Starting at the tender age of seven, I played violin throughout my school days and continued to do so whilst at university, albeit in a slightly less classical format that included a Bollywood rock band of questionable talent whilst on exchange at the University of Delhi. So arriving at Udaipur, with four music-less months ahead of me (I had left my violin behind, fearing that the extreme heat might damage the instrument), was quite an upsetting prospect. When I first saw the ravanhatta being performed by a turban-clad, moustachioed musician on Udaipur’s famous Gangur Ghat, I began making enquiries about purchasing and learning to play the ‘Rajasthani fiddle’.
As with many things in India, this took a lot longer than expected. Having sourced out a number of appropriate shops, I made the journey into the city centre periodically for almost a month before I chanced upon one of their owners. Their stores were invariably open; or at least someone in the vicinity, seeing me stood outside, was able to miraculously produce the key within a matter of minutes. But their business plans only allowed for browsing, with no-one present to accept money in exchange for goods.
When I finally met Krishna, he told me that he had just sold his last ravanhatta – presumably during the small window of opportunity that he allowed for retail – but that he could contact Kishna, who, as well as a highly accomplished performer, was also skilled in building the instrument. The ravanhatta’s beauty truly lies in its simplicity: half a coconut shell attached to a section of bamboo, with any number of strings (the more the better) secured by wooden, aluminium or, more commonly, steel pegs; the bow is just the curviest branch that can be found, with a few jingle bells attached. Krishna told me that his friend, Kishna, (I hope you’re keeping up at this point – I certainly wasn’t) would manufacture a new ravanhatta within the week. So a fortnight later, I had my very own Rajasthani fiddle.
After a further week waiting for a bag to be embroidered – a necessity that I did not appreciate until seeing the vibrant decoration that adorns folk instruments in Rajasthan – I met Kishna for my first lesson. We met on the ghats of Lake Pichola, one of India’s most romantic vistas. After waiting for the crowds performing a matrimonial ritual to depart, led away by a raucous procession of trumpets and drums, we sat by the lakeside under the shadow of the city palace, encircled by the barren hills that rise up from the lake, and began. Thankfully the skills I had honed during a decade of violin tuition are fairly transferable and it was not long before I progressed from the initial screeching to produce an acceptable sound, saving me from too much embarrassment in what was a very public arena for a music lesson. I took the rhythmic swaying of Kishna’s young children as a measure of their approval.
Despite an encouraging start, I have not come close to the level of skill and accomplishment displayed by Kishna in the video below. Although I have limited exposure to Rajasthani folk music, it was clear by the way that he composed himself that Kishna – the product of generations of musicians – was a highly skilled performer. Although originating in Sri Lanka and used in certain compositions by A.R. Rahman, the ravanhtta is rarely seen outside of western India. When I asked Kishna whether it was played in other areas of the subcontinent, he told me that it is ‘really just desert music’. And as much as it is possible to hear a cultural tradition, the vibrant melodies relayed in this video really do portray the sights and sounds of the Thar Desert.
Please click the link below to play the video:
Desert Music Video
The video was taken in Kishna’s ‘second home’ in the Bedla hills, the northernmost extremity of Udaipur. Every year he and his family migrate from their ancestral village, several hundred miles away, to work the tourist season in the city, selling instruments, CDs and silver jewellery. On this particular day the nation was on strike in protest against a hike in fuel prices – anyone caught trading risked violent repercussions at the hands of political activists. I therefore went to meet Kishna at his home, much to the confusion of auto rickshaw drivers who all assumed I was lost. The combination of a foreign visitor with a video camera and Kishna’s mesmerising music drew quite a large crowd; they are not seen in the video as everyone was pressing behind me to view Kishna through the video screen. However, their eagerness to be as close as possible did make it impossible to move further away for a better perspective. Nevertheless, the music remains, with the added bonus of Kishna’s son dancing in the background. I hope you enjoy!
An experience documented by Ben Thurman.
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