On the day before his workshop on rare musical instruments of Rajasthan, Dr. Vijay Verma, an expert on folk traditions, is seated on a plastic chair under a makeshift canopy at Jodhpur’s Marwar Rajput Sabha Bhawan. An all-male group of over 20 folk musicians sit around him, on a large green cloth spread out on the ground, each patiently waiting his turn. The musicians are here to perform at Jodhpur Riff. Verma’s assistant, seated next to him, makes notes as Verma asks each musician the name of his instrument, how it was made and how it is played. The assistant notes their answers down on writing pads that have been stacked neatly on a table, next to a small audio recorder. After each exchange, Verma presses the record button and asks the musician to play something. After recording for almost a minute he stops and calls for the next musician. Verma has been doing this for the past two days. He is still worried that he may not be able to document all the folk instruments that are at the festival.
Interested in the folk arts and culture since his youth, Verma taught history at a university for two years before joining the Indian Administrative Service. He kept up with his subject of interest and continues to pursue it after retirement.
He feels a change in lifestyle may be the reason for the survival of several folk instruments being jeopardized. “The traditional audience, the traditional patrons and the performers, formed a complete matrix which nourished our traditional folk arts,” he says. “This matrix is at danger.” The primary reason for this, he says, is an urban disconnect with folk music. “The patrons may not be continuing to take interest,” he says. “The audience may not be as aware of what’s taking place as audiences were before— that this is from this region, this is this instrument, this is this story. They may just be out for a good time. The patrons and the audience determine, ultimately, the kind of performance. If these two are lacking in any way then the performance will also deteriorate.”
Backed by tourism, says Verma, folk music nowadays caters to entertainment and applause in the hope of securing a future for itself. “But showmanship is alien to folk art,” he says. “Showmanship and entertainment are taking over now whereas earlier folk music was a part of life. So, in a way, society, at large, is speaking through the performer.”
Nevertheless, the workshop titled ‘The Rare Instruments of Rajasthan’, which takes place at the Chokelao Bagh of the Mehrangarh Fort at 11 am, on October 18, is well attended. A large canopy has been set up, offering the participants as well as the attendees a welcome respite from the heat. The audience sits cross-legged on white mattresses with large bolsters that have been laid out on lush lawns.
Verma, for the most part, avoids using the traditional names of the instruments, referring to them instead by their generic musical classifications, for a wider and more instant connect. He introduces instruments as “aerophonic” or “string” or “zither” or “percussive”.
Among the many unusual instruments being showcased is the mashak, or the Indian bagpipe— an aerophonic instrument made of goat’s hide. The musician first blows into the bag, which creates a reservoir of air in a large bladder. This relieves him of having to continually blow into the bag while playing it.
The mashak has two bamboo pipes— one through which air is blown in and a second pipe which has holes in it, through which the air flows out. This second one with holes contains two single reeds within, that vibrate against the edge of the pipe as air passes through. One of these reeds produces a drone, the other a harmony. The mashak is played by placing the fingers over the holes of this second pipe as the air exits.
The tone of the mashak may be altered by pressing on the bladder with the elbow. The fact that they don’t have to blow into the instrument while playing it enables the Jogis to sing while playing the mashak. The Jogis are a religious and musical community of storytellers who sing mostly about Bhairavji, a deity they worship who is an avatar of Shiva. Here, in the middle of a song, a Jogi begins to blow into the mashak to refill it. “Observe how and when he blows in,” says Verma. “It has to be in rhythm with the music.”
Verma elaborates on the storytelling, the dances and other performances that accompany the playing of the instruments he showcases, for context. The workshop includes a small performance that demonstrates the Bhopa-Bhopi tradition of storytelling. The performance involves a painted ballad, a large colourful piece of cloth which illustrates the story being recited. It also involves a couple— literally, the Bhopa, or the husband and the Bhopi, or the wife. The Bhopi’s head and face is covered by her veil as she stands, along with the Bhopa, and sings. The Bhopas use a rawanhathha, a rudimentary lute like instrument which may be seen as a sort of precursor to the violin.
The Bhopa and the Bhopi take turns singing. They are singing of Pabuji, a folk deity and hero. The lyrics recount the story of how Pabuji borrowed a mare from a woman for his marriage. He had pledged that he would protect the woman, if the need arose. At Pabuji’s marriage ceremony, during the saatphere (the final rites), the owner of the horse appeared, claiming the general Khichi had stolen her cattle. Pabuji left his wedding to pursue Khichi and retrieve them.
Throughout the session, Verma interjects to explain every aspect of the performance, down to the significance of the clothes worn by the performers.
The workshop proceeds to examine an aerophonic instrument called a narh. When played, it produces a drone. Verma explains how this seemingly monotonous sound actually blends in perfectly with bait, a kind of poetry. The bait is known to be sung by one singer, to the accompaniment of the narh, as a caravan travels though the desert at night.
The stories and situations these instruments and their music evoke seem alien to begin with, but one is gradually drawn to them because they are our only window into another world. A world we are leaving behind all too quickly.
“The only hope,” concludes Verma. “Is to incorporate as much of the folk bequest into the web of life with as little loss of its nuance, spontaneity and vitality as possible.”