The Manganiyars: Folk Music from the Dunes

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    Their raw and rustic vocals drift across the desert dunes, marking the passage of time across generations. Tied intimately to the lives of their patrons, these folk artistes from Rajasthan live and breathe music, preserve the folk traditions of their land in their songs, and celebrate every living moment with lively, lilting strains to suit the occasion.

    They are the Manganiyars, a clan of hereditary folk musicians who live mainly in Western Rajasthan. Hailing from small towns in Jaisalmer, Barmer, Bikaner and Jodhpur, they are now sought-after at music festivals as well as at five-star hotels in Rajasthan, and are as much a fixture on a tourist itinerary as are the region’s havelis and thalis.

    The Manganiyars perform in groups of five to six, their catchy tunes and signature spontaneity, coupled with a heightened quotient of liveliness, draws you in and keeps you hypnotically hooked to their every beat. But there is much more to their music than meets the eye.

    For the Manganiyars, music is not only a means of livelihood but their very identity. An understanding of every component in their music, from sur and taal to age-old stories, folklore and wisdom, is embedded in their songs.

    What’s truly magical is that all of it passes from one generation to another through an oral tradition of learning. Music runs in the Manganiyars’ very DNA, so much so that it is said that even when a newborn in the community weeps, he or she is never besura, or out of tune! And, yet, music is never taught to them; it is imbibed as a way of life.

    Elders and the women of the village in particular play a very significant role in this process of transmission. Women, although barred from performing in public, have a fantastic repertoire of both Rajasthani folklore and literature as well as songs, which they sing all through the day while performing their chores, such as cooking, farming, fetching water or taking the cattle out to graze. The children thus listen to these songs from a very early age and start humming and singing them as naturally as one learns to speak.

    System of Patronage

    Another fundamental aspect about their art form and culture is the age-old jajamani pratha or the tradition of patronage. Every Manganiyar family has at least one or a couple of jajmans or patrons, who were traditionally landlords or aristocrats. The relationship between a Manganiyar and his jajman goes back many generations and is a fascinating system, especially in today’s times.

    The Manganiyar not only personally knows every single member of his patron’s family but he and his family have the tall task of maintaining the clan’s genealogical history for up to ten, 12 or even 14 generations! Even more marvellous, this record-keeping is entirely oral and the Manganiyars have a song called the Subhraj for it.

    The Subhraj is sung on special occasions to recount the family’s history and to pray for its future well-being. Along with the Subhraj, they also sing the Bakhaan, which is essentially in praise of the jajman and his family. It is from his boyhood days that a Manganiyar boy starts going to the jajman’s house with his father and other community members, who are always present to sing and celebrate on occasions such as births, weddings, festivals, the welcoming of a new season and so on. The jajman not only takes care of his Manganiyar but also rewards him richly on special occasions with cash, a piece of land, gold, ornaments and other gifts such as horses, camels and even food grains.

    In fact, their relationship is so symbiotic that the Manganiyars tend to settle in areas where their respective jajmans live or move to. Baiyya, a small village 100 km from Jaisalmer, is a hamlet of 50-odd Manganiyar families, whose patrons are Hindu Yaduvanshi Rajputs belonging to the Bhati clan. These Rajputs, whose ancestors hailed from Kashi, Mathura and Prayag, considered Krishna as their clan avatar. The Manganiyars of Baiyya, therefore, have for long been singing Krishna bhajans or devotional songs.

    On the World Stage

    Anwar Khan, who grew up in Baiyya and now lives in Barmer, is one of the most sought-after vocalists among the Manganiyars. He has been honoured with numerous awards, the most recent being the Padma Shri for his lok gayaki or folk music. He explains how the original name of his community was ‘Maangan-haar’, which was mispronounced as ‘Manganiyar’, with the advent of the British.

    The story, he explains, dates back several hundred years, to when a maangan, or someone who ‘begs for’, pleaded with the then queen to grant him her haar or a necklace, which she generously parted with. Since then, they became ‘Maangan-haars’ and later ‘Manganiyars’. Today, of course, the servile connotation to their community’s name is completely redundant. He also explains that all Manganiyars belong to the Mirasi or Merasi caste and are Muslim but almost all their jajmans are Hindus.

    Anwar Khan along with other gifted Manganiyar artistes have travelled and performed all over India and overseas.

    Along with several other noted contemporary artistes such as Gazi Khan, Ghewar Khan, Pempe Khan, Bhungar Khan, Barkat Khan and Kachra Khan, Anwar Khan has been performing since he was just a teenager.

    Their passports bear the stamps of countries such as Holland, Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom in Europe; Japan and China in Asia; and even far-flung countries such as Russia, Azerbaijan and Morocco.

    The Manganiyars, many of whom are illiterate, receive standing ovations in august theatres such as the Lincoln Centre, Carnegie Hall and Kennedy Centre in the United States, the Royal Festival Hall in London, the Paris Opera in France and The Kremlin in Russia.

    Yet their loyalty and devotion to their jajmans is so fierce that they willingly forfeit the most prestigious concerts and collaborations if they are needed at a wedding or other special occasion in their jajman’s house.

    Keeping it Fresh

    Anwar Khan explains that these folk artistes do not follow a system of riyaaz or taleem (a system of practicing music) the way Hindustani classical artistes do. It is by singing all night on occasions within their own community as well as performing for their patrons in groups, that their community revises their repertoire of songs and passes it on to their next of kin.

    These intimate sessions are also often an opportunity to experiment and challenge each other to perform better. Anwar Khan recalls how the late Manganiyar artiste and Padma Shri, Sakar Khan, used to mimic the entire soundscape of a train passing swiftly through desert land, its slowing down as it approached the station, right down to its eventual halt. It is through his kamaicha (a bowed musical instrument) that villagers who had never seen an actual train got a sense of its rhythm and sound until they eventually rode one!

    It is also partly due to these free-flowing, long, un-curated sessions that most artistes can sing and play multiple instruments quite well although they may later choose to specialise in any one or two. Remarkably, a Manganiyar has no concept of stage fright, no matter how regal the setting and august his audience. Again, this is due to the way they imbibe their music and perform in groups, each one egging on the other when on stage.

    If the vocals are striking and full-throated, the instruments are no less. It is noteworthy that all the key instruments played by the Manganiyars are made by local artistes, using naturally available materials such as animal skin and bones, different types of wood, grass and so on.

    Kamaicha and other Instruments

    The kamaicha, which is perhaps their oldest instrument, is made of a single piece of mango wood and is covered with goat skin. It is played using a wide bow called a gaj. The bow is made of Sheesham wood and its strings are made of the hair of a horse’s tail!

    Ghewar Khan, son of the late Sakar Khan, is one of its finest exponents and explains that the kamaicha is a very difficult instrument to play as it has 17 strings. Three of these, called roda, are thicker than the others and made of a goat’s aant or gut while the others are made of fine copper or steel.

    Ghewar Khan, who now plays his father’s 250-year-old kamaicha, explains how the instrument is the very soul of the folk music of Rajasthan and was once even played in the royal courts and durbars.

    As an accompaniment, though, it gently traces the vocalist all along, picking up pitch and tenor only during interludes. A kamaicha player’s nails and the skin around them get badly bruised over time as his nails constantly slide across the strings.

    If the kamaicha is its soul, the khartaal and dholak are the other two absolutely essential instruments that provide rhythm, energy and verve to every single folk song. The khartaal is a relatively younger instrument of the Manganiyar sound and perhaps one of its most applauded. Made of pure Sheesham wood, the khartaal is devoid of even a single knot, wire or joint and is played by clapping two sets of wooden clappers in rhythm.

    The village children start fiddling and ‘playing’ with these clappers from a very early age as they are abundantly available in their homes, and dozens of them become effortlessly adept at playing it, making it look far simpler than it actually is.

    Gazi Khan of Barna village is a Rajasthan Sangeet Natak Akademi Yuva Puraskar awardee and one of the most accomplished players of the khartaal. Though he is happy to see many boys coming forward to play it, he insists that its beauty lies in its disciplined and elegant rendition, where the khartaal matches the vocalist’s rendition, step by step, without ever overtaking or overstepping.

    He says that qayda or grace is far more important than raftaar or speed, and the antics that younger artistes fall prey to. A jugalbandi or even a tribandi (duo or trio) performance of a dholak, khartaal and kamaicha sans vocals can go on for a very long time, and can be absolutely hypnotic as each instrument challenges, compliments and blends into the others with the finest nuances coupled with changing pace and rhythm. He explains that the inspiration of this musical dialogue comes from the way the wind continuously converses with the dunes, which keep changing their pattern every second!

    The other instruments used by the Manganiyars are the morchang, algoza, ravanhatta and of course the ubiquitous harmonium. The morchang is a small, wrought-iron harp that is clenched between the player’s teeth and its tightly-wound strings are struck using the index finger. Interestingly, the morchang was created to connect with grazing cattle, particularly camels who respond well to its vibrating sound.

    The algoza, a double flute locally called pawa-jodi, requires continuous blowing and flow of air, something the artiste learns to master without tutelage. While there is no break in the phoonk, it is the instant recapturing of the breath that creates the aura. One of the flutes is used for a drone effect whereas the other one is played for melody.

    If their instruments are inspired by local and natural materials, many of the Manganiyars’ songs too are deeply inspired by nature. There are songs called Barsalo, to woo Lord Indra to bless the land with rain. These are sung on Akha Teej just before the monsoon. There are songs that are sung when women go to fetch water called Panihari; and of course songs relating to different types of crops and harvest. Seasons too have songs dedicated to them as have the many birds, the most popular being the Moriya, which has been used abundantly in Hindi films, and others like Papiha and Kurja.

    No story about the Manganiyars is complete without mentioning a non-Manganiyar gentleman, the late Komal Kothari. A Padma Bhushan awardee who co-founded the Rupayan Sansthan with storyteller Vijay Dan Detha, Kothari was one of the first people to realize the richness and depth of Rajasthani lok sangeet. It was due to his efforts that not just the Manganiyars, but even the other very popular musician community in Rajasthan, the Langas and several others, found a platform outside Rajasthan and India, and are today synonymous with Rajasthani folk music.


    Supriya Newar, based in Kolkata, is the author of the acclaimed title 'Kalkatta Chronicles' and is a music aficionado smitten by Indian folklore.

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