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In tune with Jaisalmer

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaisalmer - 7 March 2017

sunny 35 °C

If you want to make a difference to at least a few of the people of India, stay here in the Kalakar Colony of Jaisalmer. My hotel, The Silk Route, you see, is not only built in its midst but a percentage of its profits goes towards supporting a community of gipsy musicians on its doorstep.

My time last year was devoted to the tourist sights of this city – the imposing hilltop fort, the lake at Gadisar, the dunes of the Thar Desert. The hotel, then only a couple of years old, was a comfortable, inexpensive and convenient place to stay. I didn’t really choose it for anything else.

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It was while staying here that I learned about it having been constructed partly to provide the basis for permanent settlement of gipsy families in the vicinity. When the hotel’s foundations were being laid, these families were already living around the site in tents and crudely built shacks, with no modern-day facilities whatsoever. Now, four years on and with government permission, they live in brick buildings with electricity, a central piped-water supply, and the inevitable Sky satellite dishes on their roofs. Of course, there are still piles of rubbish, plastic and so on – it will take a bit longer for a change in culture. I mentioned in last year’s blog 'Into the Thar' that arriving at the hotel is a bit of a shock in consequence. Dirty water still runs in channels to an open drain at the bottom of the hill. Cows, feral pigs and dogs still wander at will. This is still India.

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However, once the path is negotiated and ‘hello’ said to many cheerful little children along the way, the hotel remains a good place to stay. Its rooms are large, comfortable and well-equipped. There’s air-conditioning if you need it and ceiling fans if you don’t. Water from the hot tap is hot. There’s a rooftop restaurant with a great view over the town to the fort. The food served here is basic but cooked to order, tasty and plentiful and it's a joy to sit here in the fresh air at breakfast time or sipping a lemon tea and exchanging tales with guests from other parts of the world. The staff, Guman, Akhabar and Jamal, together with proprietor Dileep, are friendly, helpful and always eager to please. I couldn’t have chosen a better place to spend a week.

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It was one of my ambitions this week to learn more about the hotel’s gipsy neighbours and their music. Little groups of musicians leaving to perform around the town are a common sight near the hotel. From time to time, musicians and dancers from all over Jaisalmer are asked to perform outside of India - some have played all over the world. Those I was about to see, though, performed only in the locality, at festivals, hotels, weddings and so on.

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I was given privileged access to a charming family living close by. Their home, really a large square room with a raised platform on one side, housed Dungara Ram Bhopa and his wife Fuli Devi, their four daughters: Suman (13), Pinky (11), Rama (6) and Anna (5), and two sons – one of them, Vijay, aged 3 and an older one whose name I forget. The room doubled as kitchen, bedroom, sitting and TV room for them all. Beds were thin mattresses and blankets, rolled up and put to one side during the day.

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Dungara is a charismatic dark-skinned man with a glint in his eye. Although he’s also an accomplished drummer, his instrument of choice is the rawanhatha (pronounced something like: 'roe-an-hat-ter'). This many-stringed, violin-like contraption was constructed with his own hands. The long neck is made of bamboo. The sound-box, tiny in comparison, is half a coconut covered in taut goatskin. The tuning pegs for the two largest strings, one made of hair from a horse’s tail, the other a piece of string, are of wood turned by hand to a distinctive onion shape. Pegs for the many metal strings, together with decorative pieces around the neck, are made from shiny sheet aluminium cut to traditional shapes.

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This instrument is held in an upright position and played with a bow made from a thin, bent branch fitted with horsehair that hangs in a limp crescent to be tensioned in use by the musician’s fingers. Five or six bells attached to one end of the bow provide percussion, tinkling loudly when the bow’s tapped or drawn sharply against the strings. The sound of this instrument is difficult to describe without offending the musician – an out-of-tune violin being played by a learner, perhaps. Put together with sounds from other instruments and energetic singing, however, it forms the primary noise and gives rhythm to the tunes, all of them cheerful, up-tempo folk songs in the case of this happy group.

Dungara was a changed man whenever he put on his patterned red turban and picked up his rawanhatha. A smile came to his face; he bobbed up and down with the rhythm of the tune and sung the words with glee and gusto, sometimes adding a guttural click, a whistle or a shout for good measure.

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Fuli, his attractive wife, dressed by day in a pretty sari, sometimes red, sometimes bright blue, is the lead singer for most of their tunes and plays a morchang, something akin to what I know as a Jew’s Harp. She had a wide variety of them in different shapes and sizes and made of different metals, most six or seven centimetres long by two or three wide. All are placed against the lips, held in place by the fingers of one hand and flicked with the fingers of the other, using the mouth as a sound-box. The resulting sound is a weird metallic dong, ding, twang, pitched high or low depending on the size, shape and metal of the instrument. It’s even more difficult to describe this mesmerising sound – click here to hear it on You Tube.

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The other main instrument used by this team is the dholki, occasionally played by Dungara but, when he’s playing his rawanhatha, by one of his many relatives. This is one of a family of drums that includes a large two-headed cylindrical drum known as a dhol, the barrel-shaped dholki and slightly larger dholak, and the nagara or battle drum. The dholki is made of wood from a mango tree – a hollowed-out piece of trunk, larger at one end than the other that gives it the elongated barrel shape and the desired traditional sound. The ends are covered in goatskin held taut by metal pegs, which are tightened with a spanner to tune them. The small end is played by resting the wrist and palm of the right hand on the goatskin and tapping hard with the fingertips on the centre or edge to vary the note. The larger end is mostly played with the whole of the left hand in a slapping movement to provide a bass rhythm. It’s a pleasing, often violent sound.

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Sometimes, this trio is accompanied by the castanet-like khadtaal, which is used to create intricate rhythmic patterns and sounds of varying pitches and intensity. Small children can often be seen using these as part of a musical group. Although this family doesn’t play other instruments, they do team up for special occasions or concerts with those specialising in the surnai, a kind of oboe, and the harmonium, a bellows-operated accordion played one-handed on a keyboard.

It was fascinating to see the instruments being played in the house and to hear some of the songs of welcome and devotion that were voiced by this family in such happy tones. Fuli all the while was also trying to cope with the demands of Vijay, her youngest boy. At the same time, some of her other children were comparing photos on their phones or caring for other little ones, and her younger sister was trying to make chapatis!

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Suman, Fuli's teenage daughter, had just injured one of her big toes – ripping the entire nail back from the toe until it stood at 90 degrees with blood everywhere - one of the hazards of walking barefoot in these parts. Gritting my teeth, I used the emergency kit carried in my camera bag to clean and dress the wound with the entire family looking on, before giving her a painkiller and some cash to pay a doctor for proper treatment. She was a brave girl – it must have hurt like hell – but, when I saw her next day, after the medics had re-dressed the injury and given her antibiotics, she was cheerful and seemed happy to walk around in the dust and grime that were now turning her new dressings a distinct shade of black.

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I was also pleased to see Dungara and Fuli dressed up for an evening performance at my hotel. Dungara wore a white checked coat-like dress and white trousers. For one of their particularly joyous renditions, he rose to his feet and jigged around the floor playing his rawanhatha with abandon and singing at the top of his voice. Fuli was dressed in all her finery, a beautiful red sari trimmed with gold and a mass of jewellery, beads and bangles.

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This year, the hotel had contributed to the establishment of a small school here. It’s sponsored by a vivacious, well-spoken young lady named Tamara, whose parents, an Indo-Dutch couple, had worked in social care in India for many years. She was following in their footsteps, organising volunteer teachers to provide basic education and a lunchtime meal each day to over 50 of the community’s children. My hotel proprietor had secured the use of a building at the top of the hill, near what was known as Sunset Point, and the ‘Sunflower Learning Centre’ was now in full swing. The school isn’t yet registered and can’t receive proper funding, so learning materials and other necessities are currently being subsidised by Tamara’s earnings from modelling assignments.

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Groups of children were eagerly learning the letters of the Hindi and English alphabets by written and vocal repetition, as well as mathematical addition and subtraction by copying examples that had been written by a teacher on a whiteboard at the front of the class. The older children, in a mixed-age group from about 7 to 13 years old, wrote in pencil in exercise books, eagerly keeping the points of their pencils sharpened with the one sharpener they shared. The younger children, in a separate group, used chalk on little slates. I was impressed by how keen these children were to do tasks they’d been set and it was truly lovely to experience the pride in the smallest children’s voices when showing me their writing and telling me: ‘A for Apple, B for Ball, C for Cat...’.

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All the children here also receive tuition in crafts, art and in basic use of computers. Not all children from the colony attend – their parents may need them to help with the household chores or to care for small babies while they go out to work, for example. However, I was told that, even in the short space of time this school had been in operation, there had been many changes in the behaviour of children who attended. Swearing, fighting and generally misbehaving were just some of the things that had markedly improved, and this was now being passed on by the school children to their friends who didn't attend.

Both in and out of school, the colony's children are happy and energetic, enjoying today and looking forward to a brighter future.

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This is altogether an excellent example of social care in action and I wish it every success.

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I was pleased to have spent a constructive and relaxing week in Jaisalmer, where the warm (nay, hot!), dry air had certainly agreed with my health and where the environment had provided me with daytime interest and ample opportunities for photography.

I was sad to be leaving the colony and the hotel's friendly team for the 12-hour rail journey to Jaipur, but looking forward to a whole new set of discoveries in the week ahead.

Posted by Keep Smiling 16:00 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan jaisalmer

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