Like an Indian thali, the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (Jodhpur RIFF) offered sumptuous sounds from across the globe. The dominant one though came from stringed instruments at the five-day festival that concluded recently. From the folksy kamaicha to the Turkish oud and the classical sarangi, the fretless instruments opened up boundless melodic possibilities at the festival’s historic venue — the Mehrangarh Fort.
From time immemorial, artistes have had a constant urge to make their instruments match, if not better, the human voice, and the quest continues. The three instruments are not for those who have just experienced the first flush of love. It is for the romantics who carry scars in their hearts that could be healed by the melancholic sounds of these instruments.
Ghewar Khan, an exponent of the kamaicha, the folk instrument that defines the music of the Manganiyar community, says its haunting tunes reflect life in the desert.
Ghewar and his brother Darra are carrying forward the legacy of their legendary father Sakar Khan, who played alongside Pt. Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin, and showcased the classical possibilities of the folk instrument.
The brothers give credit to the well-known ethnomusicologist Komal Kothari for putting kamaicha on the global stage after he held camps in the villages of Jaisalmer in the 1950s and 60s and rediscovered the languishing musical culture of Rajasthan. But diminishing patronage and Bollywood influence mean that the instrument remains endangered, with not more than a dozen noteworthy players to carry forward the tradition that is orally passed on in the closely-knit community.
Ghewar and Darra recall how Nathu Khan from Ahmedabad used to come and sell kamaichas in their Hamira village. Rustic and soulful, their compositions celebrate the music-nature relationship. “It is a difficult instrument to master and youngsters are not keen to devote 10 years to learning an art that will not give them much monetary benefit,” says Darra. As a result, kamaicha is being replaced by harmonium. “At present, we are holding on but for how long? The sound of the harmonium cannot match that of the kamaicha in high octaves. But for that we need an audience who knows the difference,” says Ghewar.
Made of mango wood, kamaicha’s rounded resonator is covered with goat skin. Three of the 17 strings are made of goat’s intestine called roda and joda, five are made of copper, and the rest of steel. “The bow is made of horsetail hair and khejri tree wood,” says Feroze Khan, who accompanies his brothers on dholak. “The cost of making a kamaicha has gone up and with hardly any takers, local carpenters are not interested in making them. In the last few years RIFF has provided us with new kamaichas, apart from those that we have inherited from our forefathers.”
According to oud exponent, Yurdal Tokcan, who has been performing for four decades, “fretless instruments give you the freedom to explore and experiment on stage.” Yurdal performed with the popular sarangi artiste Dilshad Khan at the festival. “I relate well to Indian folk and classical music,” says Yurdal. “Our instruments belong to the same family,” remarks Dilshad. Instrumentalists are often seen only as accompanists but Yurdal feels such collaborations can put them on centre stage. “Accompanying is fine, but we have to prove that an instrumentalist can be a soloist as well,” says Dilshad. “To achieve this, you need to master the tradition and come up with your own style.”
Dilshad, who has contributed to background scores in many films, is keen to project sarangi as an instrument that can create a multitude of moods. “He is happy that it’s seeing a revival and finding dedicated listeners,” says the young musician.