For many years, Manganiyar musician Mame Khan’s life had followed a simple pattern: singing folk songs with others from his community at various local festivals and traditional events of his jajmaan (patrons), such as weddings and childbirth. Till, one day, he was invited to sing at musician-actor Ila Arun’s daughter’s wedding. “Someone spotted me singing with my group at Ila Arun ji’s daughter’s wedding, and mentioned my name to Shankarji (Shankar Mahadevan, composer-singer). So I went with the complete group because that’s how we mostly sing — together,” says Khan. But once in their studio in Mumbai, Mahadevan gave him a basic structure and asked Khan to sing an alaap. “I just sang whatever came to my mind,” says Khan, over a telephone conversation from Satto. It would lead to Baawre in Zoya Akhtar’s film Luck By Chance (2009), a splendid track that fused an array of sounds and uniquely tweaked the concepts of qawwali and Rajasthani folk. It would also be Khan’s first big ticket Bollywood hit.
Cut to 2016. The vibrato in Khan’s voice in Doli re doli — a bidaai geet in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s upcoming film, Mirzya, seems to have travelled all the way from the sandunes of Satto, a tiny village near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, to Purple Haze, the recording studio in Bandra, Mumbai, where music composers Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy make music. Khan’s voice, with its deceptive amplitude, hits the high notes with ease before plummeting into lower octaves. For the 36-year-old Rajasthani folk singer, who has been performing with his tribe of folk singers, the Manganiyars, for the past 16 years, Doli re doli is nothing short of a milestone — it has ushered him into the Bollywood big league.
“He is as talented as any of the current names today,” says Mahadevan, who got Khan to sing three tracks in Mirzya, which is being considered one of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s finest outings in recent years. “Some folk musicians are so deeply involved with what they normally sing, that if we expose them to something new, they get a little confused. Mame can mould himself to suit different environments. He’s got a folk voice, adapts easily to Western music and has tremendous depth,” says Mahadevan.
Born to Rana Khan Manganiyar, a Rajasthani musician whose ancestors have been supported by landlords and aristocrats for generations, Khan grew up listening to his father’s riyaaz. “Manganiyar ka toh bachcha bhi sur mein rota hai (Even a Manganiyar’s baby cries in tune),” says Khan. “I would play with the kamaincha, dholak and khartaal; there was nothing else. If my father was at home, he was always singing and that’s what I imbibed. If he was away, he was trying to make both ends meet. Women in our community don’t sing or play music but my mother was a skilled singer and would teach us bhajans she’d learnt in her family,” he says.
The Manganiyars are a group of hereditary musicians who belong to a fringe Muslim community in Rajasthan. Since the beginning of their musical tradition, their patrons have been wealthy Bhaati and Rajput landlords and aristocrats. The Manganiyars sing ditties of local maharajas, of bygone battles and stories of gods and goddesses that have been passed down generations. These songs are mostly in praise of Hindu deities, and celebrate Lord Krishna. “I can proudly say that in current times, too, Hindus and Muslims are closely bound to each other in our part of the world. I sing of the Allah in my Sufi pieces, and of Krishna in others. My children celebrate Diwali and Holi, while there are congratulatory messages from our Rajput patrons on Eid,” says Khan, who accompanied his father at many gatherings in his formative years. He now teaches his music to his three children — a daughter and two sons. “I’m also educating them in other disciplines. But I want them to be known for their music, like me,” says Khan, who is busy wrapping up a few recordings in Jaisalmer before he begins touring the country for the upcoming music festival season.
Before his songs in Mirzya established his talent as a playback singer, validation had come from ace composer Amit Trivedi in Coke Studio @MTV sessions in 2015. Khan crooned two numbers — a traditional folk called Chaudhary, and another titled Badri badariya, where he collaborated with singer Mili Nair. Then there were two pieces with popular fusion band Maati Baani at Sandstorm Festival in 2013; soon, Khan began to frequent music festivals as a solo performer. “He can understand what’s going on in a composer’s head. So he delivers exactly what’s expected, right then. I only did two songs with him at the festival but the experience was very interesting,” says Nirali Kartik, one half of Maati Baani.
A slew of serendipitous encounters in Mumbai led him to meet theatre director Roysten Abel, who included him in The Manganiyar Seduction, one of his most ambitious projects. Inspired by Amsterdam’s red-light district, the stage is built up to four storeys, comprising small boxes, each one outlined by lightbulbs. Each box is occupied by a performer whose box lights up whenever he joins in the performance. As famous as this production has become, including a performance at London’s Womad Festival (2012), Khan enjoys his solo status more. “All musicians dream of going solo. If one has the ability to move out, expose oneself to other forms and finds a spot where one fits in, then there is no stopping him. This is exactly what Mame has done,” says Mahadevan.
Khan’s natural gifts are indisputable. There is humility, work ethic, talent and a brilliant vocal range. But the going hasn’t been easy; there are limitations he’s had to overcome, and most of them have been financial. Last year, the lack of funds led Khan to crowdfund an album with the Manganiyars — a first for them. “As folk artistes, we don’t know so much about these tech things. But it was my dream to have an album. Then, someone told me I could have normal people as my jajmaan and have them help us raise money for an album, which, eventually, would be given as a gift to them. Earlier, the rewards used to be elephants, horses and gold. This time, it would be money to create our album,” says Khan.
The result was Mame Khan’s Desert Sessions, which included seven folk tracks. “This allowed me to reach more people than I ever imagined,” says Khan. He is currently singing in Mahadevan’s folk project titled My Country, My Music, where Indian film music’s roots in folk will be explored through collaborations with artistes from various parts of the country. “If one has Mame’s talent and gets the right opportunity, then finding success is inevitable. He remains a Manganiyar at heart, but he’s adapting to what the world today has to offer, and paving the way for others in his community,” says Mahadevan.