Jodhpur: As a full moon shone over Mehrangarh Fort, a small crowd sprawled on a courtyard of pillows—some swilling champagne—transfixed by the sitars, tablas and ragas by folk and classical musicians. Off to the side, attracting little notice, sat Mick Jagger.
The performance on the eve of the inaugural Rajasthan International Folk Festival, largely for dignitaries and other prominent guests, was part of a concerted effort to put Jodhpur squarely on the international world music map, at par with Glastonbury, the site of the world’s largest performing arts festival in the UK, or South by Southwest in the US, where roots and folk music festivals attract hordes of international tourists and boost the local economy.
Desert song: (Clockwise from left) Mick Jagger and Maharaja Gaj Singh at a performance on the eve of the Rajasthan International Folk Festival at Mehrangarh Fort
Perhaps the last time this place saw this kind of action was actress Liz Hurley’s wedding to software entrepreneur Arun Nayar at Umaid Bhavan, the palace of the maharaja.
The four-day festival, which opened on Friday and mixes folk and classical music traditions, represents a push to take Jodhpur—long considered a brief stopover on the way to the Rajasthan desert in Jaisalmer or a backpacker’s Mecca—a destination for an upscale crowd. “We expect this to become the platform to launch it to the next level,” says Mahavir Sharma, managing trustee of the non-profit Jaipur Virasat Foundation, a heritage trust that works to preserve Rajasthan’s arts and culture. Along with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and the Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces, the Jaipur-based foundation was the main sponsor of the event.
Tourism to the city has been growing over the past few years; the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, which tracks paid admissions to the fort’s museum, counted more than 500,000 Indians and 130,000 foreigners to the site last year, said Mahendra Singh, chief executive of the trust. The figures have been rising by about 10% a year over the past three years, he said, and are expected to go up again this year.
“The gain seems to be in the international market,” he said. “The main profile of a tourist used to be backpacker types and now it is moving towards a higher-income, more discerning group.”
Besides visits from international glitterati, the fort’s experience has also got a facelift. An audio tour, added four years ago, allows visitors an experience of the history and culture of the area and is included in the Rs250 price of admission for foreigners; Indians can buy it for Rs150 on top of a Rs20 admission.
In addition, the trust retained a conservation architect to work with the curator to design exhibits where the crowd flows one way, signs are well marked and the experience is easier to navigate. That isn’t always the case at other monuments and tourist destinations, said Singh.
Three years ago, Taj Hotels took over the management of Umaid Bhavan’s hotel, where the basic room runs to Rs35,000 a night. It has seen the length of its bookings change over that time—with the average going up to two or three nights. Officials hope overhauled spas and an added outdoor pool will help bring in business, while events such as the festival will help fill rooms in the period leading into the peak winter tourist season.
Nearly all the 2,000 rooms in the city were full for the festival, hotel and tourism officials said, especially in top- and mid-range heritage properties, unusual for the season.
The festival drew expatriates such as the Llewellyn family, who live in New Delhi. “We’ve been exposed to a lot of Rajastahni music in Delhi and we wanted to see where it originated,” says John Llewellyn, a medical officer at the British High Commission. He added that the festival could have been better publicized. “You don’t have all these different types of folk music in one place anywhere else,” added his wife Kathryn.
Even as the city positions itself to attract more tourists, some point to limitations, rail and air connections to Jodhpur are limited and infrastructure needs to be improved. “We are approaching capacity,” and preservation work could be at risk if expansion isn’t controlled, says the museum trust’s Singh. “You don’t want to get the point where you are overrun and the destination loses what makes it special.”