You can hear a few notes of the shehnai as you walk towards the backstage area. The space is humming with energy, abuzz with myriad conversations. 19 Manganiyar are waiting to perform at the main stage of Jodhpur Riff. They are sitting in small groups, talking, drinking chai, tuning their instruments. Several other Rajasthani folk musicians walk in and out, dropping by for a chat with those about to perform. A volunteer carrying a steel thermos flask is pouring out masala chai in small paper cups and passing them around.
A few of the Manganiyar are sitting around Bhanwari Devi and her sons, chatting with her. Bhanwari is performing with the Gypsy All Stars later that night. Morchang player, Rais Khan, flits from one group to the other. Almost every Manganiyar musician is wearing a white kurta. Rais is the only one clad in black. He is not performing with the group. But he may be playing later in the night with the Gypsy All Stars. He is not sure, however. “I was told that I might have to perform today but now I don’t know whether it is happening,” says Rais. As Rais hangs around, near the entrance to the backstage, Feroz Khan, a member of the group, is bidding farewell to a friend he has made at the festival. They exchange goodbyes, hoping to be able to meet again soon. “Inshallah!”
Amidst another group, Pempe Khan is sitting quietly. Today’s is a special performance for the Manganiyar, but especially close to Pempe’s heart. Their performance tonight will be dedicated to the memory of Sakar Khan, the legendary kamaycha player who passed away two months ago. Sakar was Pempe’s elder brother. A Padma Shri Award winner, he had learnt to play the kamaycha from his father Chunar Khan, and went on to perform at some of the most prominent festivals around the world. He had performed alongside the likes of Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison. In 1968, when Jaisalmer got its railway station, Sakar Khan had been called to play. He used his kamaycha to recreate the sound of an approaching train.
The Manganiyar had a rehearsal this afternoon. “We always play music. That is all we do,” says Pempe. “So rehearsing for an hour or two on the day of a performance is more than enough to prepare us for it.” Since his brother passed away, Pempe has been wearing a white turban as a sign of mourning. Today, for this performance, he has changed into a red one— like all the other Manganiyar. Every time he talks about his brother his eyes moisten a little. “Tonight’s performance was composed by him and rehearsed with him.” It has been left unchanged. They will be playing the same songs and compositions. Pempe walks slowly out of the backstage area. He needs to take a short walk, alone, before the Manganiyar are due on stage. He recedes into the crowd gathered in the courtyard just outside the backstage area.
‘The Manganiyar of Marwar’ went on to be one of the most memorable performances of Jodhpur Riff 2013.
(Image: Sakar Khan (centre). © Kavi Bhansali.)