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  • Writer's pictureUrvashi Singh

It’s Whirling Dervishes in Marwar: A Glimpse into the WORLD SACRED SPIRIT FESTIVAL with ALAIN WEBER

Whirling dervishes at the WSSF

The year was 2007 when traditional music artists gathered to perform at Nagaur’s Ahhichatragarh Fort in order to commemorate its UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Excellence in Cultural Heritage Conservation. This musical extravaganza resulted out of a joint resolve undertaken by H.H. Maharaja Gaj Singhji and Baijilal Shivranjani Rajye of Jodhpur in order to rehabilitate the incredible historical legacy of the fort. Under the subsequent guidance of late Padma Bhushan Rajkumar Martand Singhji, they intended to breathe a new life into the Nagaur Fort through a universal celebration of Sufi poetry and spiritual trance.

For the next eleven years and counting, this vision evolved into the country’s pioneering effort in cultural conservation and music tourism, with a central focus on reviving the sacred traditions of Sufism in India. The World Sacred Spirit Festival (WSSF) as it came to be known, is an annual music festival curated by Baijilal herself, in association with Kr. Karni Singhji Jasol, Alain Weber, Alexandra De Cadaval and the Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

In paying utmost attention to the plurality of Sufism in its various manifestations across the globe, the WSSF hosts a fleet of geographically diverse artists in their own unique renditions of the Sufi musical genre. Alongside a rich entourage of international artists, the WSSF has comprised of Indian performers such as Arshad Ali Khan from the Kirana gharana, Ojas Adhiya, Milind Tulankar and Nawab Khan with the Langas and Manganiyars, to name but a few. Year after year, chapter after chapter, the festival has delighted and sustained an audience as varied as its musical ensemble itself.

The rising prominence of WSSF’s stature as a musical prominence, however, is not to be perceived in isolation from a larger phenomenon that has been in play worldwide for over a decade. In other words, with due credit to music, poetry and ritual dances, Sufism has attained the status of a universal concept whilst bearing a strong influence over new age movement. The writings of Rumi, who happens to be one of the most widely-read and translated Sufi mystics of all times, have risen in contemporary pop culture in an adjacency to Indian Sufis such as Khusrau, Ghalib, Kabir, Meera, Faiz, Mir and others through popular literature, music and cinema. Hence, this integrative approach towards Sufism has expanded the scope of a global audience that is genuinely receptive and welcoming of initiatives such as the WSSF.

When the old world charm and romanticism of the Sufi musical genre descends more specifically upon historic venues of the Ahhichatragarh and Mehrangarh forts, the sensory experience of sacred music tends to enter a new league altogether, both for the performers as well as their audience.

Alain Weber

Festival director Alain Weber further elaborates on this contextual impact: “several festivals today tend to present commercial fusion which completely elude the context and meaning of traditional musics. Even secular musics are always linked to a way of life based on ecological and environmental values with a historical background. Hence, what we’re trying to demonstrate to curious listeners is this link between music and its context. One of our main challenges is to introduce a real scenography connecting architecture to music. It’s very important for the festival to give a certain idea of beauty with an aesthetic approach… as the stones of the Nagaur and Jodhpur forts, musics are reflecting the progressive constructions of a human imagination that has survived through the centuries.”

Furthermore, in uniting the infinitely rich character of Rajasthan with the everlasting tenets of Sufism, the WSSF has been unique in highlighting the latter’s prevalence in the Indian subcontinent in a way that re-centres the Sufi movement from being a predominantly Middle-Eastern concept to a more multitude of universally-accepted movement towards brotherhood, love and devotion. In the cultural context of India, this could be especially recognised via the crucial issuance of support from presumably contrasting religions like Hinduism and Islam that often find their converging points in the unsurpassable depths of Sufism. Off late, there is an increased recognition of the parallels that can be found between the Bhakti movement and Sufi mysticism that resonates through new-age musical platforms, Coke Studio being the most prominent one.

Taking into account the evolution of contemporary fusion music, the WSSF is posed

One of the several enthralling performances at WSSF

with the challenge of maintaining a crucial balance that Weber further elaborates upon. This balance is fundamentally between maintaining a moral engagement towards a faithful audience on the one hand, and renewing the artistic propositions without falling into a trends phenomenon on the other. In Weber’s words, “most parts of Sufi chanting and music is religious and is supposed to be practiced only through ritual in a closed surrounding. Therefore, we have to be very careful of not blowing away this confidential and sacral aspect while opening the perspectives of sacred music. In putting them on a stage, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re transforming them in a simple entertainment”, states Weber. He suggests finding a technological redressal to this challenge as well as exploring new concepts and venues to explore further possibilities for the WSSF in terms of programming. In their collaboration with Alexandra de Cadaval and the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, the WSSF team has been exploring new venues within the fort in order to develop a program that conveys its explicit respects to the divine semblance of nature and its patterns, from sunrise to sunset. “For instance, we’ve developed a concept of raga on the lake with birds flying around or even wild boards running in the fields… by night, we use a lot of candles to provide a magical effect to the performances. We also try to combine lectures, salons de musique and rituals”, states Weber.

In its international celebration of Sufism, WSSF doesn't forget to include its regional performers

These just amount to a few of the many considerations that the WSSF pays to Sufism, not just as a genre of music or entertainment, but as a way of life. In doing so, the festival iconically transcends its conveyance of Sufi music from a mere genre to a powerful medium that links one to the varying nuances of human expression. As a means of such a musical exchange in the given historical and cultural context of the WSSF, not only does a discerning audience extend its genuine appreciation towards musical talent, but the entire affair is enhanced to intellectual and spiritual realms.

In his concluding remarks, Weber very rightly acknowledges the possible challenges that are underway for Sufism, and WSSF’s redressals of the same. He says, “I think that, in the future, the idea of Sufism will become more and more an artistic concept or a trend composed only of visually attractive elements within a very superficial, even artificial philosophical approach. So, the goal of the WSSF in the future is to keep combining form and content and inserting it in the path of the poets who, along the centuries, tried to embellish the world through their words.”

Rajputana Collective congratulates Baijilal, Weber, Karni and the entire team of WSSF in their commendable effort to revive the spiritual exchange of Sufism in such compelling yet sanctified settings. It has been a thorough honour to have been read by their distinguished audience in the past, and it is our sincere hope that our forthcoming issues will continue to be considered worthy of their readership.


Mehrangarh Fort


22nd to 24th Feb 2019

How to get there?

Direct Flight to Jodhpur from New Delhi and Mumbai

Festival tickets

You can book online on


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