sun 19/05/2024

Imagine: The Lost Music of Rajasthan, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Imagine: The Lost Music of Rajasthan, BBC One

Imagine: The Lost Music of Rajasthan, BBC One

Saving the music of Rajasthan with Alan Yentob, cross-dressers and song-seekers

Botney and the cross-dresser

That Alan Yentob gets around. I’ve run into him backstage during Jay Z's set at Glastonbury and in a jazz club in Poland, and here we found him in Rajasthan fronting a fascinating and well-shot programme, albeit workmanlike rather than really inspired, mostly set in one of the richest traditional music areas of India.

Yentob (nicknamed Botney, which sounds like a furry robot) isn’t everyone’s cup of Bragg, and he isn’t that immediately likeable. Personally I prefer his lugubriousness to the overexcited and eager-to-please presenters TV bosses tend to go for. And he found the time to make a serious documentary and talk to people who are more immediately engaging than he is, like John Singh, who was introduced as a “song-seeker", an enviable occupation to have on the CV.

rajasthan musiciansSingh and his wife Faith employ hundreds in hand block-printing on cloth in the traditional manner and, more importantly for the purposes of this documentary, are involved in encouraging the folk-trance music that modernity threatens to bury. They have had some considerable success in setting up the splendidly named RIFF (Rajasthan International Folk Festival) and village festivals (see right) where Hindus and Muslims mix and enjoy the music and fire-eaters, undercutting the caste system.

Yentob hung with local cross-dressers at one festival where half the men dress as women. It was "wild and wonderful", he said, even if the documentary style was solid rather than wild. If nothing else this programme will boost RIFF as it looked gorgeous, especially if you got invited to the Maharajah’s VIP party in his palace, which, as an arts maharajah, Yentob was.

The heroine of the film was Bhanwari Devi, who was married off at nine, had her first child at 12 and now somehow looks after 22 people through her music. A black-and-white photo of her captured the startling intensity of her expression. We followed her as she went to Edinburgh and was astonished by the air conditioning.

The programme worried about the line between tradition and preserving a culture in aspic. "It's important such music doesn't end up as museum pieces," said Yentob as Bhanwari played in a Scottish museum. John Singh, though, was rather appalled at the way Bollywood had co-opted Rajasthani music while Jason Singh, a Manchester beat-boxer, was filmed fusing electronica with traditional music. The debate was simply raised, however, rather than saying anything startling.

Where are the big programmes on Mexican narcocorridos, Maghreb rap, Rio favela funk, Burmese heavy metal, Chinese dissident music...?

To explore the subject matter the documentary needed its hour or so, some of the intense characters were riveting and the music had a power and warmth. You understand why Yentob chose Rajasthan, visually and musically such a fertile region, but it did rather beg the question of the BBC's television coverage of world music. You had the feeling that this is our lot for world music for the year on TV.

We used to get the occasional gripping music documentary from Havana or Rio on Arena, but where are the big programmes on, say, Mexican narcocorridos (songs dedicated to the drug lords), Maghreb rap, which helped trigger the Arab Spring, Rio favela funk, Burmese heavy metal, Chinese dissident music? These are all subjects which would, in the right hands, provide fascinating windows into the world as it is, and how it is changing. And all of which could be done in a style far removed from the rather prosaic way the BBC currently tends to deal with such subjects.

BBC Four was a possible outlet for such programmes, notably the Storyville strand, but that seems about to be decimated, as is the World Service. We are now used to living in a globalised world - footballers from all nations on TV, restaurants from everywhere, and we know the stock market has billions zooming round the world at the click of a mouse – so now should be the time for the BBC to engage in the world much more freely, culturally and musically, rather than cut back.

This Imagine was the kind of thing I pay my licence fee for – if they carry on cutting I’ll stop it, and get my news from Al Jazeera.

It looked gorgeous, especially if you got invited to the Maharajah’s VIP party in his palace, which, as an arts maharajah, Yentob was

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That Peter Culshaw clearly also gets around.

I agree with Peter Culshaw's sentiments, even though I haven't (as yet) watched the Yentob documentary. He is - for me anyway - part of the problem of the "Arts presenter" as much as Bragg was : just too much of them on screen. And let's face it - he's not exactly what you would call photogenic is he ?

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