Keeping It Alive – An Interview with Barkat Khan.


Barkat and Jalal Khan come from a family of musicians. The brothers hail from the Manganiyar community of Rajasthani musicians whose patrons are Paliwal Brahmins. While Barkat, 40, can play the tandura, the harmonium, the dholak and the dhol, he usually sings and plays the harmonium. Jalal, 35, can play the tandura and the harmonium. 

Dawn breaks on the third day at Jodhpur Riff with bhajans sung by both Barkat and Jalal. Barkat plays the harmonium through the performance, Jalal the tandura. They are accompanied by their youngest brother Shway, 30, and their cousin Maangu, 19, both on the manjeera. Their cousin Abdu, 26, plays the dholak. After the performance, Barkat and Jalal settle down to an interview through which Jalal, despite being questioned repeatedly, remains quiet because he feels he must let his elder brother speak for him. So Barkat does so. But before this he listens to an interview he just gave Radio Madhuban play out on the radio jockey’s phone. He smiles as he hears himself sing.


Have you and your brother Jalal always sung together? What do you sing usually?

Yes, we are continuing our family’s musical tradition. And we liked singing bhajans, so we learnt those as well. We’re from Lava village in Pokhran, Jaisalmer. There are other Manganiyar whose patrons are Rajputs. But our patrons are Paliwal Brahmin. We converted to Islam at the time of Muhammad Ghori. We also sing songs of Sufi saints and we sing songs of Islam. We sing songs of all religions.


Do the Paliwal Brahmins continue their patronage to this day?

Yes even today we depend on them. We sing for them when there is a wedding in their family. We sing at their homes during festivals, especially on Holi and Diwali. On any special occasion we sing for them. At weddings we sing auspicious songs. We play the dhol as well as the gajanan ka dhol (the dhol played with bol, or incantations, praising the Hindu god Ganesh, at the beginning of a wedding). We sing banna banni ke geet (songs about the bride and groom). When a child is born in their house we sing the haleria (songs of birth).


Since what age have you been singing?

We have been singing since childhood. As soon as our eyes opened in the morning, we would sing. Our guru is our father…


Would he take you with him when he went to perform?

He would perform in our village. It wouldn’t be a festival like this. There would be a jagran (an all-night Hindu prayer congregation) in the village and people would gather for it.


Who else would accompany your father?

We would go with our father and with four or five other men who would play saz (string instruments). I started going with him when I was 11 or 12. Jalal was eight or nine years old then. When he was 12 he began accompanying us too. Even today, we don’t go anywhere to perform alone. We go along with our uncle’s sons. We have formed a group with members of our family.


Apart from music, do you do anything else for a living?

No, we are solely dependent on performing and singing.


What do you do when you don’t have performances?

We usually have some performance or the other. When we don’t, we do some house-work. We have a few goats, so we rear them.


(to Barkat) You usually play the harmonium?

We all play the harmonium. Jalal plays the tandura. Jalal and I play the dhol and the khartal… we play everything. Without this art form, we are nothing. For some performances they want us to play the tandura and the harmonium. So sometimes I play the tandura and he plays the harmonium, and sometimes it’s the other way round.


There are some Manganiyar who don’t approve of the harmonium and say that it is taking people away from instruments like the kamaycha.

The kamaycha is our traditional art. It is ‘by’ us. But the thing is that not everyone can play an instrument like the kamaycha or the sarangi. Where do we go to learn playing these instruments? That’s the reason they are becoming extinct. The harmonium, on the other hand, is easy to learn. So the kids now learn the harmonium and sing with it. If the government or the society can help create opportunities for people to learn the kamaycha, that would be good. Even if someone decides to learn, a kamaycha will cost thirty to forty thousand rupees, the sarangi fifty thousand rupees. Where does one get so much money from? So we depend on the harmonium. If people decide they don’t want to learn on the sarangi or the kamaycha, there is the harmonium as an alternative. One can play that well and do well with it as a musician. There is, of course, the question that, when the ones who play the kamaycha or sarangi today are no more, who will take it forward? Sure, four people will learn, maybe five. How will 10, 20 or a thousand people learn to play a sarangi? A harmonium, on the other hand, is there in every household and everyone can learn it. That is why it will survive.


Is it also because it is more difficult— learning to play the kamaycha or the sarangi?

Yes, that is there too. It takes two to three years to learn the sarangi. And it is a continuous learning process that never stops. When you are maybe 35 to 40 years old is when you can say that you have learnt to play it. The harmonium, however, can be learnt in 5 to 6 months.


Are there people in your village who still play the kamaycha or the sarangi?

No, there are none.


So, there wouldn’t be anyone who can teach them either.

Yes. Even the bhajan and the bhav that we sing is slowly disappearing. Because we don’t have facilities to teach our children this music. How do we teach them? The other Manganiyar have made trusts through which they teach the next generation. But they stay far away, so there is no one to teach our children. I try to teach what I can but children go to school as well these days, so they don’t have as much time as they used to.


Are you teaching your own children?

Yes I am. I am teaching them the songs and bhajans I know. My son is learning the harmonium. He will later learn the dholak as well. I have to teach him everything we do. The dholak, the dhol, everything…


Of all the songs you sing is there any one in particular you really enjoy singing?

I enjoy most of the songs and bhajans I sing. It also depends on what the audience likes. One song I like is Jith dekhun tum jho, Piya jun jhalke, Jith dekhun tum jho… It tells you that wherever we look there is Ishwar (God). In animals, in humans, anywhere we look. People say that they haven’t seen god, but everywhere we look is God, everywhere there is Khuda.


Is there any key difference between the kinds of songs you sing and the ones the other Manganiyar sing?

The gayaki is the same. But we also sing bhajans and those songs that are not sung by other Manganiyar. The bhajans should be sung with bhakti ras, in the dhwani (tunes) similar to those in which our saints, like Kabirji, composed them. We shouldn’t tamper with that.  Yes we could be artistic or experimental with it but in a way that is respectful on the whole.


Is there anything about playing the tandura that is difficult?

You can learn the tandura in a month or two but it needs to be played with precision. Songs are easier to play on the sarangi because it has all the notes, from the highest to the lowest, just like the harmonium. On the tandura, if I play on the fourth string, then it will play only one note. So we need to pay more attention to the sur (tone) to ensure we get it right.


From the other performances here, did you see anything you liked in particular?

Only yesterday I saw Rais (Khan) play the morchang. He is very talented. I used to like the late Ustad Sakar Khan who played the sarangi. He got our community a lot of attention. Lakha Khan on the sarangi is also a great artist. You forget to eat or drink when listening to him play— he’s that enthralling.


Do you worry that your musical tradition will perish?

We want to keep it alive. We hope our children will be able to take it forward, so we teach them. After we are gone it is on them. If they don’t take it forward, what can we do?


(Image: Barkat and Jalal Khan perform at dawn. By Shantenu Tilwankar for JodhpurRiff  / Oijo.)