Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The Opium Bores

It had been billed as a half-day Bishnoi village safari, but turned out to be far more than that.

With a half day to spare in Jodhpur between the end of the music festival and the train back to Delhi, a five-hour village tour sounded ideal. Plus, I have more than a passing interest in the Bishnois, a sect of Hindu eco warriors, who famously offer their heads in place of trees earmarked to be cut down.

Of course, being the morning after the night before we were already a little weary, so missed the 8am wakeup call by a half hour, but soon were away from the smog and noise of the city and heading off-road, on soft sands pockmarked by tufts of tundra.

The first stop was a small hut at the end of a barren stretch of road. It was home to a Bishnoi family. Only the children were home and we sat on a scratch camel hair rug and drank tea, but they shrugged when I tried to ask searing questions about their faith and devotion to living things.

The next stop - punctuated by a quick detour to check out at a local watering hole where migrating Siberian ibises had set up camp - was at the home of a master weaver, whose modest home, with blue paint flaking attractively off the timber beamed door, was like something out of a Taschen book.

His recently bereaved wife and her granddaughter showed me their matching silver ankle bracelets, part of the traditional dowry of their community. They are soldered on at their marriage time and thereafter are never removed, even after their husbands pass on. Each anklet weighs half a kilo.

Next up was another village homestead, a cluster of well-maintained rustic huts in the midst of a courtyard, with a couple of open-air shaded shelters. This was home to the extended family of Baba Ram, a farmer of the Choudhury caste. Baba had worked hard to have the means to educate his sons, both now working at one of Jodhpur's best hospitals, a source of immense pride to their father.

Despite the relative modesty of the buildings, the Choudhary family does well: inside the two enclosed built rooms (erected for the benefit of the sons' new wives) was an air cooler, a fridge, a TV, a DVD player and various other modernities.

Baba took us into another section with a roof covering made from bound branches, sat us down on a charpoy and pulled a small lump of opium from deep within his robes. Then he flaked off a bit into a wooden bowl, added water (Bisleri, for our benefit) and started rubbing vigorously to make a paste. This he then added to the top of a wooden contraption, added more water and offered it round, all the time chanting in praise of Shiva.

The opium ceremony, you see, is apparently to legitimise the repeated, ongoing use of opium by farmers to enable them to work the long, hard hours required.

Unfortunately it just tasted like mud to me and had no conceivable effect.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Jodhpur for the music festival

I've had a few pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming moments while in India. Barrelling down Marine Drive in a friend's car late at night, watching the lights of the Queen's Necklace twinkle. Watching the sun rise over Kanchenjunga from high on a mountain near Darjeeling. Drifting on the Keralan backwaters at twilight.

Now there's another to add to the list: sitting under the ramparts at a 550-year-old desert fort listening to master percussionist Pete Lockett jam with Rajasthani folk musicians.

It was late October in Jodhpur, at the so-called Rajasthan International Folk Festival (there was folk music, a lot of it, but it wasn't folksy in any way). I'd mentally bookmarked it at the start of the year when I'd seen a poster for it in Jaipur, and then promptly forgot about it till I got a notification on Facebook. Usually travel plans are scuppered by something, whether it be the inability to take a day off work, or train bookings, or hotel rooms, but all the ducks managed to line up and Jason and I got there on an overnight train, our very first trip to Jodhpur.

I do love Rajasthan, it's every cliche come to life but better because it's real.

The festival was on at the Mehrangarh Fort, which is not just large and imposing but extraordinarily well maintained. There's even a lift.

The first must-see on my list was a session called Living Legends, held in the Moti Mahal, a small marble hall just off a courtyard, through a maze of rooms and hallways. I stupidly forgot my batteries, meaning I couldn't take photos nor record any of it. And it was marvellous: it turned out to feature Patashi Bhopi, the wife of a man called Mohan Bhopa who was featured in William Dalrymple's Nine Lives. The chapter on him told of how he and his wife were among just a few to be the custodians of the oral legend of the Rajasthani folk deity Pabuji, told in song that takes a day and a night to recite. Patashi Bhopi - now a widow - recited a few verses while her son played his rawanhatta and marched, duck-like, so the bells on his ankles tinkled in time. (More reading)

Then it was through a decorative arch to another courtyard where a bar was set up. So as the sun went down we looked up at the sky and all around at the intricately carved archways and up at the small windows where courtesans once hung out of, with wonder.

Through another doorway and it was into a the main stage area. With floodlights up the sides of the fort walls and under the light of a full moon, a flamenco troupe from Barcelona danced and played and sung. Then they stood aside while Rajasthani folk musicians came on, with a ghoomer dancer in a wide blue skirt seemingly made almost entirely of mirrors. When she spun around in a circle the skirt flared out around her, like an extremely reflective spinning top, around and around and around. Then the flamencos came back out and while the musicians all jammed together, the dancers had what amounted to a dance-off. And no amount of foot-stamping and arched-back hissing could match the girth of the skirt which almost swallowed the stage. Ghoomer well and truly won that one.

Afterwards, we headed to another area of the fort that was converted into a nightclub, a kind of open-air courtyard with a roof terrace from which you could lean over the shin-height barrier and look at the dancefloor below. Or you could lounge on a mattress, lean back on a bolster, and look up at the fort lit up by the moonlight as you sipped your g&t.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Kingdom of Dreams

"Come to Kingdom of Dreams," said my friend L. "It'll be fun. They say it's like Dilli Haat on steroids."

Kingdom of Dreams is just that: a glittering dreamscape, a kind of alternate reality, like stepping into a movie set where everything looks like enhanced, hyper-real versions of how they otherwise are.

And then you flick the marble Doric columns and realise they're hollow, and made of Plaster of Paris.

But Kingdom of Dreams represents what the CWG structures could have been, were the games organised by the private sector. It's clean, it's grand, there are no caved-in ceilings or ripped carpet.

So what is it? It's a Bollywood theme park in Gurgaon, only open a couple of months.

Entrance to Kingdom of Dreams

And iIt's enormous. There's a theatre, with plaster elephants flanking the entrance. Lying alongside is perhaps the largest reclining Buddha I've seen. Inside, there's a stage, surrounded by decorative masks and elephant heads and filagree work. That's where the Bollywood musical Zangoora is staged.

But we didn't go to the theatre, instead we headed straight for Culture Gully, the bland name totally belying the experience. First, there's a giant representation of a lotus flower in bloom to walk through.

Outside might be dark but inside you find yourself under a perennially twilight sky, thanks to a ceiling painted like sky and clever natural lighting.

Culture Gully downstairs is made up of a heap of stands representing different states in India, laid out in a rough approximation of the map of India. So when you first walk in, there's Kashmir to the right, and Sikkim to the left, and Kerala right at the other end of the hall.

Kerala stand: a bar on a boat, with a beach

But these are no humble Dilli Haat food stalls, oh no. The Delhi stall is a mockup of the Red Fort , while Kerala is an actual houseboat, with a beach. Bombay is a train carriage, while Rajasthan has a peacock doorway just like the one at Jaipur's City Palace. Each stall is hawking either food, or souvenirs, or both.

Then, at various intervals, music starts up and out marches some kind of procession, such as a troupe of Himalayan dancers, complete with Chinese dragon. Or a clutch of monkey-men: dressed in silvery suits with blackened faces, these things were a menace, as monkeys are. One leapt in front of me and flailed his tongue menacingly, causing me to jump and nearly drop my kheema dosa.

Crazy monkey man

Upstairs is a bit more Palazzo Versace. There's a bar with a fluorescent pink floor, a shop selling incredibly expensive sherwanis and cufflinks and a whole other section with all sorts of fortune tellers. I had my palm read; he told me that good things will happen for me in coming months and I will have two children.

Since then, whenever i'm having a Bad India Day I think back to Kingdom of Dreams: its fake, Venice-in-Vegas sky, its larger-than-life religious statues, its fake twilight, and its liberal scattering of life-sized baby elephants, and think about life in a parallel India universe, and sigh. Clean streets, well-maintained buildings, space to walk, doormen who salute you, street theatre and hygenic street food.

But still, annoying and slathering monkeys when you least expect them.