nathoo – as he had intended. I did come away with one vital piece of information though: at least I knew he could throw one hell of a party.

Georgie Pope worked at the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) in Jodhpur, India – a celebration of music from the north-western desert state of Rajasthan. In 2011, Georgie created the Rajasthani Musical Adventure to show off these cultural riches. Head to her website to find out more. The Rajasthani Musical Adventure takes place every October in the lead up to the Rajasthan International Folk Festival. For details and enquiries about joining this trip or other musical adventures in India, please visit http://www.soundtravelsltd.com.

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