Date:05/09/2004 URL:
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Notes of communal harmony

AARTI DHAR visits the Manganiyar community in Rajasthan who are an example of bonhomie, and appreciated in France for their music.

Folk artists Runa Khan (right) on the Khamaycha and Shaish Nath on the been.

WHILE Gujarat is in the news for examples of communal disharmony, here is a heartwarmer. A small community in neighbouring Rajasthan presents an example of communal bonhomie. The Manganiyars, a singers community from western Rajasthan, are Muslims by birth but are closely linked for generations to both Muslims and Hindu families for their livelihood.

Whatever be the occasion at their jajmaan's house, the Manganiyars are there with appropriate song and music, greatly influenced by Sindhi sufi pirs, singing mystical verses and invoking the Hindu gods.

"Singing and composing for occasions is our traditional business and our jajmaans used to be Hindu Rajputs," says Talab Khan, a Manganiyar singer who comes from Barna village in Jaisalmer district near the Indo-Pakistan border. The tradition is hundreds of years old and still going strong. There was a phase some decades ago when a slump was noticed in the art's popularity but desperate attempts by the community elders helped revive the dying art.

Be it a wedding, a birth in the family, a change of season, a festival or even celebrating the valour of the warriors, the Manganiyars are called to compose and sing for which they are paid handsomely though in different ways. Their songs describe the life of the people of the land. "We have written and sung for all occasions. Our verses are now being translated into Hindi for Bollywood," Talab Khan says. While it is the Manganiyars who are invited to celebrate a happy occasion, the Meghwals are believed to know the talent of sending the deceased to `heaven' by their rendition and playing of tamoora.

The music of the Manganiyars borders on the classical with a touch of Sufism. The singers have mastery in playing various instruments like Khamaycha (a string instrument played with a bow), Murli (a big flute), Surnai (big bass flute), the Afgoza (double flute), the Morchhang (Jewish harp) and the Khartaal (type of castanets). "The Khamaycha can be played only by the Manganiyars and the one I have is 300 years old which once my great-great-grand father played," says Runa Khan.

There was a time when the Manganiyars would not move out from their villages or, at best, their district. Now, their range has expanded with their music going global. The troupe, headed by Talab Khan's elder brother Gazi Khan Barna, has travelled across the globe with as many as 50 trips to France alone where Manganiyar folk music is highly appreciated. "Several people have expressed their desire to learn to play the Khamaycha but the instrument is difficult to play and quite time-consuming. No one from outside the community has been able to learn," Talab Khan says. It is again only Manganiyar folk music that has the quality of blending with the French traditional dances.

Folk music institute

It was the increasing threat to their tradition that made Gazi Khan and his family start an institute in Barna village to impart training to the younger generation of their community about 10 years ago. The Pahachan Folk Music Institute at Barna has 50 students. "About 100 young students can play Khamaycha now and many of these from the generation next have even performed outside India as against the situation earlier," according to Talab Khan. The institute is run from donations made by the wealthy Manganiyars and the target is the students from the not-so-well-to-do families. It is a boarding school where the students are trained for traditional folk music besides their academic education being taken care of. "Music and singing comes so naturally to the Manganiyars that they hardly need any training. It is just the polishing up or just to keep the youngsters in touch with their roots that we do at the institute," Talab Khan points out.

Another important aspect of the community is their proximity to the Kalbeliyas or "snake-charmer" community with whom they perform in harmony. It is not the synchronisation of steps or notes that is surprising but the fact that the two come from different religious backgrounds to gel so harmoniously. While the Manganiyars are Muslims, the Kalbeliyas are Hindus by faith but religion has never come in the way when it comes to performance.

Though closely rooted to their tradition of singing, the Manganiyars have over the years shifted to agriculture, cattle-rearing and even working as daily-wagers. With the education level among youngsters also increasing marginally, the community elders are ensuring that the youngsters do not move away from their roots and keep their tradition alive.

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