John Singh

December 19, 2016

In autumn 2011 I produced and directed a film for the BBC arts series Imagine about the traditional music of Rajasthan and, more crucially, the traditional musicians, who were finding it ever harder to make a living. They were usually low caste people, living on the edges of their villages. Their champion was John Singh, an Eton-educated Indian, co-founder of Anokhi, the innovative clothes and textile company. John travelled around the bumpy, muddy cart tracks of Rajasthan seeking out musicians whom he could both support and promote. It was music he loved, and a way of life he admired and wanted to help preserve.

With cameraman Daniel Meyers I did a road trip with John Singh, which culminated at that year’s RIFF festival at the fort in Jodhpur (RIFF meaning Rajasthan International Folk Festival). The resulting film was called The Lost Music of Rajasthan – you can watch the complete film here.

Sadly, this year John Singh died. He is hugely missed – such a charismatic, charming, witty and wholehearted person. His wife Faith Singh is having a film made in his memory, interviewing Rajasthani musicians who knew and loved him. She asked us for footage of John which didn’t make it into the BBC film.

Fortunately I was able to keep a copy of the rushes on a hard drive, and the editor Allen Charlton and I hooked it up and found some wonderful things – particularly scenes of John chatting and laughing with villagers he visited. It’s not in a language we all speak, but even if you don’t understand, you can feel the mutual respect and good humour.

Here is the 12 minute assembly we just sent to Faith – starting with a local festival put on with John’s help in the small town of Momasar, then two village visits, one to hear two sisters – Jamuna and Mali Devi – play their devotional music, the other to see an old man, Saif Mohammed , who was supported by a pension from John’s organisation, play – and ride – his long-necked stringed instrument, the tandura. Note also the crocodile’s-teeth-like clapping metal instrument called a Chimta – it is now almost extinct.

That was followed by a performance in the dust of the village by a spirited, talented group of Derun dancers.

One day I hope to make short films of the different village visits – all the performances were so vibrant and all are in danger of fading into the past.

It was a privilege to know John Singh. I’m glad to have been able to preserve something of his work.