Festival Review: Taalbelia Festival, Mandawa, Rajasthan
Held around a majestic castle overlooking Shekhawati scenery, the debut edition of the event was quite the queenly treat
Last week, while Rajasthan made national headlines fighting over facts from antiquity (in turn spawning SEO surges on the keywords ‘who is Rani Padmavati’), we made a tiny tryst with history in Mandawa. The dusty town, which is a three-hour drive from Jaipur, was hosting its debut music festival across four days in and around its most famous site, a weathered fort owned by the erstwhile rulers of the region. On the bill was a curious mix of music–from local singers Gazi Khan and Bhanwri Devi’s folk and psychedelic prog courtesy Bengaluru band Parvaaz to electronica by Dualist Inquiry, Arjun Vagale and others.
But more than the lineup itself, it was the venue that was the major draw at Taalbelia. The town of Mandawa has the largest concentration of frescos in the world and is often referred to as the biggest open art gallery in Asia. The breathtaking art can be found everywhere, be it the facades and ceilings of majestic havelis or public walls. It’s hard to contain your artsy-farsty self in Mandawa, especially if your Instagram feed hasn’t seen images beyond forced selfies with the pet cat.
But it rained!
Day one at Taalbelia turned out to be every festival organizer’s worst nightmare. The incessant, unseasonal rain in the region not only caused delays in flights landing in Jaipur but also washed out the two open-air stages, leaving the organizers to figure Plan B pronto. But much to the amazement of everyone who checked in to Castle Mandawa on that wet, freezing day, an alternative stage was built in record time, in the heritage hotel’s backyard . The makeshift stage went on to feature (slightly truncated) sets by artists from both the defunct outdoor stages, except Mumbai live electronic act Nicholson, who, despite flying in just in the nick of time, couldn’t soundcheck nor perform their set scheduled between 4-6PM that evening. The band was instead offered a set the following day, but owing to prior commitments, they had to return to Mumbai the same night.
Soulmate steals the show
Since the overall production had to be scaled down for the newly made stage, Manganiyar Classroom performed a logistically easy set. The Rajasthani folk troupe comprising child artists gave props like the school benches a miss and presented fewer pieces than usual. It was delightful nevertheless. However, the act that stole the show that evening was Shillong’s Soulmate. The quartet led by vocalist Tipriti Kharbangar and guitarist Rudy Wallang put their best, most fiery blues forward even as the mercury dropped to eight degrees. They performed material from their three albums, Shillong, Moving On and Ten Stories Up, gliding from rockabilly to straight-up ballads and even a Khasi folk tune. Mumbai rapper Divine played a fun set along with his crew Gully Gang and made sure at least half of the 200-odd people in the crowd hit the dance floor. For a large part of the audience, comprising mostly either 40-somethings or families with young children, Divine’s music came as a bit of sonic shock, although they warmed to it in no time.
Festival founder Siddhartha Chaturvedi would later tell us how the opening day had thrown him into a tizzy; before settling for the back lawn for the makeshift stage, he had spent a good three hours scouting for a large enough haveli in the whole of Mandawa that could accommodate the first-day crowd.
Sunshine on the second day
If day one tested everybody’s patience, the following morning witnessed a bright, grinning sun, giving those working behind-the-scenes enough opportunities to show off their organizational skills. Attendees staying at the castle woke up to the soothing voice of classical vocalist Sumitra performing Meera bhajans starting 8AM at the sit-down indoor stage Meera Chowk. This baithak-like stage never really managed to pull a crowd throughout the festival but we guess the real intention behind having it was just to offer a wider variety of folk to even the handful of people that cared.
When Bhanwri Devi cast a spell
The next performance at the mid-day stage, Risala, in the main lawn saw the biggest (pre-evening) turnout of the entire festival. But then Bhanwri Devi is known to have that effect on people. The ghoonghat-clad folk singer, whose charismatic, almost celestial voice is arguably unmatched in the entire country, nailed one song after another, even as she held the cordless mic confidently under her yellow dupatta, redefining what it means to be a diva on stage. And when she ‘dropped’ her most famous tune–“Sanwariya Ghat Mai Re,” popularised by Bollywood composer Ram Sampath as “Kattey” on season three of Coke Studio in 2013–the crowds at Risala did go a little crazy. The lawn brimmed with excited people enjoying the familiar melody even as an army of youths holding their camera phone rushed closed to the stage to capture her in action. What a fine sight!
Manganiyar artist Gazi Khan, joined by his group of singers, instrumentalists and kaalbeliya dancers, also presented an enchanting set of popular folk tunes from the treasure trove of Bulleh Shah and Amir Khusrau, such as “Chhap Tilak,” “Mast Qalandar,” and “Aafreen Aafreen.” New Delhi contemporary/fusion act Shadow & Light were next and although their soundcheck wasn’t the smoothest, they won the audience over instantly when they finally started their set–a wonderful melange of classical-meets-jazz/funk/R&B. Led by vocalist Pavithra Chari and keyboardist Anindo Bose, the quartet performed a bunch of songs from their two albums Elements (2016) and Shadow and Light (2014) such as “Dheemi,” “Unkahi,” as well as the calming “Virah,” loosely based on raga darbari.
Indie poster people take the stage
The two desert stages, Dhobi Ghat and Big Ibah, finally kicked off on the second day with some popular acts. Mumbai pop-rock band Ankur & The Ghalat Family’s gig was one that everyone seemed to enjoy a lot, what with his catchy tunes like “Mohabbat Zindabad,” and “Chand Chahiye.” New Delhi singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad’s set made a perfect soundtrack to the foggy evening while the city-based folk/electronica duo Hari & Sukhmani worked their subtle magic on the scanty crowd, especially when they presented their own versions of ghazal veterans Jagjit and Chitra Singh’s naughty tappes. Mumbai DJ/producer Piyush Bhatnagar aka Sound Avtar and Grain (the solo electronic project of New Delhi act Midival Punditz’ Gaurav Raina) went on to play interesting sets. Too bad the crowd kept thinning save for a few clusters of boisterous revelers who stuck around till the end.
Day three’s standout acts
The morning set at Meera Chowk saw a delightful performance by dhrupad vocalist Sunita Amin, which gave way to New Delhi singer-songwriter Dhruv Visvanath’s gig at Risala. Visvanath, armed with his guitar which he calls Andrea (and sometimes Catherine), is definitely one of indie music’s most promising young artists today. It helps that he is, unlike his contemporaries, neither reticent nor self-aggrandizing, and can arrest people with his wit when the songs sometimes don’t cut it (“Now I’d like introduce you to my band: my left hand and my right hand,” the percussive acoustic guitarist joked between songs). He performed material from his debut album Orion and effortlessly wooed the motley crowd that was probably watching him for the first time.
Soon after, Rajasthan Josh, led by singer/khartal player Chugge Khan, played a typical folk set, and invited a special guest on stage–Madhu, a dancer from Japan trained in Rajasthani folk. The sight of a foreigner in a voluminous lehenga whirling majestically got a lot of attendees really thrilled. Sadly the other ‘foreign’ act, the Germany-bred, Goa-based fusion artist Prem Joshua, who presented his signature stock of accented bhajans, failed to retain the crowd the next day, same stage, same time.
When Parvaaz and Indian Ocean brought warmth
The third and last evening was one a lot people were looking forward to the most, mostly because the only band on the lineup that they’d probably heard of was taking the stage. And Indian Ocean, like always, didn’t disappoint. The veteran folk-rockers from New Delhi pulled quite a few surprises on everybody, in fact: their jam with (the recent Padma Bhushan-conferred) Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and American saxophonist George Brooks was quite the treat, considering Indian Ocean’s setlist tends to stay more or less the same. Although Bhatt might have gotten a wee bit carried away when he urged the audience (now fairly high on jovial jugalbandis between the bass guitar and the Mohan veena) to sing along with him a rather patriotic lyric which went something like, “I love, I love India/ I love, I love India…” We guess an extra dose of nationalism in Modi’s India never hurt nobody. The Grammy-winning artist performed a longer, more intimate set the next morning at Risala, charming everyone one last time with delicious slides and riffs on the hybrid instrument.
But the mood builders that evening were Parvaaz, who are turning out to be indie music’s most poetic prog rockers. If you’ve tripped on “Gul Gulshan” and “Roz Roz” at a club gig, imagine listening to the haunting melodies in the middle of an arid desert. Parvaaz gripped the audience from the word go. The band also played some new tracks from their upcoming album; frontman Khalid Ahamed promised a studio sneak peek in March.
Not just a music festival
With its heritage hospitality and old-worldly vibe, Taalbelia turned out to be more than just a music festival. If you didn’t care for rock and reggae, the Shekhawati cuisine kept its mouth-watering promise. And with a little patience, you could even learn to make lacquer bangles (and break them just as easily, like we did!). Workshops focusing on traditional art, henna-making and horse-riding were on offer for those interested.
Despite some severe teething troubles (mostly logistical than artist-related), Taalbelia did manage to carve its own princely pocket among the many festivals that Rajasthan currently hosts. And going by the number of interesting on-stage collabs we saw, the event should probably consider making it its USP.
Photos: Courtesy of Taalbelia Festival