A stroll into the lost antiquity and a bygone era and a rare festival in Rajasthan
I was eating my lunch in Momasar on my first day, when I almost got the fright of my life. A man dressed like the villain in the once popular serial ‘Chandrakanta’ came and stood next to me. Another one, who was dressed like Charlie Chaplin struck a pose in front of our table. The rest of the people who were eating and watching this little drama clapped their hands as these actors or beherubiya (face changers) as they are known as in the local dialect did a little act of their own.
A couple of days ago, the name Momasar did not mean much to me. I knew it was a big village located in Sridungargarh Tehsil of Bikaner district in Rajasthan but that was all there was to it. However, it wasn’t till Vinod Joshi of the Jaipur Virasat Foundation told me about the two-day long Momasar festival and invited me to be a part of it, that Momasar became an important destination for me.
Except for a small stretch of road which was about five kilometers before our destination, the trip to Momasar from Jaipur was a smooth one, thanks to the excellent highways. We reached Momasar in the night only to discover that the village was a hub of activity. The staying arrangements were made at a simple lodge where all the musicians, dancers, artists were staying. As I made way to my room, I saw musicians playing their instruments in their rooms and interacting with other musicians who had come from different parts of Rajasthan. I decided to talk to them in the morning.
The next morning I made my way to the terrace where people were sitting on the white mattresses and talking to each other. I spied a foreign looking man sitting and drinking a cup of tea. After the initial introduction, I gleaned that his name was Tomas Carrasco and he was a musician from Chile in South America. This flute researcher is making a documentary titled Nomadic Sounds, which is based on different types of wind instruments across the world. He and his friend Moa Edmunds who is also a musician have been travelling to different parts of the world to record these sounds for their documentary. Tomas said, ‘Indians are lucky to have preserved their ancient art and culture through festivals like these. In Chile, we don’t have such a history because the Spaniards who invaded South America destroyed whatever was left of the ancient Inca civilization.’
As we sat talking, many musicians came and said hello to Tomas. Gazi Khan Mananiyar, the well known musician who not only plays the Rajasthani instrument Khartal but also is the original singer of the ‘Nimbooda’ a song which became a hit in the movie ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’. As I watched these musicians from the east and west interact with each other, I realized they did not need any language. They understood each other perfectly and music was perhaps the unifying force here. Soon, they decided to have an impromptu jam session where each one played his instrument trying to sync with the other.
I went out to check out the current venue of the festival- the Momasar Chaupal, which was a stone’s throw away from the lodge. I went to a stall where I saw different types of colorful wooden boxes painted with figures of gods and goddesses. When I inquired about it from the artist Dwarka Prasad, I learnt it was an ancient art of telling stories by painting different scenes from a story on the wooden boxes called Kavads. The boxes had many panels on which different scenes from the stories especially from Ramayan and Mahabharata were painted and the story teller would unfold these panels as the story would unfold.
The visit to the Momasar Chaupal was almost like a visit to a village fair which are now a rare sight. There was a man walking on the stilts while the well-known magician Lal Bhai was entertaining the onlookers with the old-well known tricks. I saw something shining and made my way towards it. In a small corner of the fair, a man had set up wooden swords, bows and arrows. He explained to me that this was an old traditional form of making toys which had been passed on from generations to generations. This was a revelation because when I used to see these toys being sold by peddlers in the city, I never used to give a thought to the origin of this craft.
In another corner, the puppeteers were entertaining people with their renditions of old Indian folktales. Abhishek Joshi, an artist accomplished in creating Phad paintings had set up a stall too. Here the painting which really caught my attention was not the traditional ones but a painting where he had depicted America and its culture where people were cleaning their own houses and working in their offices. Not very far off, some musicians were playing flutes. When I went to them, they asked me to try playing the flutes which I did and realized it required years of practice. There were others who were enthusiastically trying out the different instruments. Elsewhere, there were weavers who were helping visitors try their hand at the loom. A potter was creating small pots on his wheel while people around him watched entranced.
A performance by Mahipal Nat on the rope was an interesting watch. One rarely gets to see these performances in the cities. People cheered on while he walked on the rope.
As I entered the hall in the chaupal, I heard a different sound of music. I went on to investigate and chanced upon the people from the Kathodi community from the Ambasa village near Udhaipur playing their unique instruments which I had never seen before and they had unique names like thalisar, tapra, pavri, godaliya etc. The music was haunting. I learnt that these instruments were played during the Navratras or the festival of the nine-nights.
As I wandered around the village, I saw people going about their usual business. I asked a couple of shopkeepers about how they felt about the Momasar festival which was in its ninth edition. One of the shopkeepers said the festival helps in preserving the heritage and culture of Rajasthan. The thought was echoed by some students who were going to their school. However, something did not feel right. A conversation with the organizers of the fair revealed that the people of the village stay away from the festival as much as they can and they had to get volunteers from Jaipur to help them with the festival. It was surprising especially because this festival could create livelihoods for the villagers and give them extra income.
There were some teachers and students of architecture from colleges like JECRC and INIFD who had come especially for the lime construction workshops. Kirit Mathur, a professor from INIFD was of the opinion that these kind of festivals are important for students who get exposed to the traditional culture which is now dying a slow death in cities.
The festival was a riot of colors, music and people. The people who attended were enthralled with their discoveries of ancient arts and music. In a world which is increasingly being dominated by fast food, ready-made clothes and toys, larger-than-life movies, festivals like these offer a glimpse into an era where craftsmanship was revered and where people had the time to tell stories to each other through words, music, art and craft. As I bid my adieu to this colorful festival, I realized that though not everything is hunky dory, yet there is a ray of hope as long as our generation next is visiting these festivals. They will surely revere this experience and spread the word.
Shailaza Singh’s article was published in Rashtradoot newspaper’s Arbit Section on October 23, 2019