I am typing this blog on a long and fairly tedious flight from Mumbai back to London. (I then helpfully forgot to actually post it online til today…). The word ‘tedious’ certainly can’t be applied to the country I have just been in. India is an extraordinary place and is eternally fascinating. Many of the countries I have toured are perhaps quite similar in culture to the UK – Germany, Norway, Canada, New Zealand, USA etc. They are all very different to each other of course but India certainly stands alone in terms of being a completely different kind of place! My fascination with the music is well known to people who follow me and the influence has found its way into some of my work and collaborations. This trip was slightly different. I’m lucky enough to be an endorsed artist by the wonderful Deering Banjos and they invited me to join them in India in a trip primarily intended to research if there was a market for banjos out there and taking in Jodhpur Riff festival. I’ve split the three sections of the trip below. Read on!
First up were a few days in the capital city Delhi. I confess to feeling a bit of trepidation on the flight over. You would think after numerous tours abroad over the last few years it might all be old hat but I do still get a bit nervous about taking my trade abroad. I suppose in this instance there was the added dimension that I would be spending ten days with two people, Greg and Janet Deering, whom I didn’t really know at all as well as their daughter Jamie who would be joining us at the tail end of the Delhi section of the trip. Plus India is quite scary to begin with! I had been before of course but it such a different kind of place that all in all I was feeling a bit nervous. I got there late and got into my hotel, an extremely plush Holiday Inn near the airport.
Then it was time for day 1. After breakfast, myself and the Deerings went out to explore purely on a tourist level. Sensibly, Janet and Greg had booked a car, driver and guide and a massive bonus was the fact that my old friend Jon Green now lives in Delhi. We were picked up by our driver and went to pick up Jon to join us on our tour. I was immediately reminded about arguably the most memorable aspect of India – THE ROADS! The mixture of thrill, awe, bewilderment and sheer terror was something I’d rather forgotten about. It will remain an eternal mystery to me how vehicles, people, animals and every other mode of transport or creature in India don’t crash into each other every two seconds. But somehow they don’t. It is exhilarating just driving around India – people watching and looking at a culture that is so fundamentally different. After picking up Jon we headed to a beautiful temple, one of many such buildings in India.
The architecture of the country is truly breathtaking and the level of detail found in the sculpture is stunning, especially when considered how often it’s the case that surprisingly few people actually built it. The stories that accompany the architecture are often highly complex too with the different faiths having such stories behind them. My friend Jon is particularly up on these; I found it hard to keep track!
We were fortunate to arrive in India during the festival season so there were many religious festivals going on around the city which involved some extraordinary street carnivals and processions such as the colourful and explosive photo below!
Jon, the Deerings and I then had some much needed nourishment which as is a recurring theme through the trip was most excellent! Greg and Janet then headed to the hotel while I stayed with Jon and went on a wonderful trip round the city. We wandered through a wonderful market which was typically chaotic seeming yet somehow it all made sense. Jon has managed to learn Hindi in his time in India and attracted considerable attention as the 6 foot 8 inch white man who spoke Hindi every time we stopped to get anything! It is fascinating seeing how these markets work with so many stalls set up bursting with whatever they’re selling. The prices are truly mind bogglingly cheap to someone from the UK even including the probable ‘tourist tax’ put on many of them! We tried several lovely desserts and even watched a few of them being made. For reasons best known to itself, the website refuses to let me rotate the photo below of a dessert being made to the right place. Turn your screen sidewards as my computer can take no more abuse from me…
I was reminded about something very noticeable from my previous trip to India – the staring. In the UK particularly to get caught staring at anyone is almost the height of embarrassment. In India it really is quite normal and generally white tourists are on the receiving end of it. I remember feeling very intimidated by it in Kolkata and felt much the same again to begin with but it became quite normal in time and actually I have found that simply smiling or nodding breaks the ice and it’s all smiles and friendliness. This highlights two things I particularly like about India – the people and their ability to communicate so markedly without words. The Indian head tilt and the Hindu inspired hands together bow are wonderful and I rather feel we should adapt them in the UK! Much is made about the apparently dangerous India – according to some media reports you’d think tourists were mugged, assaulted and threatened every three seconds. As is so often the way, that is complete and utter nonsense and I found Indians to be so friendly and pleased to help. Sure, there’s some aggressive sales tactics and begging and it’s not pleasant. But overall I simply had a wonderful time in Delhi and thanks to Jon I got to see much more than just ‘tourist Delhi’, I saw the real thing. And I loved it. Later we ended up at a festival concert too and ended up being bunked up to the front row and treated like royalty. It was rather a shame we had to leave after half an hour owing to my tiredness!
Day 2 (don’t worry, not every day is going to take so many words…) again began with a trip to a magnificent religious building, this time a mosque. Better still we saw ‘Old Delhi’, another wonderful insight into the workings of Indian roads and markets. We travelled on a cycle rickshaw, essentially a carriage on the back of a bike. It was a wonderful way to see the city and once again I marvelled at the narrow misses with people, cars, motorbikes and God knows what else. The electrical cabling is also something to behold; at one point I had to duck my head to avoid an electric cable electrocuting me!
Horror of horrors we did start doing what we came to the city to do as well! We visited a couple of music stores enquiring about the possibility of banjos being sold there and I demonstrated the instrument in store as per my duty! It was rather fun and we also tried some delicious Chai Massala tea while we were there. We then met Jaspeer, an important figure in the Indian music shop business and later Baldeep, a very charismatic and funny man who specialises in audio restoration and reviving the taos, an instrument that almost went extinct. He treated us to a wonderful dinner, a bit of a jam and then I ended up giving a house concert and chat about the banjo!
Day 3 (see I told you…) was music shop day as Jaspeer took us round the stores and was wonderful company throughout the day and over lunch. Listening to him give Microsoft an almighty bollocking on the phone was also one of the biggest treats of the trip! Jon joined us towards the end and once again he and I explored the city further in the evening while the Deerings returned to the hotel. Once again Jon astounded me with his grasp of Hindi and took me to further market streets where tourists don’t tend to go. Once again they were highly friendly and welcoming to us and marvelled at Jon’s ability to speak the language. A particularly brilliant moment was watching Jon show two young lads who make quite astonishingly good biscuits his feature on them on his (most excellent) blog about India on his phone. Jon’s blog can be found at namastenewdelhi.wordpress.com. Their faces really were a picture. We later found ourselves at a colourful Muslim festival called Murraham. It was terrific fun with the works of art truly something to behold and a very colourful atmosphere.
Next up it was off to Rajasthan and the city of Jodhpur. The flight wasn’t very long and we arrived at our hotel in good time via the car and then a tuk tuk, a great way to see the city.
All the usual brushes with all manner of modes of transport or creatures followed before we were at the hotel. We then headed into the city to once again enjoy the markets and shops. As usual sales were fairly ‘in your face’ but it was all good fun and by now we had got quite used to it. We then found ourselves in a quite amazing shop selling blankets, throws and similar and it was quite a treat to be introduced to the Indian shop method of sales. Whereas down the market it’s simply a shout out and holding out of products with occasional bit of following, in the shops they really do go to town! We were led upstairs, sat down along with quite a few others and treated to the full spiel and demonstration of the stunningly impressive products he had (and they really were – Indian colours and patterns are really something else). Quite a few members of staff under him furiously ran round him fetching the next products, helping to hold them up and serving us all delicious tea! He was the Indian Delboy – all ‘they normally retail at…’. You couldn’t help but admire him and we all bought a couple of things. Well actually I bought one thing and the Deerings, particularly Jamie, bought a LOT of things although they did draw the line at the antique blanket that would have cost about $3000! In the evening Jamie and I headed into the city centre and watched the first concert of the festival, a bill of different Rajasthani acts which were all brilliant with some especially stunning dancing early on.
Day 2 in Jodhpur saw us head to a beautiful park full of monkeys! They were very entertaining to watch although their singular gift of stopping their climbing and moving as soon as I had the video rolling I could have done without…
Jon had now joined us too as he saw my visit to Jodhpur Riff as a good excuse to visit the city himself! We then headed to a quite astonishing sweet shop where Jon gladly acted as guide having tried many of them himself. Jamie also experienced some rather unwanted attention from a small group of men but it was all fine and Jon’s height and Hindi speaking diffused the situation rather well! Then it was off to the truly stunning fort where the festival was held. It is a stunning sight and we wasted no time in checking out the wonderful music from the local musicians. The main aim of the festival is to promote Rajasthani music and musicians but reach out to the wider international community. It certainly worked with a myriad of different nationalities present and a very vibrant event all round. I even had the chance to play with the musicians which was a real treat for me, jamming with Indian musicians being one of my favourite things to do in the world!
The next day was much the same and I found myself really enjoying Jodhpur, both the festival and the city itself. I reflected as well how truly diverse India is. Language, religion, music – they vary so much from place to place. Certain things about India are pretty common across the board it seems but make no mistake, it is impossible to see all that India has to offer. I really grew to love the hands together bow; it is such a lovely gesture of friendship and togetherness.
Jodhpur has one notable downside – DOGS. Before all you dog lovers lambast me for this, do remember that dogs in India spell rather more danger than dogs in the UK. One bite, lick or scratch and rabies can be the result! Thus a few loud, howling and seemingly psychotic dogs right near the door of the hotel seemed less than ideal really…
And so to the final leg of our trip – Mumbai. I feel that owing to tiredness, time and traffic (DEAR GOD THE TRAFFIC) I have rather unfinished business with Mumbai it being a massive city and to my surprise actually with a higher population than Delhi. When we arrived in the afternoon we were simply too tired to do anything! It had caught up with all of us and we simply collapsed in the hotel for an evening which was rather nice and I actually ended up having a glass of wine in the bar downstairs with an Indian chap who was very funny and very friendly. Thanks Rohit!
The next day it was down to business though and we visited many music stores with me doing my demonstrations and even engaging in a bit of impromptu jamming. We had a lovely lunch too but later encountered the downside of Mumbai –TRAFFIC! My word it took us a long time to get back to the hotel.
Then to our final full day in India and we headed to Sanjay Gandhi national park and saw the amazing caves and lots more monkeys! One even stole Jamie’s water bottle which was rather funny. The architecture once again blew me away and the level of detail was remarkable. Then to round off a thoroughly successful trip for us all, we met two members of one of India’s biggest acts. Ehsaan and Loy from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy were absolutely delightful and are now determined to get to grips with the banjo, banjitar and banjolele left with them by the Deerings!
India, you are a remarkable nation. It’s fast, chaotic and a little crazy but so utterly rich in wonderful art, architecture and of course music. The people are amazing – so friendly and eager to help. Admin is a bit of a nightmare and checking in and out of the hotels was frankly painful (HALF AN HOUR?!?!?!) but none of this can even come close to detracting from the wonder that is India. I can’t thank the Deerings enough for this wonderful opportunity and to my wonderful friend Jon for enriching the trip immeasurably.