The Sound of Desert Folk

It is 11:30 am on the 19th of October, the second day of Jodhpur Riff, 2013. The sun makes standing outdoors unbearable. One may find respite, however, inside the Mehrangarh Fort complex, under a canopy in the Chokelao Bagh. Here, anthropologist Vinod Joshi, Community Director of Jaipur Virasat Foundation (one of the festival’s organizers), oversees a workshop and interactive session called ‘The Manganiyar of Marwar’ whose purpose is to showcase the varied and rich musical tradition of one of Rajasthan’s best known musical communities, who hail, mostly, from the districts of Barmer, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur.

Joshi tries to explain the intricate relationship the Manganiyar share with their patrons by using the idea of three main stages a person’s life may be divided into. “Janam-Paran-Maran (birth, marriage and death),” is how he puts it. The Manganiyar’s patrons range from the Brahmin Paliwals to Muslims to the Rajputs. They are bound to their patrons and have to perform at their houses on these three occasions, perform through celebration or sorrow.

Besides being musicians, the Manganiyar are also genealogists who keep records of their patrons’ lineages. These records are passed down through the generations in each Manganiyar family. But, most interestingly, the records subsist not as dry facts on paper or parchment but as poetry which is learnt and recited or sung by each new generation of Manganiyar to whom the mantle is passed. Babu Khan Manganiyar (the Manganiyar often affix the name of their community to the end of their name) recites one such poem. It begins with describing the evolution of the world and the marriage ceremony of the Hindu god Ram, then going on to list the names of the ancestors of Gaj Singh II, the current Maharaja of Jodhpur.

Darra Khan uses the kamaycha (a string instrument unique to the Manganiyar) to create the musical impression of the arrival of the first train of the day in Jaisalmer. Then, through swift finger movements, he recreates the impression of a train beginning to move, and picking up speed. There is enthusiastic applause.

Joshi says that the most challenging performance for the Manganiyar is when a patron asks them to play something for his or her son-in law. This becomes a “matter of pride” for the patron, and the Manganiyar as well.

The women of the Manganiyar community do not usually sing in public or perform before a public audience. But today, in a rare appearance, Daria, Khalima and Sakla Khan from Barmer, perform at the workshop. Daria plays the dholak.  Khalima and Sakla sing. Also, brothers Rais and Sheru Khan play the morchang and then demonstrate, via a short rendition that mixes beatboxing with the sound of the morchang, how the instrument can be adapted to create a modern sound. 25 year old Rais, thanks to a Jodhpur Riff collaboration that led to a musical group now famous world over as ‘Dharohar’, is also the first beatboxer to emerge out of Rajasthan. Sheru, 5 years younger to him, is following in his steps.

Then, 80 year old Mishri Khan, the only surviving player of the jal tara, shows the audience how the instrument is played. He maneuvers a clay lid over a steel plate half-filled with water, using the vacuum created by the lid to produce notes of music.

The final performance, called Jaloji, is one where all the Manganiyar present come together to sing and play the dholak, kamaycha, morchang, sarangi and khartal, and create the music that has made them as popular as they are today.


(Image: Mishri Khan plays the jal tara. By Shantenu Tilwankar for Jodhpur Riff / Oijo.)