The stage at the Rajasthan International Folk Festival was a testimony to changing times. Artists, such as Kalbelia dancer and singer, 18-year-old Sushila Devi, have stepped outside the male-defined domains of honour to embrace the public space as performers of India’s oral antiquity—an art that up till now, only the men enjoyed the rewards of. “My mother found the courage to break free. And that paved the way for me to forge ahead,” says Sushila, who started singing at the age of two and performing publically at age six.
As prejudice fell, the sustainability of artists like her increased.
“With women joining the bandwagon, lok kala (arts of the people) has strengthened. With extra income coming into the house, it’s made our position better and also given us a chance to express ourselves,” says 14-year-old Ganga Rao, who is an eighth-grade student, and among the few girls in her community, is studying while learning music. To pursue the arts also seems like a double-edged sword—while the inclination towards keeping up tradition seems promising, not getting an education could mean disability in growing holistically. “It’s only when you get a formal education, that you can negotiate your terms in the professional world and deal with challenges,” says Hanga Kacsó, who performed as part of Muzsikas, a Hungarian folk music band.
The last 12 editions of the festival have seen a significant rise in the number of women folk artists. “Things are improving, doors are opening. We are seen with respect. Money is also coming but it’s still not proportionate to what we deserve or even equal to men in some cases,” says folk artist Sumitra Devi.
The participation of the younger brigade of musicians has also risen. Artists such as Manjur Khan, the son of living legend, 72-year-old Hakam Khan Manganiyar, chose to voluntarily follow his family’s musical customs, unlike his peers. “Every year, the number of venues we perform at increases. We can earn a sufficient living. If this continues, the youth of the village who left singing for profitable opportunities will return. It’s also about patronage,” he says.
It’s equally about innovation as it is about appreciation. Thirty-six-year-old folk artist Noam Nani Vazana from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, is the only artist to recreate the musical sounds of ancient Ladino (Jewish-Sephardic) language. As she takes the audience through a melodious melange of Flamenco, North African and traditional Sephardic compositions, the eclecticism in her style appears as her strength. “There is so much power in native music and so many ways to improvise and build on the existing knowledge. Each one of us can add to what our ancestors earned for us,” says Vazana.
Whether it’s the subject of sustainability within India’s tradition or the advancing role of women in folk, a quiet revolution is stirring within the arts. By fanning the flames of change that are surfacing, the time calls for a radical return to roots.