Craziness is not necessarily a bad thing. It has a certain appeal that draws the adventurous, thrill seeking and unconventional to it. That is what attracted me to Ragasthan.
It wasn’t just a music festival in the middle of the Thar Desert that called on musicians, smokers and junkies. It promised an experience, a voyage of self-discovery aided by folk music, adventure sport, all night (open) movie screening and camping on the dunes. I expected the world and the organizers promised two full moons in four days (no less). How can one go wrong with all these elements right?
In the middle of a very busy work calendar, I sneaked out and took the train from Delhi Cantonment Railway Station. Exactly 12 hours later five friends and I had arrived in the humble town of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan.
It was a hot Thursday afternoon, and the sun was beating hard on our back, but it felt like the place was still in a slumber. The locals, dark skinned and lean, looked accustomed and warm towards the conflux of outsiders in their midst. Their open nature is a legacy of the economy and ecology of the region which are inextricably linked.
The harsh environment, extreme and mercurial weather conditions, makes this location hostile to large scale human settlement but a charming get away for foreigners and wanderers. Furthermore, the open terrain and unobstructed wind gives rise to the potential of wind energy. Consequently, windmills, resorts and local artisan shops occupy large tracts of the space and tourism is the primary source of income.
There is a strong case to name Jaisalmer the Yellow City just like Jaipur is known as the Pink City. Everything is the color of yellow here: the Earth, walls, houses and even the forts. It is like the yellow desert sand influences everything and touches everyone without exceptions. The fort, a must visit, acquires a majestic honey gold hue as the sun sets.
After a wholesome meal of Rajasthani delicacy, Sangri, we drove 50 kilometers on a beautiful single lane stretch to the Khuri dunes. The natural dips and elevation on the road gave one butterflies in the stomach like see saw rides in childhood. On either side appeared giant Suzlon windmills panning the desert. The Jaisalmer Wind Park is in fact India's largest operational onshore wind farm. At the end of FY12, its combined installed capacity was 1064 MW that made it the largest of its kind in India, and one of the largest wind farms in the world.
As far as the eye could see, there were windmills rotating in a circular motion and harnessing energy. Gradually the concrete gave way to herbs and shrubs which also receded as we moved further away. We were almost there; our adrenalin was pumping.
God, himself, could not have chosen a more alluring location for the spectacle. As far as the eye could see there were mountainous dunes as formidable as the waves of the ocean. The small area tamed by our confluence consisted of camping tents -- white, pink, orange and red -- that looked beautiful in the neutral yellow background of soft sand, music stages, Beer counters, hammocks and art decorations.
The Indie Acoustic music dais, Birakha, stood afloat on bamboo shoots, embellished by sky blue wraps of cloth and shimmering stars. To its right was Morio that had the most breathtaking setting of them all. The pop and rock stage came alive with zero watt bulbs made in a semicircular pattern that made the artists seem larger than life. Even more beautiful aspect was the full moon that shone behind the performers and added a celestial glow to the setting. Moreover, there was a giant see saw that rotated 360 degrees and made adults scream and appear like kindergarten lads.
I stocked my tent with rum bottles that we had managed to sneak into the venue (outside liquor was not allowed, however, festival alcohol was outrageously priced). The organizers, in events across the board, believe it their moral right to fleece clients for alcohol & food. And the customers device ways to avoid this trap by drinking beforehand or sneaking booze. It is a harmless game of wit no less clever than plots in Sherlock Holmes series.
While the stage was set the washrooms were a far cry from being ready. They were cramped, mismanaged and hard to use. Within a day’s passage, they were stinking and unbearable and that made life very very difficult. I mean it was the perfect setting, but you mess up something as basic as this and bham the whole experience goes for a toss. The only fortunate thing that came out of using them was that I ran into a bunch of equally disgruntled bartenders and a friendship ensued. Who knew free alcohol could come as a result of shit. Neither the music promised on Thursday nor artist materialized.
The very first day of Ragasthan, our expectations fell like the gas price in the election year. We realized that the event was going to be chaotic and mismanaged at its best. So many cool ideas fall prey to this very impostor. The journey between conception and realization consist of hard labour and meticulous planning that no one is willing to undertake.
We could not have been more under-prepared for what was coming. The desert was unforgiving during the day-- angry, warm, and unrelenting so much so that it changed the very colour of our skin. English language has a fancy word for it called Tan. Only phirnags can feel something exotic about getting beaten down by the wrath of the Sun. While it down in the afternoon, however, by nightfall the weather turned on its head. It was Siberian and the wind unleashed its fury leaving us scurrying for jackets and mufflers.
The sound of music invited us to the stage just as the Sun dissolved into the sand. I have never been big on music but this once I was spellbound by instruments coming together in an alliance. There was something liberating about guitars, drums, pianos, percussion and vocals getting dissolved in one sound. Run Its The Kid, The Circus, Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café, Run Pussy Run and various other upcoming bands performed to an involved and engaged audience not to mention high.
I shut my eyes, cut off from the world and concentrated on the sound. The vocals gathering momentum, drums picking up the tempo, bass coming to action and then all of them at once; all hell broke loose. The air literally smelled of pot. I shut my eyes to soak in the music. It was soothing to let go of one sense, immediately the other faculties took over, almost became heightened. To witness a concert with eyes shut felt like being drunk on music.
There were beautiful women, bottomless liquor, plenty of weed and all kinds of temptations to succumb to. However, they seemed so superfluous in that moment. I didn't require them; I wasn't there for them. I came to get inspired and that night I felt inspired. If anything I moved away from the noise and the company to be on my own.
I enjoyed that feeling. I liked being left alone with this heady emotion. Perhaps, I am a loner (as sometimes accused). I was not only okay being with myself, I enjoyed it. There were no compulsions and expectations; one could just be true and free.
The full moon was splendid and shinning like a vivacious girl at the prime of her beauty. The sand sent shivers down my spine but at its core it was well meaning. It is cold on the surface but when you put your hand slightly deeper into the layers it gave warmth and comfort-- another of its miracles.
The India Jamboree
The madness of the stage, jumbled noises, eclectic attires, over enthusiastic and curious people willing to bet their time and money on an untested idea in the middle of nowhere. Ragasthan was the definition of modern, youthful and dynamic India with all its faults and potentials.
On Saturday, we went to a nearby resort and gorged on traditional Marwari food: dal, baati and churma. After a long shower, where water drained away the sand and the tiredness stuck to me, I was hungry for food and an adventure.
It is difficult to describe the extent of joy I felt eating the exquisite Marwari food. Bati, a hard ball of bread, dipped in ghee was sinful, and aloo ki sabzi was truly god's gift to humanity. Churma suffused the meal with a sugary aftertaste and was right up there with any dessert offered at Big Chill. That Ram Singh, manager at Shiva Resort, served it with all the kindness he could muster made it all the more special. His mustache went stiff with pride when we complimented his effort.
Warmth and hospitality is such an essential element of a village visit. The locals shower the guests with love and care. It is as if they understand the city dwellers are a tired lot; lost in need of succor and nursing. I sometimes wonder why we can't be more forthcoming in the metropolitan.
After a wholesome meal we needed an outlet for the extra energy and the vast and unexplored sand dunes were an open invitation. All we had to do was pick up a few bottles of Kingfisher on the way and so began a barefoot trek. Few things are as comforting as a leisurely walk on the soft desert sand.
No maps, GPS or sense of direction; that made the adventure all the more exciting and even dangerous. We didn't have a damn care in the world. What do crazy 20-somethings do? They get plenty of pictures clicked, challenge each other to a 100 meter dash (finished 2nd), jump up and down the dunes and finally find their way back.
Dunes were enchanting to say the least. The air was most refreshing and the sand revolved like mist in orb of a fortune tellers. You had to see it to believe it.
The desert played games with all our heads, regardless of the IQ level. Faraway we saw an animal moving up and down, back and forth. All of us had our own interpretation of what was happening. None of us were remotely accurate. I for one thought it was a jackal/fox feeding on its prey. Some of the others had a more playful theory about it. As we gingerly approached the spot, we came to realise that it was it was a black polythene bag raising and falling from the force of the wind. What a bummer!!
Just as the sun set and the sound pitch rose higher we reached Ragasthan for some more craziness. Saturday was quite easily the best day of the festival. The bands, stall owners and organizers each and every one was delirious. I was a part of it all and then became a distant observer; looking from the outside to understand, to write.
In the wee hours of Sunday, we went to the EDM stage, Ammara. The beats were relentless and there were people dancing, tripping, freezing in the cold desert wind and yet continuing. And then the music stopped leading to pin drop silence. A mysterious woman stepped on the dais with rings of fire. She lit the rings with a swish of her hands and as if by magic everyone was spell bound. For the next 15 minutes she owned the space with her stunts and skills. It wasn’t that what that what she did was other worldly but the effect of a dark night, deep music, beauty and fire made it enigmatic.
We were done dancing but not finished. My feisty friends decided they wanted to climb the dunes, lie prostate and roll down (their idea of fun not mine). And then they climbed higher dune and once again tumbled down. And then they practiced cartwheel on the dunes. At 7 o’ clock in the morning, the night came to an end.
The Final Adventure
The event concluded on Sunday but we were in store for one last and unplanned adventure. Just as we arrived on the railway platform, the train left (without us). It was almost inevitable so much had gone right for us something had to go wrong. We decided to rush to the next railway station, Pokharan, to catch the same train.
So began the chase straight out of some Yash Raj movie. A taxi immediately arrived, luggage was loaded, and tires were burned on the Jaisalmer-Pokhran highway. We came to a screeching halt at the train crossing.
Ironically the train that passed us was the same the same we had to board and were now chasing. It was the second time in the row it passed us by as we watched helplessly. What a day this was turning out to be. Eventually we made it to the station much before the train arrived (third time lucky). We feasted on mirchi vadas, kachoris and dhaba tea before boarding the Jaisalmer Delhi Express.
Early next morning, I was at the Delhi Cantt station – unshaven, unbathed — headed straight to work. It was time to Return to the normal. Ragasthan was not what I had imagined it to be. Almost everything that I went expecting didn’t materialize. But we still found a way to have fun and go crazy. I would like to believe there is a life lesson there somewhere.
Pics Credit: Ragasthan Music Festival
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