Tuesday, June 9, 2009

You Can Lead A Camel to Water, But...

"Can you teach a camel to dance?"  booms the hoity-toity voice of the English-speaking emcee on the crackling public address system. Instead of answering his question, he continues, digressively, "What you see will remain vivid in your late years." Drummers rattle bombastically and a camel gallops onto the main stage, its head swung back so that its neckline is exposed sunward, the animal staggering forwards and backwards not dancing so much as appearing to be in dire need of urination. "Bravo, what a clever beast," gapes the emcee, rhapsodic.

The city of Bikaner has always played second fiddle to its beautiful sister, Jaisalmer. Both cities are in Rajasthan, set squarely on the edge of the Thar Desert, the southern frontier between India and Pakistan, but Bikaner is never included in fly-by-night tourist itineraries: Jaisalmer is the chosen desert dream locale. Perhaps one could fault the city planning of Bikaner, which beyond the claustrophobic alleys of the Old City, is too spread out, too suburban, too dull while the fort in Jaisalmer is an inhabited relic; a few thousand people still live there, mostly Brahmin families, connecting a contemporary intimacy with a mythologized past, a sense of wonder that feels quite remote while dodging the busy buzz of Bikaner's traffic. But for three days a year, Bikaner is queen of the desert during its annual camel festival.

The city holds the first day of the festival at a stadium named for a famous local son, an Olympic clay pigeon marksman. The groundskeepers have set up three sections of plastic chairs, one for the Indians, one for the tourists and one for press. Unsurprisingly, organization spirals quickly out of control and within the first hour of the show, nearly everyone has wandered past the police line onto the field itself for a closer look.

"Look at the shine! Look at the raiment of the Pied Pipers!" When the emcee mentions Pied Pipers I immediately think of mice at the nearby Rat Temple at Deshnok but he wants to draw attention to a battery of musicians—horns, reeds, drums, bagpipes—leading the cavalcade. "Dressed in most gorgeous finery, propped lovingly to be incomparably beautiful, the camels will demonstrate a gorgeousness to silence their harshest critics." I've never met anyone critical of the aesthetic quality of camels—indifference is slightly more common. But indeed plenty of brouhaha has gone into bedecking these passive beasts—attired in garlands, tassels, confetti, bells, inlaid mirrors, plastic flowers, nose piercings, silk scarves, marigold necklaces, pink balloons, India national flags, Kohl eye shadow, even their enormous ungulate toes look pedicured— "stunning" as the emcee declares, as I like most others, bravo with our cameras. 

Gentlemen of the B.S.F. (Border Security Force) enter, riding the animals accoutered in corresponding vestments but of a martial couture: epaulets, gongs-and-pips, ironed-on patches, and immaculate uniform creases. Rainbow-turbaned and armed to the teeth they brandish spears, swords, crescent knives, and goofy smiles (watch yourself, Pakistan!). Most conspicuous though are their waxed mustaches, where in this particular detail, size matters. Protected by extraordinary facial hair, they chaperone a princess in a purple sari in need of a parasol.

Following India's finest are some camels lugging a cart loaded with Kashmiri rugs. Then a camel pulls a large cardboard house reading State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur, the proud local sponsor getting its air time. And then, oddly, the show progresses into real life logistical examples of the humpback experience. Camels slog past its audience tugging the most quotidian loads: wagons overloaded with bundles of broken tree branches, another with carefully chopped firewood, the next with food in open air sacks, another crowded with poor farmers and so on "in recognition of their contribution in desert transportation." The obviousness of their usefulness bores the audience, who stir from the their descending torpor only when we move on to camel acrobatics.

The first camel in the contest genuflects to the audience, a salutation not especially acrobatic despite the emcee's euphemistic encouragement: "Not an easy thing to do. Certainly not!" The next act involves a man rising to a standing position on the animal's hump as it gallops before the grandstands. ("Great sense of balance!") The next man does a headstand on a strutting camel ("The duty of the camel is to take a man to his destination no matter how peculiar his riding preference."). The following camel runs past us with a man balanced like the Nike Swoosh ("Even yoga can be performed on a running camel. Camels are so important in our daily life.") After this stunning stretch is a comedy act featuring a joker doing the rodeo clown bit, rolling under the animal, connecting an air pump to its rear, administering air, and checking the pressure. His gag ends with him riding backwards ("His own particular way of riding camels.") I glance at some Kuwaiti sheiks in VIP chairs, expressionless behind their dark sunglasses.

The camel dancing seems redundant after the acrobatics exhibition. Led by bearded men in dhotis, pulled by the reins like marionette strings, camels move herkyjerky as if they are dodging Pakistani machinegun fire. More photogenic is the camel-shaving festival in which several camels are paraded before us with intricate geometric designs shaved into their flanks, reminding the viewer of henna, mandalas, and carpets. The camels are escorted by their barbers around a circle of spectators posing at specified positions for the cameras to encapsulate the ephemeral beauty. ("You know it's like the catwalk, a real fashion show. Bravo.")

Well, not like any I have ever been to but this is India. More germane to the spirit of a fashion show is the Mr. Bikaner contest. Representing the different cities of Rajasthan, the contestants' turbans are varieties of pattern and color: red, saffron, shades of purple and green--if you even notice the colors once you've gotten over the men's outstanding mustaches, the longer ones unrolled and curling out stretched to their fullest diameter. "Just look into their faces, ladies and gentlemen, and witness…the glory," the emcee intones with situational gravitas. But glory can be superficial and the true determining factor for Mr. Bikaner is personality. Taking turns addressing the audience, their handling of the mic would be decisive. Some, despite the swagger of their facial hair, are short but sweet. One bursts into song. A bearded Mr. Bikaner wannabe shouts a maelstrom at us, blowing his chance of victory, though to be honest if one of them has the chutzpah to unsheathe his sword and feint, he would have clinched my vote (the announced judges are army officers and doctors to a chair which leads me to presume military service and medical knowledge are essential qualifications for evaluating the ideal Mr. Bikaner). Bizarrely, in a flagrant push for cuteness, a small boy and girl dressed in the height of desert fashion are brought on stage. The tiny boy embraces the tiny girl and kisses her cheek and the crowd goes nuts for this saccharine outburst (organizers manage to pull the stunt off in spite of the risk of controversy, for Rajasthan is infamous for child brides being married off in group dowries and here could have been poster children).

Following Mr. Bikaner against the backdrop of a soft, magical light, begins the Miss Meridan contest, which is named after a woman involved in a folk tale that includes drought, seeds, floods, love, and camels. "This contest is about grace, style, poise, personality." Yes and it is just like a real fashion show because the girls have to utilize their feminine charms to woo our cheering. They work mostly from the same template as the camels:  henna, bangles, jewelry. Of course, they are wearing swirling, colorful saris but the garment, like the Japanese kimono, is justly famous for the intricacies in its folds and certainly requires a touch of finesse to make it work. In fashion you capitalize on your strengths, you work with what you have, and some of the women do well exploiting the flirty potential of a veil, conjuring an aura of mystery and romance. ("Sometimes sexy is not what you can see, but what you can't!")  Like the contest for Mr. Bikaner, personality goes a long way and the women finish their catwalk performance with an address to the audience. Some sing village songs, some are cheered by local factions, but most of the girls flop the personality bit, but for this they can hardly be faulted—they are not only shy but also bewildered to be standing before such an enormous (mostly male) audience. Traditionally accustomed to modesty rather than stage events, the women betray not only their girlhood but also a lifestyle that has not conditioned them towards spectacle.

I do not stick around to hear the winners announced, nor do I return to the stadium that night when another local hero is scheduled to perform (the winner from a TV talent show—the American Idol equivalent). I worry the celebrants might have dug into their moonshine in the interim and having been to several Indian weddings, I have had enough of moshpits and juiced-up, excitable Indians, their elbows in my teeth.

My reliability as a Bikaner Camel Fair witness deteriorates from the moment the Miss Meridan contest wraps up. I do not attend the last day of the festival due to outgoing travel arrangements and the day I do go to Ladera, a desert village within the Thar Desert, I don't have the patience to decipher the slipshod scheduling of the events. A certain fatigue plagues my notetaking and without the exclamations of the ironic emcee, my enthusiasm does not respond critically to the events. Or perhaps the novelty of camels has begun to wear off.

On the way to Ladera, civilization disappears when we leave the main highway and the claptrap bus takes to a potholed dirt path. We pass mud huts, thatched roofs, idle children and village elders surrounded by a landscape of desert scrub and top-heavy sand dunes. Bunting twined on some cables indicates the festival's presence as well as a Vodafone banner in some dusty, leafless tree.

By the time I alight from the bus, the first event has already begun, a variation of Greco-Roman wrestling. One prone to conjecture has to wonder whether the source of the sport is a residual consequence of Alexander the Great's incursion into the Punjabi region. That theory can not be guaranteed and neither can a view and I don't feel like using the tourist card to push myself through the crowded male audience. I wander the dunes slightly incoherent, taking in the landscape, emptying my shoes of sand, failing in conversation with a stoned sadhu, and waiting for the next event, a foot race up a dune. This, too, lacks camels but provides an outlet for hyperactive locales to exhaust themselves for no suitable reason.

Nothing like the Indian Air Force for a strong pick-me-up. Two fighter jets practice maneuvers over the event leaving sonic booms in their wake and stunned shoeless farmers gasping for their gods. Then higher, from an aircraft built for such purposes, skydivers leap into the void, floating down on bright parachutes and who, once they land, are mobbed by impressed children.

How are the camels supposed to follow James Brown at the Apollo? The camel jockeys whip their animals across a 200-meter field, wiping out for me at least the animal's cliché reputation for slowness. Tragedy is narrowly averted on the final race when halfway through one of the camels right-turn off the course and stampede in the audience's direction, his rider perhaps aiming for a creditor he has spotted in the sands.

With the sun thus setting I mill around the trail leading back to the village, Ladera, and beyond, my hotel in Bikaner. Wandering, I see a camel's cart being loaded with what must have been the entire female half of a local family clan. Squished together, they giggle at me as the camel's handler mutters his familiar orders to the animal, a genuine moment of truth within the staged artifice. I walk along the wagon, waving farewell to the blushing ladies.

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2008

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