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The sound of the sand dunes

They are feted around the world, but Manganiyars always return home, to their beedis and their courtyards

March 03, 2017 05:47 pm | Updated March 04, 2017 01:51 pm IST

Veteran Manganiyar Hakim Khan says he has criss-crossed international borders more than 50 times.

Veteran Manganiyar Hakim Khan says he has criss-crossed international borders more than 50 times.

“BelgiumHongKongParisGermanyAmsterdamRomaniaMongolia...” The names of cities and countries tumble into each other when you ask Hakim Khan, 77, about the global stages where he has played his precious kamaicha. The weather-beaten string instrument, faded to a beautiful brown, is perched precariously on a chair and Khan watches it like a hawk, his hands often reaching out to caress it.

The kamaicha is an heirloom and has been around since Khan’s great-grandfather’s time. Like all Manganiyars, music is something he inherited from his community of minstrels, who dot the Thar landscape of Barmer and Jaisalmer. He learnt from his father but also wandered far and perfect his technique for 17 years under other kamaicha ustads and gurus.

Among the oldest of bowstringed instruments, the kamaicha is disappearing fast from its home in the desert and Khan is among a handful of masters who can play it. The sound that he wrings from it is typical of desert music—uplifting and forlorn at the same time.

Khan was the oldest musician at the first edition of the Ranthambore Music Festival held recently to showcase the folk music of Rajasthan. But he is by no means the only Manganiyar to have jet-setted. “Russia, Paris, South Africa, America…” just about every talented Manganiyar, from Kutal Khan to Fakir Khan, reels off a long list of international circuits where he has performed.

Ustaad Gafoor Khan (centre) and his young son Firoz (2nd from left), at the Ranthambore Festival.

Ustaad Gafoor Khan (centre) and his young son Firoz (2nd from left), at the Ranthambore Festival.

The music of the Manganiyars and the Langas of Rajasthan is probably the most globally known folk form from India. Veterans like Nagge and Hakim Khan say they have criss-crossed international borders more than 50 times in their lives. In her article ‘The Sound of Manganiyar Music Going Popular’ for the book More than Bollywood: Studies in Indian Popular Music , Shalini Ayyagari says Manganiyars routinely travel six months a year for concerts in Australia, Europe and North America.

The universal appeal of Manganiyar music and the theatre around it is easy to understand: it is raw, full-throated, the lyrics are drawn from local ballads and subtle Sufi and Bhakti poets, and the percussion is exhilarating. You will almost never catch a false note or slip in the rhythm and the music is, at all times, honest. And above all there is the dramatic stage presence and energy of these consummate performers, especially the sure-footed children with their khartals.

Interestingly, for all the globe-trotting, the Manganiyars are still steadfastly rooted to their homes in the small, remote villages of Jaisalmer and Barmer, the musical heart of western Rajasthan. Like Hadwa, where Hakim Khan has dropped anchor after a lifetime of playing to audiences across the world. Or the ageing Nagge Khan who lives in Loona Khurd (you have to send word that you wish to speak to him and someone takes a phone across). Many Manganiyar villages are yet to get roads.

But these villages are where the roots of the music lie and also its daily daal-roti . The musicians are strongly connected to their homes and the customs of the community. A lot of the music is connected to ceremonies at the homes of jajmans (patrons). “ Ghar ghar hai aur biradari badi baat hai. Mujhe Paris mein reh ke seekhane ko bola, Turkey mein. Main nahin gaya (home and community are big things for us. I had offers to stay and teach in Paris and Turkey. I said no),” says Khan. His biggest grouse with life abroad? “The food is awful and they don’t let you smoke beedi .”

Dholak player Kutal Khan says he enjoys the rapt attention and respect with which his sangeet is heard in the theatre halls of Europe. “ Bahut pyar se sunte hain. Lekin itne shaant aur chup chaap, saans lene mein dar lagta hai. Maza to yahan aata hai, thoda shor sharaba ho, taali ho (They listen with great respect and so quietly that you daren’t breathe. But playing at home is more fun, we enjoy the chaos, the applause),” he says.

New avenues

Abhimanyu Alsisar, the man behind the festival, is a part of an erstwhile royal clan. For him this music is an inalienable part of life; these are the sounds that played out every day in the courtyard and living room of his home. “This music thrives in a community that is far moved from the concert stage and festival circuit. It is a part of their lives, and it is a must at every important occasion—from birth to marriage to death,” he says. “There was a time when you could only hear this music in the villages and homes of jajmans . But now it needs other platforms to survive.”

 Hakim Khan, Bariam Khan, Kutla Khan in concert at the Ranthambore Festival.

Hakim Khan, Bariam Khan, Kutla Khan in concert at the Ranthambore Festival.

Alsisar, along with his associate Ashutosh Pande, set out over the last year to map the music for a documentary called Puqaar: Music Diaries . They travelled for 13 days recording six to seven hours of Manganiyar music across villages, documenting not just the art but the context in which it lives.

Up until the 1950s, Manganiyar music stayed strictly at home, in the villages. The man who brought it to the urban, national and later, the international scene was the indefatigable cultural activist Komal Kothari.

Scholar and critic Rustom Bharucha has documented the history of Kothari’s pioneering work on the Manganiyars through a series of interviews in his book Rajasthan: An Oral History . As Kothari recounts in the book, his first close brush with the music came through four Langas, who he sought out at a Jodhpur bazaar—they were working as labourers for a grain merchant. Even today, there are talented Manganiyars working in assorted blue and white collar jobs in Rajasthan’s cities.

It was in 1980 that Kothari recalls taking the first big Manganiyar music team abroad, to Paris. It was a huge hit with the shows running house full, followed by equally triumphant trips to New York and Russia for Festivals of India. “Whether they are singing in their village or in the Paris Opera House or in the Kremlin, it makes no difference to them whatsoever... they always shine when they have an audience,” Kothari tells Bharucha.

Over the years the popularity of Manganiyar music has grown hugely. They are not just on urban stages but also in recorded music, in musicals such as Roysten Abel’s ‘The Manganiyar Seduction’, and in fusion experiments. Folk purists believe that not all this wild fame is a great thing for the music.

The repertory is changing, there is huge emphasis on popular numbers, and the search for applause means gimmicks finding their way into a music that had remained untouched till five decades ago.

Malini Nair writes on, and lives for music, dance, theatre, and literature.

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