Sound Travels:
Phil Dadson in India
Dispatch #3

Summer 2008

Phil Dadson travels to Pushkar, Rajasthan, where he meets Bhopa and Gujjar musicians and immerses himself in Holy Week and Camel Fair.

A depiction of the Fair

In the first part of the camp the finest of purebred horses are roped and pegged, the atmosphere is smoky and fecund. Stallions neigh, whinny and snort, their impressively long members telescoping and flexing. Beyond, herds of camel, loose and tethered, chew, gurgle, groan and roar as the sun sinks scarlet-red through the haze. It’s an otherworldly scene, as if peeping back into prehistory or some medieval fantasy. Camels are such ancient-looking beasts. I’m brought back to reality; hawkers touting their wares, fast descending on the foreigner standing out, like a sacrificial lamb. Fair game, but I’m not buying anything, and instead retreat to the town as night falls. On the way a cheery fellow, who tells me about his guru and invites me into his home to visit his family and temple, befriends me. He makes tea, gives me puja, prays for my family and, surprise-surprise, and presses me for baksheesh. A benign sort of blackmail. I succumb, noting it for future experience. There are, after all, some 500 temples in Pushkar!

Seeking baksheesh

A bit later I’m greeted by a musician carrying two ravanhatha, a spike-fiddle with a unique vocal sound, related in principle to the better-known sarangi. The ravanhatha has one main bowing string, and 14 others, giving it an eerie resonance. We share a chai as he plays an alluring melody, smiling knowingly into the camera as I record, the form of the bow and its arcing action evoking the shape and contour of a camel’s head and neck in motion. He’s good! Pabu, who I come to know quite well through the days ahead, lives in a rough shelter on the far edge of the camel ground, with his wife and four young children, part of the semi-nomadic Rajasthani Bhopa, bards who travel from town to town during the festival season, singing and playing music for their livelihood.

Pabu with his sister and a ravanhatha

The six hundred-year-old epic storytelling traditions of the Bhopa originate in the times of the Rajput and the Maharajas, but now, with the decline of the usual patronage, the true art of the Bhopa is rarer to find, and under threat of fading. Tourists, Indians and foreigners alike, are the patrons now, but have completely different expectations and little understanding of the folk history and traditions. I got lucky. My hotel room neighbours are two documentary film–makers, Paco Beltran and Jessica Leung ( They made a documentary with the Bhopa at the 2007 Pushkar Mela, interviewing musicians and their families in depth, recording the making of the ravanhatha, and translating and revealing in detail the historical significance of the song narratives, and the changing fortunes of the community. I learn from their experience.

Later in the week I return to the chai tent in the camel ground looking for Pabu. We’d arranged to meet there, but instead I’m approached by two other Bhopa I’d not met before, who try engaging me in conversation with the motive of some bakshish for their playing. I say no thanks, I’m waiting for Pabu, and they say, but we’re Pabu, and the Pabu you’re looking for is over at the other chai tent. He’s my brother (or cousy- bro’ whatever). They insist I accompany them to their tent site, saying Pabu will be over later, but I’m somewhat suspicious and resist, and they eventually leave. Soon after, they return with the Pabu I was supposed to meet. Greetings all round, and it turns out they are in fact cousy-bros, and that there are many inter-related families, with all the menfolk called Pabu, a name traced back to their ancestor deity Pabuji. Confusing? I thought so. I tried at one stage to get an address for Pabu. Not possible, he said. There are too many roaming Pabus of no fixed abode. I hear later however, they do have a village base, but are hardly ever there, spending most of their time roaming. I also discover my friend Pabu has a business card with a postal address, an email address, and a cell phone. The cell phone battery is flat; he never checks his email and a letter could end up with any one of a myriad of Pabus. I retire and sleep fitfully, haunted by a vast throng of Pabus at my heels, all playing their ravanhathas.

The serenity of the lakeside is broken at dawn with a reverberant, unison ringing of bells, and a multitude of devotional songs broadcast from the temples, mingled with waking voices and the barpings of swans, the sounds bouncing low across the lake from all directions. I head out into the slowly gathering light of a chill morning, early risers draped in blankets and cloth of all shades, down through the first chirp of market and out into the desert’s edge, filled with textures, sounds, smells, smiles and the querulous looks of camel drivers, huddled in groups around fading embers, sipping chai and discussing the finer points of their beasts (or, more likely, ”who’s this foreign body wandering through our camps and how can we fleece him”).

Camels at the watertank

Later in the week I arrange a performance with Pabu and his relations at the family shelter, at the back of the camel grounds. Getting there is like negotiating a minefield, stepping around little piles of excrement dotted around the outskirts of the camp and camel grounds. This is also where the camel-herder families come to crap, baring their bums to the elements any time of day or night. I managed to just miss getting crap all over my boots a few days earlier, when I visited Pabu to check out how he makes a sophisticated instrument like the ravanhatha in such deprived conditions. The Bhopa campsite is surrounded by an enclosure of twigs and branches to keep animals out. The shelter, temporary home for three adults and four children (with another due in a month), consists of a rough lean-to of tarpaulin containing one charpois (camp bed) and a few meagre possessions. Pabu’s wife and mother cook over an open fire of twigs and dried camel dung. They offer a chai as I squat to chat in sign language and a few shared words of English.

Early morning with cattle

The performance at their campsite, several nights later, pulls less audience than we had hoped for. Just three of us accompany them back to the camp, doubling the original fee of 100 rupees to 200 each to make it worth their while. To our surprise the womenfolk make us fresh chapatti, dahl and chai before the family entertain around the fire. The spontaneity of their expressions caught in the flickering light of the fire, and a near full moon create indelible imprints.

Lotus Hotel, where I’m staying, is one of Pushkar’s oldest, with an idyllic view across the lake and the numerous ghats (steps) that descend to the lakeside. Most of the ghats spill directly out of temple interiors down to the water’s edge, giving the entire lakeside the look of an arena, its mirror-like surface a calm and central stage that light plays upon day and night, and across which, sound reflects and echoes from the surrounding temples.

I hear drumming on a temple rooftop adjacent to where I’m staying and head for the upper deck to check it out. The rooftops are a short jump-distance apart, and from where I’m watching I’m almost part of the action without intruding. A large group of white-turbaned men stand huddled around a drummer and several singers. Some of them are moving around, seemingly in a trance, one quivering as he balances on his haunches, a long, plaited rope like a snake around his neck. Another faces him with what looks like a large set of metal keys on a ring slung across one shoulder. As if hypnotized, they embrace each other, and lightly touch others on their shoulders or heads, all the while making animal-like hissings, gruntings and tongue clickings. The trance singing and drumming continues relentlessly. Another in the group rises and swoons, then shakily gets up again in slow motion, dancing, gesturing and gently anointing those seated. As suddenly as it all began, the ritual ends, and the group dissolve away.

I head for the Mela arena, hoping to catch some local folk performances. The programme lists both the ‘Mela ground’ and the ‘Cattle ground’ as two venues, with simultaneous, different performances listed in both. I go in search of the Cattle ground asking several people along the way. I’m directed here and there, with a volunteer finally offering to take me to it. We follow the Mela arena exterior for a distance, and then branch off to the left, following a long dark wall with various market stalls set up along its length. We enter the Cattle ground by an entranceway far from the stage. As I walk towards it, both crowd and stage look vaguely familiar. After a few minutes of disorientation, I realise I’ve been taken on a walk around the entire exterior of the Mela arena entering by a back door. The Mela arena and the Cattle ground are one and the same thing and I’m totally confused by the programming, but after a few minutes, the folk dancing I’m expecting in the Cattle ground starts on stage in the Mela! And was my helpful guide taking me for a ride? I’ll never know.

Nomadic Bhopa

The night leading into full moon signals the culmination of holy week. The ghats around the lake are crowded with pilgrims bathing and offering puja. Temple bells ring, conch shells trumpet, drums beat out repetitive riffs and songs blare out on crackly P.A.s. I’m up at 4:00 a.m. to record the first bells of dawn, but the recording level is little different from when I flopped into bed at midnight, the sounds only crisper and more reverberant in the cool morning air. The ring road around the lakeside, mainly a pedestrian route, is crammed with tourists from all corners of the world, and pilgrims from every quarter of Rajasthan, most of whom have descended on Pushkar for the final 24 hours of holy week and the last day of Mela. The pulsing throb of colour from the clothing of the Rajasthani womenfolk is ravishing. The intensity of sound around town requires earplugs. The number of sadhus, hawkers, touts and gypsies along every street and alleyway has quadrupled through the week. So, too, have the number of maimed and distorted beggars, hauling themselves through the grime or propelling themselves, with the aid of a board and wheels, hands in the air for baksheesh. By this stage tourists look mostly besieged, avoiding eye contact, blinkered to the poverty, suspicious that behind every smile and friendly look is a motive for baksheesh, which, at this point of the Mela, there mostly is. It’s an “in-your-face reality” every foreigner must resolve in their own way.

Lively, amplified devotional singing and drumming, spiced with echo effects, is being broadcast from the Gujjar temple next door to where I’m staying, so I whip into the temple courtyard to check it out. A drummer, two finger-cymbal players, and a trio of singers sit cross-legged in the forecourt. A charismatic older man, wearing a suit jacket and an orange turban, stands in the centre, leading the singing in a call and response style, his gravely voice reverberating into the night air and across the lake. I was welcomed into the circle and shown somewhere to sit. The music is trance-inducing, with its 3:4 rhythms pulsing repetitively, underpinning the half-spoken, half-sung vocals.

Some heavy smoking is going down, probably ganja. A recording is also in progress, the drummer occasionally flipping a cassette at the side. Suddenly a veiled, sari-clad women gets up out of the group to dance. Her style is alluring and provocative. She takes the mike from time to time and sings, somewhat huskily. After a few minutes I realise the woman is a man. Behind her veil, she’s laughing and camping it up. Two young guys arrive and join her, partnering her one at a time and then together. One song stops and another starts up almost immediately, with the same relentless 3:4 rhythm. I make a donation to the musicians, but it comes back to me through about 10 hands, my obvious appreciation acknowledged with its return. Later, back in my room, I hear the live music stop and the recording replace it, just loud enough to lull me to sleep.

A lakeside shrine

Next day I train back to Delhi, satiated with impressions. A central imprint is Pushkar as one huge, harmonious temple, with the lake its inner sanctum, the ghats its pews and the sky its dome. The train clacks and clatters on into the dusk. I notice a black tree stump against a blank sky, a swirling flock of birds its leaves and branches.

Back in Delhi I pack up and take a trunk to the airport to consign as unaccompanied cargo. Assisted by an agent, I anticipate a couple of hours to check it through and be done. Seven hours later I emerge exhausted, my purse empty, baksheesh required as lubricant every step of the way. The day after, I leave for home, and upon arrival, am able to finally appreciate how greasing the palm oils India’s wheels. My trunk is there, waiting for me.

India is challenging, compelling, unforgettable and addictive. I’ll be back.

Photos by Phil Dadson

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