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Festival Report: Taalbelia 2017, Mandawa

The three-day art and music festival’s second edition featured special performances amidst grand settings

Anurag Tagat Jan 01, 2018

Mohit Chauhan at the Big Ibhah stage on day three of Taalbelia Festival in Mandawa, Rajasthan in December 2017. Photo: Courtesy of The Big Beat

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In the same year, Taalbelia returned for seconds, with the 18th century Castle Mandawa and not-too-far apart Desert Resort opening its door to musicians and fans of all kind. Perhaps spooked by the rain which played spoilsport at their debut edition in January, organizers Event Crafter and the Royal family of Mandawa shifted their date to the Christmas long weekend.

Held between December 23rd and 25th, three hours away from Jaipur, Taalbelia seemed to have taken into serious consideration the idea of a one-off, curated performance. While last year featured fusion greats Indian Ocean jam with saxophonist George Brooks and Grammy-winning Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, the Big Ibhah stage under the wide open skies of the Desert Resort was touted to host three exceptional performances – rock veterans Indus Creed jamming with Shillong’s Lou Majaw, fusion outfit Prem Joshua Band having vocalist Mahesh Vinayakram lead them and singer Mohit Chauhan, who is now known for his Bollywood repertoire, to perform a largely non-film song-oriented set.

Day one

At the Dhobi Ghat stage (rather plaintive in its look) proceedings began just as the sun was setting and the bonfires were lit, with musicians from the regional Shekhawati tradition taking the stage for an introductory performance. Bhanwari Devi, one of the most powerful voices in the region and a returning performer to Taalbelia, soared to her best, even as families and attendees were trickling in and taking their place by the warmth.

Snug and comfortable might be a good way to enjoy one kind of performance, but when Mumbai’s Ankur & the Ghalat Family took the stage next (also a returning performer), he was tasked with getting those seated all the way to the empty front. Building up steadily from “Jaanu” and “Tum Badal Gaye” to getting the crowd involved on “Sabse Peeche Hum Khade” and then slowing down again when some of the crowd vanished, to finally closing emphatically with “Mohabbat Zindabad.”

The energy moved up the hill at the Big Ibhah stage – which was huge considering the audience size on day one only went up to about a hundred. Nonetheless, Indus Creed were there to have fun – especially since they had Lou Majaw on stage, rocking out to songs like “Rose in My Garden” as well as a blues-rock cover of Bob Dylan’s “Everybody Must Get Stoned.” Uday Benegal introduced Majaw halfway through their set, as a “master who precedes us all.” And only a master can be dressed in short-shorts and a sleeveless vest in below 10 degrees weather and not show it at all. Since they were minus keyboardist Zubin Balaporia (and had Nathan Thomas on bass and Andrew Kanga on drums, subbing for Krishna Jhaveri and Jai Row Kavi, respectively), they didn’t indulge fans with “Top of the Rock,” but the energy remained one of the festival’s high points.

Lou Majaw (center) on stage with Indus Creed at Taalbelia. Photo: Courtesy of The Big Beat

Another Taalbelia returnee – Prem Joshua – had Mahesh Vinayakram for company, but the crowd seemed only dimly appreciative of the fusion set, one that held our attention for its impressive instrumentation than songs. With proceedings starting marginally late, It was past midnight by the time Bengaluru-based Malfnktion took to the decks, who delivered a jumpy set of yesteryear Bollywood music samples set to hip-hop and electronic beats as part of his two concept albums. The set that followed – by another returnee, bass producer Sound Avtar – too had only a handful of attendees now staying back.

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Day two

With the day stages now up and running at Castle Mandawa, Taalbelia also started up its numerous workshops – lac bangle-making, kite-making and a miniature art showcase – by the pool. In one of the many indoor courtyards, traditional folk artists opened proceedings between 10 and 11 am at a stage named Meera Chowk. Sumitra Das Goswami, who has previously performed all over the world, including sharing the stage with folk act Mumford and Sons, woke up plenty of residents and attendees with her soulful renditions of Meerabai and “Kattey.”

Programming was solid on the second day, but the sequence could’ve used a little more sense – it started off smoothly enough with Mumbai ethnotronic act Filter Coffee playing almost-dark electronic-fused tabla and flute on a sunny day and progressed to one of the best sets of the festival by rock duo Namit Das and Anurag Shanker. Das and Shanker were very much in their element, playing from their EP Din Gaye but peaked with a power-packed rendition of Kumar Gandharva’s “Udd Jayega Hans Akela.”

But following this, there was the wedding band-esque entertainment from Rapperiya Baalam, who didn’t really rap much at all, but managed to get the post-lunchtime crowd up on their feet and dance. After a few hours of rest, the festival resumed at Dhobi Ghat with the traditional tunes from Sawan Khan Manganiyar – who stuck to the mainstay folk songs such as “Kesariya Balam” and “Dama Dam Mast Qalandar” – and then followed up with the trap-heavy set from singer Monica Dogra, and then resumed at the Big Ibhah stage with fusion from Maati Baani (who were later joined by the jovial Mooralala Marwada on vocals), live electronic-rock from New Delhi’s Gaurav Raina aka GRAIN.

A traditional Gair dance performance at the Risala stage at Taalbelia. Photo: Courtesy of The Big Beat

While Dogra presented herself as visceral as possible, dancers and all, she did go from restraining to swear on stage (something that Benegal, Ankur Tewari and the next day’s performer, Mumbai alt rock/fusion artist Anand Bhaskar were fully conscious of) to justifying the intention of using curse words. Everyone was up front and loving it.

Dogra went over to the Big Ibhah stage as well with Raina’s all-star live set as Grain, including singer-producers such as Abhishek Bhatia (Curtain Blue), Tarana Marwah (Komorebi), redoing her song “Time to Restart” and newer unreleased songs such as “Can You Hear Me,” with Marwah as the lead vocalist. All three singers (and Raina on vocals) closed the set with an electro version of U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky.”

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The flow took better shape by then, followed by a sublime techno set by Avantika Bakshi and then desi bass courtesy of producer MojoJojo, with the afterparty also getting a bit deserted.

Day three

Real diversity came into Taalbelia on the final day, with the spoken-word collective Kommune presenting three artists – Shamir Reuben, Hussain Haidry and Mohammed Muneem (from rock band Alif) – who were all about storytelling. Another set of returnees to Taalbelia beckoned – with New Delhi’s Shadow & Light playing to an intimate audience, often letting them dictate the tempo of the set.

What performance times seemed to hinge on, we realized, is the crowd turning up. And despite living in the same quarters or having shuttles between venues readily available, it took until 6:30 pm for the Dhobi Ghat stage to kick off, two hours behind schedule. Nonetheless, when the crowd was there, it was present and engrossed in the antics of Anand Bhaskar Collective, who played just over an hour of heavy as well as melodic tunes, including a medley of covers – “Hamma Hamma” and “Urvashi”  by A.R. Rahman – but it was sing-alongs such as “Tere Bina” and “Fanaa” which gained them new fans.

Anand Bhaskar Collective’s violinist Shravan Sridhar at the Dhobi Ghat stage on day three of Taalbelia. Photo: Courtesy of The Big Beat

The flow that followed was all charismatic, from the disco-funk/electro-swing of Madboy/Mink – who tested out a handful of new Brit-rock/psych-leaning material at the Dhobi Ghat stage – to the multitudinous folk presentation of Desert Symphony. Put together by another returning performer – Gazi Khan – it proved that many had gathered to hear Rajasthani and Sufi folk songs more than the latest tune. It didn’t matter how many times over “Kesariya Balam,” “Dama Dam Mast Qalandar” or “Nimbooda Nimbooda,” because watching this kind of fully-equipped ensemble of musicians performing these songs was perfect.

Mohit Chauhan, on the other hand, strayed by song four into Bollywood territory, perhaps reading the crowd that had gathered to see him play songs such as “Nadaan Parindey Ghar Aaja.” He did indulge himself in songs from his solo albums presented in a somewhat stripped-down format, including Silk Route’s classic “Dooba Dooba.”

When the electronic artists took over, it was nearly past midnight, but that didn’t stop Reggae Rajahs from keeping the party moving. The numbers only dwindled slightly after, which led to a short but powerful set by Raja Kumari (who still knew how to deliver even a brief set effectively and impressively) and all-out trap/twerk bangers from Su Real.

Taalbelia probably played it a bit safe by repeating performers, but they probably took a bigger risk by hosting it during the Christmas weekend, hoping this would be an ideal (even if expensive) holiday outing for music lovers. But there’s no dearth of artists we’d like to see in a regal setting like the one Taalbelia provides, and perhaps they can look beyond their bankable lot, sequenced in a much more sensible manner.

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