Powerful voices echo from small identical thatch-roofed hutments that dot the sandy landscape. A live rendition of Kesariya balam padharo mhare des,a Rajasthani folk number popularly played in city centres,fairs and festivals,sets the tone for the evening riyaaz in Kotada village in Shiv district,20 km from Barmer town. Children join in,one playing a morchang (a percussion instrument),the others blending into the chorus. For this village of 250 Manganiyars,traditional Rajasthani folk singers,music is a way of life,where,as the local lore goes,even children cry in perfect tune. It is also a survival strategy as they try to walk the thin line between international recognition and government apathy at home.
Nehru Khan,31,travels the world for days together every year,living in expensive five-star hotels,performing at shows where an indulgent audience almost always gives standing ovations to his troupes power-packed renditions. And then back at home,he battles in vain to get power and water connections to his village and ensure schooling for the children. Residents of Kotada might have their passports stamped to the last page and requests for performances but at home they barely manage to make ends meet.
Bhutte Khan,who usually leads the troupe,recalls how,at the Estonian Folk Music Festival in April this year,an audience of 10,000 sat overawed and not a single person walked out of the auditorium as long as the Manganiyars were on stage. It was a two-hour show and 2,000 artistes had come from across the world. We got such an overwhelming response,it made us forget all the worries at home. We are constantly living a double life. One,where we see the high-rises of the world and get to know that our art is a precious thing and the other,when we are back at home neglected by our own people,ignored by our own government, says Bhutte,who has travelled to over a dozen countries including Russia,Germany,Austria,Slovakia,Estonia,Denmark.
For every performance,the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation gives each artiste Rs 600 and the troupe leader Rs 2,000 while the West Zone Cultural Centre in Udaipur offers only Rs 175 per day. Shows arranged by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) fetch Rs 2,000 per artiste and Rs 5,000 for the group head. It is not every day that we get shows. In some months,there are barely two or three,leaving us with a paltry income, says Bhungar Khan,who performed the number Bawre in Zoya Akhtars Luck by Chance. Even for the shows in foreign countries,our allowances are the same,Rs 2,000 per performance with food and travel paid for.
We are a dwindling community and our art form is dying,but we are consciously trying to keep it alive by training our kids. But in todays world,education is very important. When we travel across the world,we need translators to explain what the audience,who come up to congratulate us,are saying. So we have begun sending our children to schools,however far they are, says Darim Khan,whose harmonium has international flight tags taped on its bellows.
The nearest school is 10 km away and a bus has been hired to ferry the children to school every day. When they come home in the evening,however tired they may be,riyaaz is never given a miss. In fact,in Kotada,riyaaz is never formal and children can be heard practising their lines even while playing,one correcting the other. The lyrics are never forgotten,passed down generations through oral narratives and taught assiduously to the youngsters. Women too sing but in the confines of their veiled existence. No Manganiyar will ever die hungry. We can all sing to save our lives, says Pathan Khan,70. Sawai Khan,15,adept at the dholak,nods in agreement. Education is important and I will finish my studies but as for choosing a profession,I will be what my ancestors were,a Manganiyar, he says.
In neighbouring Jaisalmer,even as the Merasis find being Manganiyars (literally meaning beggars) demeaning and do not want to be referred to by the name any longer,those in Kotada take no offence. It’s our identity and we are not ashamed of it. We live off our art and we have seen it being respected across the world. There is a lot more that our own government could do for us and it is our right to demand basic amenities. There is no begging in that, says Bhutte.
In 2006,when raging floods rendered them homeless,uprooting their village in Jalela,Social Empowerment and Economic Development Society (SEEDS),an NGO,built 65 small identical hutments in nearby Kotada for the displaced musicians. The government has never bothered to check on them. Hence,their children finish homework under the lantern and Rs 800 is paid for two water tankers that come every month to fill up a temporary storage pit that caters to washing,cleaning and drinking too.
Manganiyars were traditional court musicians who asked for alms in lieu of performances at weddings,births and deaths. Despite Muslim names,the community follows Hindu traditions and rituals. It is popularly believed that they were converted to Islam by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century. Owing to their small number and cultural ambiguity,the community is not considered a significant votebank for politicians,leaving their demands almost always unheard. Even in the face of adversity at home,the community that wins hearts with their music is hopeful. They have always been heard everywhere. One day,they believe,they will be heard at home too.