Rahis Bharti on how his group Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan took folk music to Europe
At the turn of the millennium in 2000, musician Rahis Bharti aka Rahis Khan moved to the island of Corsica in France with 500 rupees in his pocket and much more owed in loans back home in his village of Dhoad in Rajasthan.
Entering on a three-month visitor visa, his intention was to make a living as a musician and also introduce a country like France to India’s folk music. “I was playing in churches and cemeteries in Corsica and then I slowly began knowing people and a few journalists began writing about me. I met musicians there and played on fusion records and met Italian musicians as well,” he says over the phone from France.
From jamming with other artists and even featuring in an Italian film, about two decades have been spent by Bharti and his group of rotating musicians, Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan, spreading folk music in different parts of Europe and the world. “I came only with my tabla and the education I got from my school and the heritage passed down to me by my father,” he says, referring to Ustad Rafeek. While the father of five sons performed occasionally on TV and at public shows, it was not nearly enough to support the family, which led to Bharti looking abroad for opportunities.
As someone who is a seventh generation folk artist, Bharti says resilience has been in their blood for long enough that he would figure out a way to sustain during the pandemic. As a group that thrives on live shows at private events as well as diplomatic and cultural showcases, Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan took to online concerts for the Rajasthan Association UK earlier this year and for frontline healthcare workers of Italy.
For World Music Day in June last year, they jammed with French pop-rock star Mathieu Chedid, creating hypnotic, high-energy songs like “Pyaro.” Bharti claims the performance was seen by 600,000 people. As much as it was about staying afloat in Paris for Bharti and the Rajasthani musicians he had under his wing, he was also concerned about the larger Dhoad family of artists who were in Rajasthan without a means of earning from performances. “As I know the pain of musicians, we’re supporting the artists with us and sending aid and food kits to their families back home. We’ve supported over 700 artists over the years, by inviting them to perform with Dhoad. Somewhere, I feel this is our responsibility to give back to them, instead of blaming anyone,” Bharti says.
The artists who are part of Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan – singers, instrumentalists, dancers and even fire-eaters – have performed across France (including Disneyland in Paris). Bharti says with a laugh, “The musicians I brought to France, they haven’t even been to Mumbai, but they’ve been Moscow, New York, Japan. My role is like a cultural ambassador. It’s to create a new bridge between Rajasthan and the world.” And even amongst his own group of musicians, Bharti says there’s a demonstration of diversity – “We sing bhajans, we’re singing qawwalis, so two religions are living in the band. My religion is musical love,” he adds.
Under Bharti, they’ve so far released four albums via various labels – the self-released Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthanreleased in 2005, Roots Travelers was out in 2011 and they had a collaborative album with French fusion artist Sidi Bemol called Âfya in 2014. Their most recent album, Times of Maharajas, was out in 2019.
Along the way, it’s led to collaborations with the likes of Chedid but also flamenco artists, Spanish musicians and African musicians. “That has brought more richness to what I do,” he says.
With the time of lockdowns mostly having passed in France, Bharti welcomes the resurgence of public activities as good news. “We wanted to put together a tour of France to celebrate this. We have more concerts in different cities of France in August, all open air concerts. We’re going to perform in Portugal and Holland this year. We’re different corners of France also this year,” he says.
Bharti adds, “We’re so happy and excited for this normal life and play for people. I’m happy to see the situation changing in France – cafes are opening and it feels good. I pray that in India – saat samundar paar hai, but hum desh se jude hai – we win the battle against coronavirus.”