By Our Correspondent
JODHPUR – The famed Muslim folk singers belonging to the Langa and Manganiyar communities in western Rajasthan, struggling to preserve their rich musical legacy since the Covid pandemic started, have received the much-needed support from a Jodhpur-based folk music school, which has launched the training of their young children. Significantly, the school also offers the boys academic education to bring them to the mainstream.
Langas and Manganiyars are hereditary professional Muslim musicians residing primarily in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer and Barmer districts and Sindh province’s Tharparkar and Sanghar districts on the other side of the international border in Pakistan. The popular art form of these poor musicians faces the challenge of survival since their global performances were halted during the Covid-induced lockdown in 2020.
The ballads, folklores and songs of Langa-Manganiyar artistes are considered the repository of the Thar desert’s rich history and traditional knowledge, as they have been continuing with the oral traditions of music from several generations on the patronage of wealthy landlords and merchants. They generally sing the songs on the themes such as the making of gorband (an ornament tied on camel’s neck), migratory birds from Central Asia visiting the water bodies during winter, evils afflicting the society and the Sufi Kalams.
Langas and Manganiyars converted from the Hindu Rajput caste to Islam several centuries ago. The Langas, who may be defined as musical cousins of Manganiyars, have their forte in Sufi singing and their patrons were Muslims. They perform exclusively at events such as births and weddings for their Yajman (patrons). The Manganiyars, on the other hand, were musicians of the Rajput courts and accompanied their chiefs to war, provided them with entertainment before and after the battles, and sang in the event of their death.
These musicians are also trained in playing the traditional musical instruments such as kamaicha and sarangi (stringed instruments), khartal (wooded clappers), algoza (double flute) and dholak (double-headed barrel-drum), which often captivate the audience. However, the native heritage and culture, represented by the musicians, is facing threats from changes in patronage, urbanisation and intrusion of the modern lifestyle in rural areas.
The initiative for imparting training to the young underprivileged boys from the two communities has met with immense success, as it is expected to help save the rapidly disappearing narrative traditions of Langas and Manganiyars. The Komal Kothari School of Folk Music, named after a renowned folklorist and ethnomusician, selects boys between the ages of 7 and 14, trains them in the nuances of music and sends them to regular school for academic studies.
Senior musicians and experts train young students in the nuances of ragas and the presentation of their repertoire with proper expression and diction. Wearing colourful safa (headgear), kurta (long shirt) and salwar (loose pants), the children receive guidance in their traditional avocation from their mentors, who ensure that they will perform well before the audience.
At a two-day child artiste evaluation camp organised at the school recently, the issues confronting the Rajasthani folk music field were highlighted comprehensively. The elderly experts taught new and old ragas and songs to about 35 Langa and Manganiyar children. The participants were trained in the performances in Marwari and Sindhi languages and were apprised of similar songs in Saraiki, Dhatti and Thareli languages.
The children were divided into different groups according to their age and taught the couplets and songs in different ragas, while their performance was tested and evaluated by the teachers. After being trained in style, fluency, articulation and diction for two days, the participants were asked to perform in front of an audience.
The school has been opened by an institution, Rupayan Sansthan, which was established by the late Komal Kothari, recipient of Padma Bhushan, in 1960 with the simple idea of collecting folk tales and folk songs to bring out the richness of the Rajasthani language. The institution has a collection of 20,000 hours of audio recordings of Langa-Manganiyar performances in the analogue form.
Rupayan Sansthan’s Secretary Kuldeep Kothari said the institution had collected the repertoires comprising a wide range of heroic ballads, romantic epic tales and Sufi spiritual stories in recordings dating from 1980 to 2003. He expressed the hope that the school would gradually emerge as a resource centre for western Rajasthan’s folk music.
The school was started in Jodhpur under the patronage of the late Hayat Khan Langa. At the same time, its branches were recently opened at Sanawara in Jaisalmer district and Hadwa and Beejasar in Barmer district, where the children will be trained under the supervision of noted experts Hakim Khan Manganiyar and Sakar Khan Manganiyar. Kothari said the training for children would not only preserve the oral traditions but would also encourage the involvement of the two marginalised communities in protecting the history of the desert region.
While the venue of the two-day camp was the Arna Jharna Museum established by Rupayan Sansthan at Moklawas village on the outskirts of Jodhpur, the Komal Kothari School of Folk Music functions from Masuria locality in Jodhpur. The former ruler of Jodhpur, Gaj Singh, had also opened a school at Hameera village in Jaisalmer district three years ago for training the children of the Manganiyar community in the playing of Kamaicha, but it is not functional nowadays.
A new centre deep in the Thar desert is also helping the Langa-Manganiyar and other singers hone their youngsters’ skills, having emerged as a permanent and well-constructed nucleus for the folk artistes of western Rajasthan. Located on two-bigha land in Sheo village, situated 55 km away from Barmer, the Dharohar Lok Kala & Gramin Vikas Sansthan has also provided a permanent platform to the artistes from about 50 villages in Barmer and Jaisalmer districts.
The initiative has been taken by two brothers belonging to the Manganiyar community – Bhutte Khan and Bhungar Khan – who have received financial support from three business houses for constructing rooms, a training hall and a vast open-air performing. Folk artistes from the desert region bring their children to the centre for guidance and training, and a two-day festival titled “Singing Sands” was organised there recently.
Dharohar Sansthan’s Chairperson Bhutte Khan, who acts as the manager of the complex, said though the training programmes were not regular, they had brought awareness among the younger generation about their rich cultural heritage. “Our folk traditions, rooted in pure unadulterated raga music, need to be learnt with devotion. The youths are getting the much-needed guidance here,” he said.
The mighty Thar desert also teems with a variegated scattering of other folk-art communities. While Manganiyars, being the maximum in numbers, have earned a niche in the high-pitched chorus as well as solo performances, Meghwals are known for rendering devotional songs, eulogies and dirges. The Bhils are styled as ‘Bhopa’, who narrate pre-medieval fables, and the Jogi or Kalbelia folk, of late, banned for snake capture, sing and dance to earn their livelihood.
“Singing Sands” hosted about 150 folk artistes to perform at the single open-air dais in the Sheo centre. The institutions such as Rajasthan Tourism, Rajasthan Sangeet Natak Akademi, Dancing Peacock and Jaipur Junction for Arts and Music Foundation joined hands to make the event a success, while Germany’s YMUSIC, a Berlin-based group of musicians, joined it to add an international appeal.
The Rupayan Sansthan has also taken up a major project for the preservation of musical and oral traditions of the two communities with their documentation and digitisation in association with the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology at the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). The Sansthan has a big collection of audio recordings of Langa-Manganiyar performances in the analogue form.
Preserving oral traditions will encourage the local communities’ involvement in the efforts to nurture audiences and protect the history of the desert region. “Our emphasis in collaboration with the AIIS is on preserving Katha, Gatha, Varta (tales, epics, talks). The material derived from recordings will be made available for research and utilised to train a younger generation of performers,” Kuldeep Kothari said.
Famous Barmer-based vocalist Anwar Khan, a recipient of Padma Shri in 2020, said though the artistes had received financial assistance from the State Government during the lockdown, they needed greater support for survival. “We have a strong faith in the traditional patronage system. Therefore, folk music will survive despite all challenges,” he said. Anwar Khan is also a master trainer and has trained hundreds of children and youths of the musician communities during the last 30 years.
A Jaipur-based advocacy group, Lok Samvad Sansthan, also took the initiative in collaboration with civil society organisations and research institutions to help out the Langa-Manganiyar artistes during the Covid pandemic through a social media campaign titled Maru Mani (jewels of the desert). Virtual events were held as part of the campaign to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage of the desert state and a crowd-funding platform was created to get financial support for them.