Thursday, December 27, 2007

Jaisalmer Lohars, xmas with the Langa's and Bikaner rats and the assassination of Bhutto

Long read ahead, in 5 days a lot happens.

Jaisalmer was a real goat town, goats everywhere. And not to forget cows ofcourse.
Our idea during our short Jaisalmer stay was to travel with a group of musicians into the desert 40 km’s further, where they would be playing for tourists who were on camel safari. Since we were not going to do a camel safari this time it was better to get the real thing done by driving with musicians in a jeep, seeing them prepare their performance, playing and returning back with them. And we managed that by paying them for putting up with us. The ride was pretty bumpy and the scenery soon turned sandy and desolate with sparse houses next to the road, which made us stare out of the open backside of the jeep. We were 12 people crammed sardine style into one jeep topped with their instruments, because they normally travel with *just*10 people per jeep. Guess who those 2 extra persons were, hah. When we got to Khuri we saw the impressive sand dunes rising nearby, an amazing sight. Khuri is a little village from which camel safari’s leave or pass through for the obvious reason and we were a bit disappointed to learn that the musicians wouldn’t play on those dunes but in a open aired courtyard of a hotel instead. Bah. As they prepared, Maarten filmed the views and their -female- dress-up, I strolled around talking to some locals and kids and ended up at the only grocery shop in town with kids in tow to buy them some chocolate. Neither me or Maarten easily buy candy for groups of kids, as playing the white sugardaddy (or sugarmommy such as the many female tourists like to play) serves no sincere purpose or example at all to the locals nor the kids except that the foreigner feels redeemed for his/her compassion. The local adults even get annoyed with this dandy habit that some tourists carry out and we can understand that. I mean, it’s not like these kids need sweets, but anyway I fell prey to their sugary wishes and returning them with sweets. A bigger crowd of kids had gathered and still running in from everywhere, pushing the kids away that I had original intended to give the sweets. After giving a few choc drops in the chaos I gave up and donated the rest of the sweets to a local old man who could control the hand-out much better than I could.

Back at the courtyard, the tourist were pouring in and taking their seats. No western tourists though, but eastern tourists from India even, as they all came from Kolkata region (Calcutta). We saw the men dress up as female Kabeliya dancers in matching dresses. We knew that there would be Kabeliya dancers, so we naturally expected women…but as no women were in our jeep we already started wondering, even after the guys who were to dress up, gave us some hints. Needless to say, even as males taking up the female act they danced amazingly well and felline. At some point one of the dancers did a special spiral dance which made him turn around the whole courtyard on his knees while the dress covered and touched the ground. The music was ok, but they played just the touristy songs that we know all too well, like the folk snobs we seem to have become now –ho ho-. It did get very funny at the end when one of the dancers came to our spot and dragged me (oh no!) off my chair to dance with him in front of all the tourists, who ofcourse were laughing heartily. But it also broke the ice for the Kolkata people and they soon were all dancing around me. Yup, Indian people and dancing, always a good combination! One older guy was pretty drunk and loud and another old guy had bizarre moves as well as the kids who went mental in spastic kicking moves. Well, Maarten and his camera couldn’t be happier and through his camera he escaped to dance with Kolkata men like I had to endure, though fun it was. Ah well. Added to that, the best male dancer of our musicians asked me if I wanted to spend the night with him.

I don’t think men have ever offered themselves so much to us as here, but that would be a another bunch of stories that ended with jolly *nahi’s*. That being said, the times that fathers have tried to marry their prime teenage or adult daughters off to us have also been numerous.

We were supposed to leave Jaisalmer the next morning and when we got out with our bags we noticed it was grey skies all around and raining softly, here at the outskirts of the desert! While walking to the bus station just opposite the road of our hotel, we bumped into Neire -how could it be such coincidence-, who was chatting away to some Lohar folks at the side of the road. Neither of us knew that we would be in Jaisalmer at the same time, especially since Neire had already been here and it was rather funny after we had posted his pictures on the blog days before –which he also didn’t know-. He came back to buy some morchang mouth harps from a skilled Lohar metal worker and musician. We followed him to the Lohar quarter nearby, which is the area where also all the other folk musicians live from several castes.
We actually wanted to get to Barnawa, the remote village of the Langa musicians, so we quickly called them to check if they were expecting us. It was a stroke of good luck that they rather wanted us to come the next day as we were only too happy to stay with the Lohar musicians and Neire and hear some music. The father of the house introduced himself kindly as Mohan Lal Lohar. I’ve heard his name before, but I can’t put my finger on it from where….from the net, readings on rajasthani music or unlicensed compilation cd’s? who knows. He was very open about being recorded by us and gave a lot of his time without any hidden agenda behind it. We were sitting in the courtyard while his family sat with us, the goats walked on the roof and the rain was sparsely dripping on us. Mohan played several morchang pieces for us and then brought all his different sets of flutes out, from algoza’s (double flutes) to murli’s (snakecharmer flute). It sounded amazing and we sat quietly listening to him as he kept on playing and giving explanations to the songs and instruments. As he is a Lohar metal worker, he gilds morchangs himself and he showed us a whole variety of them. How could we not buy some? Beautiful handcrafted instruments with good sound and at a good price to support his family. As he understood our musical interest, he also made us listen to a cassette of his group in which he and his cousin play in. Such rough folk sound! Upon the first tones it sounded like a bizarre mash of Nass el Ghiwane or Tinariwen’s Northern African Gnawa sound mashed with recorded roughness equal to the feedback of Konono No.1 or any semi-distorted group. It had a Rajasthani coating ofcourse, but unlike the other Rajasthani folk musi. The nature of these songs -or rather chants- was more repetitive, with simple recurring melodies and ongoing chants to a near trancelike state. Wow, flustered. We will record a session with Mohan and his group in February to see if we can take it further for them, perhaps a proper release? Later in the afternoon we visited Thokmey again, a kind Tibetan person who we met a few days before in his shop in the Jaisalmer fort. We had bought a few Tibetan metal singing bowls and he gently explained us how to use them in sound and for relaxation. Metal rimmed stroking drones as lush soundscapes that do the body and mind good. Hmmm healthy soundscapes. We also talked about Thokmey about Tibet, as we might go to Tibet in March if time allows. After meditating together in his cosy small room in silent darkness we said goodbye, perhaps to see him again in the near future.

We took an early morning bus towards Jodhpur as to get to the town of Barnawa Jagir we had to get off at Shergarh, in the middle of nowhere 100 km's before Jodhpur. We attracted a lot of stares and gazing children in Shergar. A local told me that in the past year only 2 whites had come through Shergarh. On the phone Mehruddin Khan had promised to pick us up, though his tiny knowledge of English and our equally tiny Hindi made it a difficult talk. We just had to hope that he would come, or him perhaps hoping that we would be waiting in Shergarh so that he didn't need to take a jeep 30 km's for nothing. Mehruddin did arrive and we were taken to the village, this time really driving on sand roads only and past empty spaces with just bush and small trees decorating the dry hills. Small brick or mud huts with straw roofs clustered together into village circles where people lived in rural conditions without electricity. Most were tending their livestock of goats and cows and some had little acres to grow vegetables. We stopped in one of those small villages as Khan wanted to inspect the construction of a well. He later told us that he is financing the building of several wells in 8 or so villages in this region. This way and in the next dasys we quickly learned that he holds a certain authority as a sort of tribal chief or mayor in this remote region and therefore he makes the noble effort in bettering conditions for the locals. Either through his own musical earnings or from retaining contacts with local district authorities.
Upon arrival in his home village Barnawa Jagir, it seemed as if the whole village flooded to come and see us. At least all the young children, which must have been 100 or so, not even counting the ones that were working at that moment. Again the flustered looks and curiosity steered their behavior to swamp us with jeers, touches and questions. Overflow of attention went on and when we could rest a bit in Khan's house -the biggest and only concrete house of the village-, we got swamped by his family and close friends. We didn't mind and enjoyed it, but it takes up a lot of your energy. That we also learned in these 2 days. ;) So, this was the early evening of christmas night, 24th. The house was split up in different parts, where one part was for cooking, the rooms of his sons, the room of his wife, while his own room in which we stayed, stood loose from the rest. Hah, he even had satelite dish tv installed and over 50 channels. Imagine, it's kinda bizarre you find yourself in a very remote part of the state, dry and desert-like, where not many people even have electricity or decent houses as we know it back home, and there we were...watching some kitsch Bollywood action movie on tv with the whole family. At some point when zapping, we saw a glimpse of the match between Manchester Utd and Everton, far away in cold and wet winterish England, yet here in dry and warm spheres. Funny that.
We ate a glorious meal of vegetables, omelet and chappati bread and we went to bed early enough, exhausted from the travel and absorbed attention. The next day Mehruddin had the idea to take us to a remote Kabeliya village in the Barmer district near Balotra and to record female songs and dances of people that did not perform for tourists but for their patrons only. In this case, we think that Mehruddin was acting the role of patron, so that he could demand them to play for us. We did have to hire a jeep and pay the Kabeliya women, which was normal so we agreed on a fee, more than we had in mind for our low budget but a chance not to miss either. Another ride in desert and remote parts, 70 km's and there we were on top of a small sandhill where a small Kabeliya village with similar straw roofed huts existed, without electricity. This village whose name we didn't catch, was the home of the Nath people, a subcaste within the Kabeliya caste who are known for their combined female singing style. Also here the attention of the whole village was caught by our sight and all kids circled around us, though some were more scared as they probably had never seen a white person in the flesh. Even many of the women were looking amazed at our skin features, Maarten's height, blue eyes, lanky blond curls and eyebrow piercing, trying to touch or study them. We had to wait several hours as the women didn't hasten to prepare and our jeep had to pick up another singer in a bigger village. Their best female singer was struck by malaria, but she still would perform for us. Whether that was because of the lure of promised money or Mehruddin's demand, we didn't find out. In the meantime we played shabby cricket with the kids, throwing balls and while Maarten was taking a nap on the rubber band beds, I got several babies pushed into my arms to hold. Some babies got frightened by my unusual looks, while the mothers laughed at my effort to shush. When all was ready, 3 women of various ages (from young adults to the middle aged woman with malaria) started singing lines that sometimes supported each other in range or entwined into polyphonic singing. Amazing voices and they sung songs that we did not hear before, mostly those songs that they sing in the village and for special occasions. In some songs, 1 or 2 of the women or another girl started dancing in a very small circle, turning around and swaying without losing her direction nor pace.
At the end of the afternoon we were finished. Many people in the village asked us for money, but how can you help so many families at once without discriminating other families? We hope that at least our fee will benefit many of them as it normally goes in such villages, we were told. The for them high fee had a good justification in means of their skills and circumstances and our ability to give.

When we returned, we got a mighty good dinner of wholegrain badi breads and pieces of mutton (goat) put in front of us. Yeah we are vegetarians, so what to do?
Maarten more than me, as I still eat fish and sometimes meat on special occasions. To refuse would be impolite and as it was christmas day, well, it surely was somewhat special to eat the mutton, so we did and it tasted great -blush blush-. Not that we cared about the sake of a christmas dinner. The Khan's did neither, as they are Islamic according to the Muhammadan tradition that many Rajasthani nomad castes follow.
In the evening as well as the next morning we recorded sessions with Mehruddin and his brother Nijam. Mehruddin's session consisted of the Surandi and Sarangi, along Dholak, a hollow jug or pot and Khartals for percussion. We were very tired, still from the visit at the Nath village so after Mehruddin's session we fell asleep quickly. Nijam's session the next morning was done by the Algoza double flute and also with Dholak. Both sessions were very good as it straight away proved the high professional level of the brothers in Rajasthani and Langa music. Playing several international tours or have albums released on world music labels isn't a simple thing to do. We had to leave after Nijam's session, as we had to get to more north on our way to Punjab. But before all that, we had to agree on a price to pay to Mehruddin as patriarch of the Khan family. We had already told him about our low budget, despite us being from Europe or thinking that we surely had a financial back-up in the form of payed work if we recorded his sessions and staying at his house. Fair enough. In the end the demanded fee was *a lot* higher than he first made us believe so we felt genuinely disappointed after these 2 magnificent days.
It was a pity that he didn't make it clear to us from the start what his expectations were and what costs would be added. Maybe it was also our fault for not taking initiative earlier either. In the end we paid a hefty sum, something we would have never paid if we had known before. But just as with the Nath we now feel good about it, as we know that Mehruddin will distribute most of this money for the families and towns and not just to his own chest. Also the experience counts a lot for us and we are happy to have been, seen and done all this in Barnawa Jagir.

Mehruddin took us by jeep to Jodhpur and all last/tiny financial squabbles were solved with some advice of Kuldeep of Rupayan Sansthan institute. We don't blame Mehruddin, since that is the way it went and we parted without further anger.
Jodhpur is such a bizarre city with quirky locals, we don't know why but except of the good people of Rupayan who have helped us a great deal, we otherwise encountered a lot of social stumble blocks with locals, who either could or would not help us for the most simple things or make it difficult without reason. Kinda funny really. Not to mention the amount of people who walked around with a jink from their legs, we lost count.

We got to Bikaner in the middle of the night on a very slowwww train from Jodhpur.
In Bikaner there isn't much to do, so the only thing of importance to us what to visit Deshnok, where the Karna Mati temple was. The temple famous for being filled with rats, oh yes! Holy rats, as legend says that the goddess Karni Mata brought all the dead storytellers back to life in the shape of rats. You have to enter without shoes. Me on bare feet, Maarten still with socks. We had expected rooms filled to the roof with rats as your mind would quickly revel about, but the amount of rats was a little disillusionment as the rats weren't that numerous. And despite their are being fed fresh milk, grains and sweets every day, you would think they would look healthy. Wrong, as a lot of them had scabs from fighting, scruffy bodies and sometimes missing an eye or two or having swollen body parts. Yum. We fed some rats from our hands with sweets we bought, but it wasn't any more special than what Maarten had done night before at Jodhpur station. Which was jumping down on the rails in between the fat station sewer rats and feeding them cookies. It was fun though to see the rats running around fairly relaxed in broad daylight and by running over people's feet and thus scaring the obvious folks who feared them (mostly women, western tourists and others). Next to us someone -a female tourist- had stepped on a young rat by accident, so it bled to death by the head, yuck. Temple law says that anyone who harms/kills a rat in the temple has to pay a fine of the rat's weight in gold. No temple persons were around at that moment, luckily for the crusher.
So, that was the rat temple, short lived fun. Maarten filmed some scenes and we left. We finally got some things repaired in Bikaner as we both had technical problems with our battery packs and other stuff which limited us for the last week or so.

All done, so we could take the sleep night train to Jalandhar, Punjab, where we are now since this afternoon! On a sleeper night train of 12 hours long, enough time to snooze. Such change of scenery and people already! Lots of lush green fields filled with corn, grains and vegetables (almost looking like western Belgium or northern France) which is in stark contrast to the dry yellow lands of Rajasthan of the past 2 months. Also the people here speak with different accents and wear the sikh turbans.
This morning when we passed Firozpur, we were just a few kilometers away from the Pakistan border cut off by the river Sutlej. We are supposed to go to Pakistan Punjab next week, but as you might have heard about the sudden chaos in Pakistan with the assassination of supposed female president Benazir Bhutto, we don't know now if we can get in or even get a visa. Or if it's safe for us to go....hmmm. We have only heard good stories about Pakistan from other travelers so far, so it's hard to say really.

More about that tomorrow. Now we're off to the Shree Baba Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan festival of Punjabi and classical music for the next 3 days, on a press accreditation!

Oh yeah, for pictures, look to the right hand side in the link bar as Maarten has made a nifty photoviewer some weeks ago where we are uploading all photo's according to the places we've been. We'll limit the amount of photo's in the posts from now on as it takes a lot of time for us loading them up and for you loading the blog.

...our next project in Punjab about to kick off!

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