Langa and Manganiar folk musicians in Rajasthan fear their art might get lost in the face of poverty and illiteracy

They are the voice of Rajasthan; they adorn all major cultural fiestas in India and abroad and their lilting melodies leave the audiences spellbound. Be it Kesaria Balam or Nimbuda or Manganiar Seduction, their performances are simply unforgettable.

But away from the limelight, majority of the Langas and the Manganiars, the folk musicians from western Rajasthan, do not have such a rosy background. The gifted singers, who have carried forward the oral tradition of music for several generations, yearn for ways to secure their future. Mostly poor, uneducated and devoid of any substantial organized means of sustenance, their progeny may soon have to leave music aside to tread a different path to earn a livelihood.

Belonging to the Muslim community, the Langas and the Manganiars mostly live in border districts of Barmer and Jaisalmer. Interestingly, their folk music flourished under the patronage of their Hindu yajmans (patrons) over the years. While the Manganiars are patronised by the Bhati Rajputs, the Langas have the Sindhi Sipahis as yajman. They still sing for their Hindu yajmans on Holi, Diwali and other auspicious occasions like weddings. They can invoke Lord Krishna with the same intensity as they would render a mystical number. They have a matchless ingenuity, too. They can compose numbers to suit the occasion, be it a wedding or sending best wishes to our cricket team for the World Cup.

They would have remained inconspicuous to the outside world had not Komal Kothari, a great connoisseur of folk arts, discovered their talent. Realising that this oral tradition might go extinct if no steps were taken to preserve it, he documented the art and the artists and thanks to his efforts, a group of artists rose to fame and the melodious voices of the Thar began to enthral audiences far and wide. For the first time, the Langas and the Manganiars stepped out of the boundaries of their villages to sail across the globe.

“We are grateful to Komal Kothariji who introduced us to the world of name and fame,” Padma Shri Sakir Khan of Hamira village said. At 75, Sakir Khan is a highly unassuming personality. He has an equally gifted successor in his 31-year-old son Darre Khan. Both of them play kamaicha — a string instrument and Javed, the toddler in the family, is already getting the taste of music sitting on the lap of his grandfather.

The village is full of artists — vocalists as well as instrumentalists — who master the art of playing shehnai, khadtal, sindhi sarangi or dholak. But most of them are uneducated. How do they then manage to interact with the western audience? Sakir Khan replied: “Surile log to har jagah hote hain aur sur to har jagah sur hi hota hai.” (Music-lovers are spread across the globe and understand the language of music)

Veteran musicians like Sakir Khan and other fellow artists like Pepe Khan, Imamuddin Akbar Khan and Bhungar Khan lament the fact that some of their folk instruments might become extinct since there are few makers available. Kamaicha is a difficult instrument to play on since it does not have any scale. That is also the reason for many youngsters to feel attracted to the harmonium, an upset Sakir Khan added.

They are grateful to their yajmans and would not think twice rejecting a concert contract to attend an invitation of their yajman, according to young Darre Khan who recently underwent a kidney transplant surgery. He was lucky to receive financial support but not everyone in their community would have the same luck.

Other than Komal Kothari, some organisations like Marudhar Lok Kala Mandal and individuals like Magraj Jain have been making efforts to help the folk musicians preserve their rich tradition. The efforts can get further boost with government intervention. In this regard, the musicians await the implementation of the Barmer Charter, prepared after a conference held to study the plight of the Langas and the Manganiars in 2008.

Congress MP from Barmer, Harish Choudhury, recently met the Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot asking him to look into the speedy implementation of the charter. “We have great hopes from the Chief Minister who hails from western Rajasthan,” said Bhuwanesh Jain, who is supporting the claim of the folk artists. He was appreciative of the initiative of current Chief Secretary C.K. Matthew, who during his posting as Barmer’s Collector in 1982, had included folk music training under TRYSEM (Training of Rural Youth for Self-Employment).

The success of Roysten Abel’s Manganiar Seduction has further popularised the Langas and Manganiars, who have carved out a niche for themselves as the quintessential icons of Rajasthani folk music. Alas, it is not true of the whole community which still dwells in rudimentary dwellings and yearns for access to good education, health and social security.

In addition, a greater threat hangs over their head. When the song Nimbuda, composed and set to tune by Gazi Khan Manganiar, was used in a Bollywood film, allegedly without acknowledging the source, Komal Kothari had felt the urge for copyright of folk and indigenous art forms. “Since they come from illiterate and mostly socially backward groups, they will lose their right to various traditional creations before they even become aware of it,” he had cautioned.