Without the Veil – An Interview with Maangi Bai

Maangi Bai, 45, a renowned Rajasthani folk singer and dholak player, is from the village Kolayat, in Bikaner. As a child she travelled with her parents who sang at the weddings of Rajput families. Unlike Bhanwari Devi, another singer who is her contemporary, Maangi Bai sings with her face unveiled.

At Jodhpur Riff, Maangi Bai is performing as one of the festival’s ‘living legends’, which is the name given to a series of performances by senior Rajasthani folk artists that take place at the Mehrangarh Fort between 5:45 pm and 7:15 pm, on each day of the festival. Over an hour after her session is over Maangi Bai is still on stage, answering questions asked by a posse of journalists. She talks to them animatedly while her son plans their travel back to the village. Her daughter gave birth to a child two days ago and she has to be home in time for the celebrations.


How old were you when you started singing?

I was around nine or 10 years old. I had always liked singing. I would go with my parents to sing. I would say, “I want to sing!” They would ask, “Why do you want to sing? What is there in singing?” and I would respond saying: “There is everything in singing.” When I sing people say, “Arrey Maangi Bai! You are such an artist.” So I wanted to sing well and get better at it. If I didn’t sing well, I wouldn’t be able to go on.


What nakh (social group) and got (clan) are you from?

I’m a Muslim. My family is Bamania and my in-laws are Hansals.


Who taught you to sing?

My mother, my father and my brother. They would all sing. My father has passed away but my mother is still there. My mother would sing while playing the dholak. I like playing the dholak as well.


You would go with them to perform?

Yes, I would go with them. I would go with them so I could learn.


And would you perform with them as well?

No, it’s only been nine to 10 years since I began performing in public. I have travelled a lot to perform. Before that I would just sing at weddings in Bikaner. Now people take me in cars to places so I can perform. They drop me back home in a car. I make a lot of money now. I sing well, that is why they call me. If I didn’t, then who would ask me to perform? My throat has a lot of sur shakti (power of the voice).


In Bikaner, would you go to sing alone?

No, I would take my sons.


Would you go with your husband and perform with him?

Yes. He would say, “But I’m going with other men.” And I would say “I’m not going with the other men. I’m going with you.” And I started to sing with my veil lifted. It opened up my awaaz (voice). My awaaz wasn’t open before that. The veil was in the way.


Where did you first perform in public?

It was at Jodhpur. After that people would say, “Ask Maangi Bai to perform.” People at the Jain market at Bikaner started to appreciate me. My sons were young then. My husband had passed away.


When did he pass away?

It’s been about 12 to 13 years. My children were young so my brother would go with me.


You sing maand (a style of singing that is Rajasthani folk music’s contribution to Indian classical music) and lok geet (people’s music).

Yes. I sing maand, lok geet. I also sing bhajans and wedding songs.


From these, which do you like singing the most?

I just like singing. I especially like banna banni ka geet (wedding songs). There is a Marwari song that is sung when the son-in-law comes to the bride’s house and is given dowry. I like singing that. My father and mother used to sing at weddings too. But they wouldn’t make a lot of money. It was a difficult to run the household on that income. If the money from singing wasn’t sufficient, they would do a little bit of farming. They would get invited to sing at weddings and at the jagran (all-night Hindu prayer vigil) in the village.


You sang for your patrons who were Rajputs. Do you still do so?

Yes, for the Rathores. I still sing for them. I don’t sing at the houses of the lower castes. If at a performance there are Meghwals as well, I will sing but I will not eat there. I would sing in the courtyard of the Rajput household, for the women of the house.


You compose your own songs as well. How do you compose them?

I compose from the heart. I don’t write them down. If you tell me to sing a particular kind of song, I will rehearse within a day and a half and just sing it. And I would never forget that song. I can create a song within just one night. I make a tune first and then put some bol in it and see which ones fit. Ultimately, if the audience likes it, then I know it is the right song.


When did your start making your own songs?

From when I was 30 years old.


You sing for NGOs as well, to help them promote their causes. Do you believe in the causes you are singing for? Why do you sing for them?

They ask me, “Maangi Bai can you make a song on cleanliness?” I say yes. “Can you make a song on pregnancy?” I say yes. After the child is born, they have to be wrapped in a clean cloth. I tell the women that during their pregnancy they should eat dal, eat papad, eat spinach, eat vegetables. Be neat and tidy. Maintain cleanliness. If they do that, then they don’t fall sick. So I make songs for these things in Marwari. In villages, a lot of women die during pregnancy because of not taking care of these basic things. So I sing for them. I have made songs about vaccination and garbage as well.

(She begins to sing.)

Roti jeemane su pehle behna haath sabansu dhovo/
Haath sabansu dhovo behna/
Haath sabansu dhovo/
Roti jeemane su pehle behna haath sabansu dhovo… 

(Before you eat the roti, wash your hands well with soap, sister.)


Do you play any other instrument other than the dholak?

No, just the dholak. My parents taught me to play it. Many women sing in my village but no one else performs. I was young when my husband passed away. I started performing to feed my household. My children were six to seven years old. I had no choice. I needed to do it. And it has helped a lot. Because of it my daughters could get married.


Your husband would also sing. What would he sing? Did he sing the same kind of songs as you?

He would sing wedding songs and ghazals. He had a feminine voice and could sing like anybody. He would sing at jagrans too. His elder brother taught him to sing.


Did he teach you any songs?

He taught me a few bhajans.


Did you teach music to your children?

I taught my son to sing. My brother, Muhammad Ali, taught him the harmonium. I would sing for Rajput households on festivals like Diwali and Holi. But he was not happy. He didn’t want to play at their houses. He thought we were doing it just for the money. But then he realized that it is treated as an art and respected. He understood that I’m trying to keep this art alive. I have travelled across India and performed in various cities. Most of the times, among all the male performers at a show, I would be the only woman.


(Image: Maangi Bai. By Shantenu Tilwanker for Jodhpur Riff / Oijo.)