The Improviser – Backstage with Jumma Khan

It’s the 17th of October. 7:45 pm. The ‘Opening Night Variety Concert’, the first concert of Jodhpur Riff, has just begun. 43 year old Jumma Khan, one of the festival’s most famous Rajasthani artists, who’s been a part of it from the beginning, is preparing his safa, or turban. His cousin Mukesh, a bhapang player like Jumma, unrolls the pink and blue cloth till it is about 3 metres from his head, then wraps it around. “You can tell where a Rajasthani is from by the way he ties his safa,” says Mukesh. Unlike the turbans worn by another group musicians sitting nearby, which seem to be wrapped around in straightforward circles, those worn by Jumma and his five companions (three of them are his cousins) seem to peak towards the centre of their foreheads, a feature that Jumma and Mukesh say is “characteristic of turbans from Mewar”. Also, says Jumma: “The turbans worn in Mewar, at least in my village, are usually white.” As white as the kurtas and lungis or sarong-like garments the men usually wear. Jumma and his team are dressed in white kurtas and pajamas instead. The pink and blue turban has been donned to greet an audience that expects no less from a colourful performer like Jumma. “Especially a Rajasthani performer,” Jumma adds, for Rajasthan is the land of colour. “Also, white is difficult to keep clean— it easily gets dirty.” The pajama too makes it easier for him to perform while standing up or moving around on stage, as he often does to rouse his audience. Together they are a testimony to Jumma Khan’s greatest strength that has seen him from his village Pinan, in the Rajasthani district of Alwar, to Jodhpur Riff, to the iTunes festival in London: his ability to improvise.

The concert, the only Jodhpur Riff event that can be attended without any entry fee, is being held at the parking lot outside Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort. To the right of the stage is the majestic backdrop of a medieval killa. Beyond it, and to its right, is a splendid view of the blue city, now lit up to look like something out of the Arabian Nights. Above, is a moonlit Jodhpur sky. Jumma Khan finishes his tea that has been served in a paper cup. He lights a ‘Telephone’ bidi, a brand that he says is “quite popular in these parts”.

He sings two lines of a song as another companion, Deen Dayal, strums a few notes on a harmonium. They are trying to settle on the right sur (tone) for the evening. Jumma has been singing with this team “from when we were kids.” Besides them, he gives public performances with Dharohar, a group that was born out of one of Jodhpur Riff’s first collaborations, which has gone on to tour the world (it was with them that Jumma had performed at the iTunes Festival). They have had a rehearsal in the afternoon, but he isn’t sure of which songs to sing here: “I look at the audience; I gauge how they are responding to the songs and then decide according to what I feel they would like.”

Jumma is a Jogi, one of a community of storytellers. His songs often draw on mythology (there’s one on the marriage of Shiva—Shivji ka Byawla—and on the Mahabharatha— Panduvon ka Kada) and history. But his most popular songs are what could be termed Lok Geet, or ‘people’s music’, with cheeky yet incisive and insightful lyrics that explore contemporary issues, from corruption to dowry, bride burning and female foeticide.


Dhan daulat ki kami nahin hai mere desh mahaan mein /
Phir bhi karzwaan paida hota hai, baccha Hindustan mein.”

(There is no dearth of wealth in my great country /
Yet children in Hindustan are born with debts to pay already).


Like the wandering minstrels of yore, Jumma’s lyrics have the rare quality of being able to put forth a complex thought— simply.

He plays a recording of a song he sang at India’s Got Talent, a TV talent show:


Bin baat taraazu le lo /
Kami nahi hai pyaar mein.”

(You don’t need to weigh it on a weighing scale /
You can have as much as you want, for there’s no limit to love…)


The recording is constantly disrupted by static. Jumma has a basic phone, hardly fit for recording and listening to music, just about all right for taking calls. But it keeps ringing. An organizer from Baroda wants him to sing at a show in a couple of days. Jumma’s trying to fit it in. A politician wants to record two of his songs and use it for his election campaign. He isn’t interested. Jumma hates siding with one politician over the other (“Each one is equally corrupt”). Instead, he talks about how Bollywood producer and actor Arbaaz Khan had approached him immediately after an India’s Got Talent shoot at Film City, Mumbai. “He had an air-conditioned car that we sat in,” Jumma remembers. “He asked if I could create a song for him, on the ‘Bombay woman’, then and there.” Jumma produced one in minutes. He sings:


Rangeeli Bhabhi chale chamakwa chaal /
Fashion pe kare kamaal… 


He’s quickens the pace of the song because he has to be on stage soon. The lyrics of this one are not easily given to translation. Arbaaz had wanted to record the song immediately. Jumma declined. He said he would do it the next time.

It’s time for Jumma to go on stage. He goes on as part of Dharohar first. While the rest of the group sit on a wooden platform, Jumma sits away from them, on a chair, very obviously the star of the show. He’s the only one getting requests from the audience. Most of the requests are for one of his most popular songs known simply as ‘Tar’, where Jumma uses the sound ‘Tar’ as a something that can be a suffix for words used for most important positions in today’s world (Collec’tor’, Minis’ter’, Doc’tor’, Direc’tor’ and so on… ). As more members of the audience begin to shout ‘Tar’ in unison, Jumma declines the request, deciding instead to sing the song he had composed in just a few minutes for Arbaaz. The last stanza goes:


“ …Kabhi Malaika Kabhi Kirron Kher /
Kabhi Farah Khan ban jawe /
Kabhi Hema, Rekha, Sridevi si lehraawe /
Kabhi India Got Talent pe Judge ban /
Pooch rahe sawaal.”


They love him anyway.


(Image: Jumma Khan at Jodhpur Riff. By Kavi Bhansali)



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