A local morchang with western compositions on paper by Sarah Singh (Images courtesy: Sarah Singh)
Partition was a disaster for Jaisalmer. The city was founded, and thrived for centuries, as a station on a caravan route, a welcome break in the Thar desert on the way to or from the cities of the Indus. The new national border cut that source of wealth and purpose, leaving Jaisalmer marooned: more of a terminal destination than a place to pass through.
With the rise of tourism in Rajasthan, however, its very isolation became its USP. Here was a place where you could forget the modern world and disconnect from reality, while lying on a sand dune under the stars, or losing your way in the meandering narrow lanes inside the fort. Of course, the boon of tourism is always double-edged. The revival of fortune threatens to obliterate the character of the place, as every second ornately carved house in the fort is transformed into a gift shop or a guest house, and the crowds of tourists risk being mown down by motorcycles. But this is preferable to the desolation of other frontier towns. And ironically, the outsiders who go there to disconnect bring to the locals a sense of connection, along with a new purpose and pride.
Until now, the former ruling family of Jaisalmer have been slow to join in and take advantage of this trend. Compared with the lead taken by previous royals in promoting a spirit of commercial enterprise in Jaipur and Udaipur in the last 40 years, and the patient preservation and promotion of heritage in Jodhpur, the palace in Jaisalmer fort exuded an air of abandonment and despair. But under the current scion of the Bhati clan, Chaitanya Raj Singh, things are beginning to change. Parts of the palace that had collapsed are being reconstructed and expert conservators can be found working diligently in its back rooms.
The hosting of the arts festival, Silent/Sound Safari, by Panorama Editions, can be seen as a step in this campaign. As such, it is an imaginative rather than an obvious choice, because in place of funding or technical expertise it brings a network of well-placed and engaged participants and a distinctive cachet. Twenty contemporary artists from countries around the world, each working primarily in sound, have contributed recordings. Anyone visiting the Fort Museum during this month (until December 3) will encounter these recordings in various rooms as they take their round. Some of them have a visual component as well—a video to accompany the soundtrack, or a sculptural installation—but most are pure sound.
The juxtaposition of contemporary art and historic spaces is startling. Visitors to Rajasthan may be familiar with a comparable initiative, the Sculpture Park in Nahargarh, in Jaipur, which places modern sculptures in the painted rooms of a former zenana palace. Here the effect is even more arresting because the chief medium is sound, which can transport you to another world. Sitting in the delicate courtyard of the Gaj Vilas apartment, for example, surrounded by 18th-century stone carving and colourful tiles, you can listen to Soundscapes of Mexico and imagine waking in the early morning to the sound of that city’s cathedral bells and a metro station. The herd of goats from the desert of Chihuahua, which appears later in the recording, might seem to bring us closer to present reality, but only to suggest connections across vast distances.
The artist Zimoun from Switzerland creates mechanical devices from domestic and industrial materials such as cardboard, metal cables, wood and welding wire. Powered by small motors, the moving parts generate noise. Installations with large numbers of identical devices create complex rhythms and tonalities. It is the sort of work which, if encountered in the white box space of a modern art gallery, might lead you (depending on your taste for such things) to shrug and move on. A video featuring several of Zimoun’s works is installed in the Diwan-i-Aam in the fort, facing the throne balcony placed over a marble floor, and backed by a hall that is clad in vivid blue tiles. The collision of two such radically opposed examples of human creativity forces you to pause and reconsider both. The minimalism of one sets off the florid extravagance of the other, and you are left wondering what Zimoun and the former darbaris of Jaisalmer would have made of each other, and indeed where that places you, if you are able to connect with both at once.
Eleven contributions are clustered in a single Sound Room. Some of these are recordings of sounds from particular environments, like the Hungarian church bells. Others are original musical compositions, like the vocal piece by Maja Ratjke of Norway, or the electronic piece by Vittorio Montalti of Italy. Some have tried to respond to the location of the festival. Carolina Falkholt of Sweden has mixed field recordings from Jaisalmer with drone modulations to contrast the calmness of the desert with more life-threatening situations elsewhere. Egidija Medeksaite from Lithuania offers a piece for a classical string quartet inspired by the Indian raga Megh Malhar. But the various contributing artists were not obliged to take account of the venue. Master Orellana of Guatemala integrates the marimba into electro-acoustic music. The piece by Oscar Chabebe from the Dominican Republic is a homage to a deceased friend and colleague, based on a cattle-herding song that is local to him, not here. Like the Mexican goats, he takes us to another place while at the same time extending a hand of commonality across the divide.
Four more works which include a video element run consecutively on a screen in another room nearby. These include the short film, Sense, by Ruth Novaczek, representing the UK. Footage composed of fragmentary images of New York and Venice, glimpsed as places travelled through, combines with short bursts of recorded music. A voiceover mournfully regrets, “My clothes were all wrong; nothing made sense.” The artist’s notes explain, “The film is built from … the idea that for some, there is no home, just a world we wander and observe, on the outside looking in.” While her Polish name points to a family migration and a Western experience, the sentiment might strike a chord with many visitors to Jaisalmer. The strangeness of the place—its juxtaposition of the modern world with elements of a very distinctive past—makes outsiders of us all. It is a pity, then, that hers like all the artists’ notes are given only in English; not even in their own languages, never mind the Hindi that might make them more accessible to locals.
Jaisalmer’s distinctive past is partly due to the architecture, and the uniform use of warm yellow sandstone. Even new construction inside the fort employs this material, making it blend seamlessly with the old. Further afield, on the edge of the city, you see new buildings going up with internal concrete frames that are clad with great slabs of sandstone, richly detailed with carving. The patterns used today still imitate those on the oldest and best of such work, as found in the fort. The sandstone is the canvas on which contemporary life is painted. The festival’s interventions in the museum echo that contrast.
Scattered throughout the museum are sculptural installations by Sarah Singh, the festival curator and creative director of panorama editions. These are offered as “meditations relating to sound:” objects that do not create but suggest sound—or indeed silence, like the cloth-bound radio sets of the piece entitled radio/silence
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Scattered throughout the museum are sculptural installations by Sarah Singh, the festival curator and creative director of Panorama Editions. These are offered as “meditations relating to sound”: objects that do not create but suggest sound—or indeed silence, like the cloth-bound radio sets of the piece entitled Radio/Silence. Some, like Zimoun, make us reconsider the aesthetics and purpose of a room, like the stonecutter’s tools casually strewn around Akhey Vilas, a small apartment decorated with frescos.
Of mixed heritage, Sarah Singh here represents both India and the US. Her major contribution as an artist was a one-off performance, a theatrical staging in a stepwell at Mool Sagar, just outside the city. By its very nature ephemeral, this was a remarkable creative use of a structure which we know to be traditional—indeed outdated and no longer functional—but which, with its neatly cut rectilinear blocks, looks strangely modern. The costumes worn by the performers, crafted for the event by Singh and Shilpa Chavan, are displayed with other installations in the museum for the duration of the festival.
The other countries represented are Portugal, Brazil, Ireland, Spain, Greece, and Germany. New Zealand is represented not by a contemporary artist but by the pioneering experimental filmmaker Len Lye, who made hand-painted animated films with soundtracks as early as the 1930s. Most of the artists have been sponsored by their national embassies in New Delhi or by cultural institutions in their own countries. The festival’s opening ceremony was attended by a planeload of visiting diplomats, using the recently established air link. We may hope that the engagement of this high-level network is sustained beyond the duration of the festival, and helps with the ongoing resuscitation of the Fort Museum.
In recent decades there have been various well-intentioned initiatives to meet the challenges faced by Jaisalmer, which include the lack of adequate drainage in the fort following the introduction of piped water for its inhabitants. Some of these initiatives have foundered through lack of the necessary influence and connections on the ground. Locals proudly refer to it as “India’s only living fort”. We may question the “only”, but it is certainly a lively historic space. Indeed, the very strength of the population, rather than its depletion, presents a threat as well as an opportunity. Ensuring its survival as a living fort will require a collaboration between local and international efforts—often attempted, but so far inadequate to meet the challenges. This international festival, coupled with other new developments, presents a chance to try again.
(Silent/Sound Safari by Panorama Editions is on display at Jaisalmer Fort till December 3)