At around 4:30 a.m. on the 18th of October, while it’s still dark, Chetan, Mala, Damora, Ballu and Manwar Ram ease in the first dawn of Jodhpur Riff with the Harijas— a style of Rajasthani Lok Bhajan (or popular devotional songs) that tells religious stories in a sequential manner. They are seated on a wooden platform on a terrace right next to Jaswant Thada (a white marble memorial built in memory of Maharaja Jaswant Singh II, an erstwhile ruler of Jodhpur), with a stunning view of the city of Jodhpur. The city’s Umaid Bhawan Palace can be seen in the distance.
The four musicians, ages ranging from 32 to 45, are from different villages within the Jaisalmer District. They belong to a community known as the Meghwals of Marwar. Here, they play the dholak, the jhanjh (which resembles cymbals) and the tandura (a string instrument with a distinctive sound).
And they sing. In the beginning, while the moon still shines bright, there is a devotional song about the moon. How its reflection seems shaky and how, yet, when we watch it in the sky it is steadily there. An analogy is drawn to the way one may perceive life.
The next song is one by the bhakti poet-saint Kabir, sung by Ballu Ram. Some members of the audience clap to keep rhythm with the music. Some sway. Others simply sit or lie still. “Kabir is surprised,” say the lyrics. “How can a fish in water be thirsty.” The Meghwals are Dalits, a word used to denote a group of people who were once regarded untouchable (Jyotirao Phule is said to have first used the word in the 19th century— in Sanskrit it means ‘crushed’ or ‘broken to pieces’). Another popular saint of the community is Ramdevji, believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu, also a saint of the poor and oppressed, whom many of their songs are weaved around.
Like Kabir, who did not entirely renounce the material world, Ramdevji was a Rajput ruler who is believed to have possessed the power to work miracles. Stories of him are endless. “Ramdevji’s father’s name was Ajmal,” says Chetan Ram. “He went to Dwarka. At first he didn’t have a son. He asked the Almighty: What should I do? God said: Don’t worry, I’ll be born in your house as a small you and I’ll be called ‘Chhota (small) Ramdev’.”
Though traditionally treated as outcasts by the Hindus, the Meghwals, ironically, have played a significant role in certain religious rituals. And they continue to do so. For instance, the custom is that if a person asks something of God, and it is granted, then he or she organizes a jagran (an all-night gathering for devotional songs). Meghwal singers, or ‘rikhiyes’, as they are known here, are a must for such a gathering. So, in a strange way, music plays the role of the great leveler. Songs of the very gods they have been forbidden from worshipping bring them back into the folds of a community that wouldn’t otherwise have accepted them.
But the audience on the terrace is probably unaware of all of this. They sway and clap to the music because they take it at face value, for what it is. This is the first time, since 2007, that the Meghwals are singing at a ‘dawn devotional’ concert at Riff. Last year they performed as part of the ‘dusk devotional’ concert. Mala Ram goes on to sing a song by Sadaram Sahib (a saint from Jaisalmer), with a swinging, almost hypnotic, beat. The sun rises. They end the session with songs by the saint-poet Mirabai.
(Image(s): The Meghwal from Marwar at the ‘Dawn Devotional’ concert. By Rajesh Prabhakar/Shantenu Tilwankar | Jodhpur Riff/ Oijo)