Bombay Showcase

When music transcends all barriers

We’re not new to stories of disparity and prejudice that exist in our country, whether it’s in cities or villages. And yet, the light shed on such matters is either minimal or nonexistent. In the hope of creating much-needed awareness, The Godrej India Culture Lab is hosting a musical folk performance by the Merasi community of Jaisalmer, who are still treated as untouchables.

Historically known as Mirasi, the 42,000-member community’s traditional patronage lay with the royal family of Jaisalmer, where their duty was to perform as musicians at marriages and other occasions. While they were originally Brahmins and are believed to have belonged to Lord Krishna’s bloodline, they were converted to Muslims during the Mughal rule of Alauddin Khilji, and hence, go by the surname Khan. As a result, they are accepted by neither community and live a life of institutionalised prejudice, denied the most basic human right of food security, access to water, and the right to an education.

It’s been a decade now since New York-based NGO Folk Arts Rajasthan (FAR) and Jaisalmer-based Lok Kala Sagar Sansthan (LKSS), meaning local folk arts society, joined hands to promote the community’s music. The two organisations regularly encourage performances in our rapidly modernising culture so as to keep this art alive. Comprising performers from age seven all the way up to 70, the group uses indigenous instruments like the khartal, dholak, mrudang, and harmonium to perform songs that celebrate Gangour, Diwali, Teej, marriages, the birth of a child, and other joyous occasions.

The main motive of performances in bigger cities is to provide musicians with the respect that they lack within their own homes. “The community is used to a ‘ jajman’ system where it’s their mere duty to play music rather than it being appreciated as an art form,” says Hanover Wadia, representative of LKSS. “There is no dignity or respect left in the songs that they sing, and hence, they find a connect with larger audiences away from their villages who appreciate their music.”

For 38 generations, the Merasi community has composed, performed and maintained a vibrant, distinct folk music legacy. Sarwar Khan, founder of the LKSS and a member of the community, is personally fighting for the cause of enlisting children from the Merasi community into government-run schools. “After 37 generations, it was this year that we finally managed to enlist the first Merasi child into a government school,” says Wadia. “Prior to this, we taught them ourselves.”

In the past, the community has been scorned as “Manganiyars”, meaning beggars. However, they now proudly uphold the title of Merasi, which means ‘musician’ or ‘keeper of the stories’. “It’s fascinating to hear the quality of voice and its throw during a performance,” says Wadia. “You can easily hear it eight to ten buildings away, and that’s what draws crowds.” While they’ve been approached numerous times by commercial musicians to create fusion music, the Merasis strictly focus on maintaining their tradition and sound. As Waia says, “and so, they keep their heritage intact without adhering to fusion music.”

Bollywood, too, has often taken inspiration from their folk songs. Tracks like ‘ Nimbuda’ and ‘ Kesariya balam’ have translated Marwari lyrics into Hindi, but were originally created by the Merasis. Like any other State, Rajasthan’s dialect too changes every 20 km, and that also plays a significant role in shaping the lyrics of their songs.

It’s their music that keeps them from social extinction. And while we live in an era of electronic tunes, it’s these songs of history that speak beyond lyrics.

Monsoon Merasi Magic: Rajasthani Folk Music Concert will be taking place at The Godrej India Culture Lab, Vikhroli at 5 p.m. today. Entry is free.

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 1:56:05 PM |

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