FOLK A candid conversation about the realities the Manganiyars face today.

“Classical music has its roots in folk”, declares Manjoor Khan, who belongs to the Manganiyar community from Barmer in Rajasthan. Manjoor Khan and troupe were in the city last weekend to perform at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha on the occasion of World Music Day. “There is absolutely no doubt that classical music was born from folk music. Notation came later. We, as folk singers, do not use notes in our singing. Just like, classical musicians learn from the books, we sing from our memory. Our tradition is one of the oral traditions that gave birth to the classical tradition,” says Manjoor Khan confidently. Their opinions are firm and their roots are strong and yet, during a conversation with them, one realises that they are also willing to try almost anything that is new and different. “You know there is a saying in Marwadi which translates as this: Follow the course of the wind. Basically, it says that one must adapt to changing times. Today, in this day and age of fusion music, we have no qualms in trying anything new. In fact we believe it is important for a tradition like ours to flourish,” he explains.

A small, yet significant audience witnessed their performance on Sunday where they sang crowd-pleasing compositions like ‘Nimbooda’ and ‘Duma dum mast Kalandar’ among others. The troupe, that has recently begun to collaborate with other artists, brought Papiya, a female Kalbiliya folk dancer from Jodhpur with them. “Papiya belongs to the Sapera dancing tradition which is a form of snake dance. After the government put a regulation on this, she and the others from her community developed this dance that they call Kalbiliya which is named after their caste,” explained Manjoor Khan. Papiya danced as Jameel Khan, the vocalist of the group, sang with his taut, yet transforming voice. She matched her steps with Dilawar Khan’s Kartal, an instrument that comprises four wooden sticks and Kawaru Khan's kamacha, a 5000-year old instrument. Manjoor Khan, who heads the troupe, played the dholak and accompanied Jameel Khan with the vocals.

Performing on a stage like the Sabha in Chennai is of course a recent change for the Manganiyar folk singers. “Originally, the Manganiyars are a caste that go to the Jajman's house, often a Hindu Rajput family's home, to sing on special occasions like marriage and birth, for example. Gradually, we as a community, have been recognised and have stepped out of our villages for performances like these,” said Khan. So, does the Jajman ever object to them leaving the village for a stage performance? “No”, comes the quick reply. What becomes visible in Manjoor Khan's words is a sense of immense respect for the Jajman who has traditionally offered patronage for singers like him. Khan says that the Jajman's family and his family have a relationship that has lasted, even flourished for generations. When asked if there is a caste hierarchy between the Jajman and the Manganiyar, he says, “Of course there is. There is no doubt that the Jajman occupies a higher position than us”. When asked what makes the Jajman superior and the Manganiyar inferior, he says, “Their ideas and thoughts are what make them superior. They think about the entire village while we only think about our day-to-day life.” Manjoor Khan, quickly adds, “Caste system is a reality for us. But you should also know that our Jajman takes very good care of us and the rest of the Manganiyars. In fact, they need us just like we need them. A Jajman could be looked down upon if he does not have a Manganiyar performing at his house on a happy occasion,” he explains.

There seems to be no space for a negotiation when it comes to opinions like these. In fact it seems as if their opinions take root in the status quo which they do not wish to upset.

On the question of preserving their folk tradition, the members of Manjoor Khan’s troupe believe that it is fine if it is passed on orally. All the members of Manjoor Khan’s troupe learnt the compositions they sing in their homes. “We do not even know who wrote these compositions originally. We have songs about birth, marriage, love, separation and even about physical fights. When I asked my father the composer’s name, he did not know either because these songs have been passed on to us by our ancestors.” So do they ever feel that their tradition should be documented? “Nobody has taken the initiative. We are trained to remember thousands of songs. From the time we wake up until the time we sleep, all we do is sing,” says Jameel Khan.