What a Rajasthani Folk Singer Thinks About in the Afternoons

The Rajasthan International Folk Festival in Jodhpur proceeded in its usual grand full-moon fashion this year. Behind the scenes, our writer hung out, lay about and listened in to that familiar question: “Is desh ka kya hoga?”

The Maaru Taarang featuring Jeff Lang, Bobby Singh, Asin Langa and Bhungar Manganiyar. (Photo: Kavi Bhansali)
HOLDING a festival on the brightest full moon night of the year may not always be the smartest idea.

On October 20, 2013, as the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) at Jodhpur inched towards its grand finale at Mehrangarh Fort, lunar madness ensued. Bhanwari Devi, a folk singer who was to collaborate with the Gypsy All Stars for a performance, was running a fever. Even as the band’s manager tried desperately to find someone to translate what she was saying, Australian singer-songwriter Jeff Lang and tabla player Bobby Singh lost their way in the maze of corridors and staircases that runs through the medieval fortress, en route to a shoot on the fort’s roof.

“I’ve played in the Buckingham Palace,” said Singh, a little too joyously for a man who, till just a moment ago, wasn’t sure of where he was going. “But nothing compares to this.” They had reached the top and were looking out at the stunning view the blue city had to offer. Earlier, on enquiring after a certain room in the fort that was always locked, Singh had been informed by a festival official, matter-of-factly, that it was believed that an evil spirit had been imprisoned in it half a century ago. “This is the real thing,” Singh kept saying.

Jodhpur RIFF, or simply RIFF, as it is often called, has been voted one of the best music festivals in the world by Songlines magazine. Spread over five days and timed to coincide with the Sharad Poornima the festival hosts, in and around the magnificent Mehrangarh, some of the most acclaimed international musicians alongside, or collaborating with, hundreds of Rajasthani folk performers. In addition to the Gypsy All Stars (some of whose members were part of the famous Gypsy Kings), Jeff Lang and Bobby Singh, this year’s lineup included French-Spanish singer Manu Chao and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s nephews Rizwan-Muazzam, who carry on his legacy.

A smorgasbord of the musicians at the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) at Jodhpur (17-21 October)
1 / 8
Grist Media | Photo by Kavi Bhansali
Fri 25 Oct, 2013 10:30 AM IST

As evening approached, at the Marwar Rajput Sabha Bhavan that is a half hour drive from the fort, a different kind of madness prevailed. Rajasthani folk performer Jumma Khan had caught hold of an elderly saffron-clad bhajan singer with a great sense of propriety.
 
The bhajan singer, Jumma’s relative, had come to sing Kabir bhajans at RIFF. While practicing on the porch of the sabha bhavan (assembly hall), he had missed a line, not realizing that the next line wasn’t rhyming with the one before it in the couplet, as it is supposed to.

Jumma inflicted upon him a word that, in these parts, is a sure sign of a verbal argument about to escalate into a duel. “Chutiye (f***ker),” said Jumma. “Do you have sense of neither meter nor rhyme?”
 
Jumma, at 43, is RIFF’s king of rhyme. His ability to write and perform lok-geet (people’s songs) on a variety of issues ranging from corruption to female foeticide to dowry has led him from his village Pinan in Alwar district to RIFF, which he has been a part of from the festival’s first edition in 2007. He’s been to the iTunes Festival in London and on the popular national TV show India’s Got Talent. It was on this show where he met Bollywood producer and actor Arbaaz Khan who asked Jumma, half in jest, if he could think of a song for the urban Indian woman. Jumma produced a fun tongue-in-cheek number – he says it took him five minutes – called Rangeeli Bhabhi Chale Chamakwa Chaal that referenced the trickster ways of, among other urban Indian women (Kirron Kher, Sridevi and Farah Khan), Arbaaz’s wife Malaika, who had been one of the judges on his show.

***

JUMMA is rotund, with an exceptionally animated face and a thick moustache. He is usually seen on stage with his bhapang (a string instrument), wearing a white kurta and pajama, his turban and jootis creating a riot of colour at both ends.

Here, Jumma is lying barefoot on a worn mattress in a faded white vest and his pajamas. He lights a ‘Telephone’ beedi, his favourite brand and one that seems to be quite popular in Jodhpur. The saffron clad bhajan singer is a Jogi, like Jumma — a community of storytellers who, for their songs, draw on a repertoire of mythological and historical tales or couplets by the Bhakti saints (Jumma is one of the few renowned to have contemporized his lyrics). Though obviously much older than Jumma – he is his brother’s wife’s uncle – the singer is willing to kowtow to the latter in matters of music and poetry. He says nothing of the rebuke, acknowledges his mistake, and walks off towards the dining area with an expression that is a mixture of deep annoyance and deep contemplation.

The Marwar Rajput Sabha Bhawan is a vast sandstone structure that was built in 1944 on land owned by Gaj Singh II, the Maharaja of Jodhpur and chief patron of RIFF. Its primary function throughout the year is to host events held by the Rajput community. During RIFF, the Maharaja uses the bhavan to house the hundreds of folk musicians who come to perform at the festival.

At these times the bhavan takes on the feel of a bustling commune where many of the musicians sleep in a large central hall on mattresses (though there are other rooms as well, often reserved for the ladies and older musicians) and rehearse together throughout the day, either inside the bhavan or outside on a large lawn.

The musicians – who may be Manganiyar, Langa, Jogi, Bhopa-Bhopi, or any other from a multitude of Rajasthani folk music communities – use common bathrooms and toilets and dine in a common area. They praise and heckle one another throughout the day, exchange notes on music and where they may find more work, and often play their musical pieces to others for feedback. The festival organizers spend a substantial amount of their time talking to the musicians, discussing the line-up with them and facilitating occasional jam sessions with foreign musicians who are looking to collaborate with their Rajasthani counterparts.

Is desh ka kya hoga (What will become of this country)?,” asks Jumma sitting up on his mattress now. This is a favourite refrain of his. He recites:

Mere Bharat desh mein yaaron neeti toh ban jaati hai/Magar Neeti nibhaane waalon ki yahaan niyat bigad jaati hai.”

He breaks off from this soliloquy to yell at Bhungar Khan, a Manganiyar khartal player who has left, near Jumma’s mattress, a plate that has the remains of dinner: gatte ki sabzi, gobhi ki sabzi, roti and rice.

The khartal player protests that he’s going into the kitchen for some water and will remove the plate when he’s back. Jumma insists he remove it immediately. “Is desh ka kya hoga?” says Bhungar, mimicking Jumma. “Plate nahin rakhkha, ungli kar di (I had just kept the plate there for a moment and you got after me).”

Jumma: “So you’ll leave your plate lying wherever you want?”

Bhungar: “Actually, this country is just fine. It’s a few people like you who drive everyone up the wall with their obsessions. Is desh ka kya hoga?

***

MOST of Jumma’s lyrics have been co-written by his friend Gajraj, who passed away two years ago. Jumma credits him, by inserting his name towards the last line of each song, in the same way in which the Bhakti saints did at the end of a series of couplets. He recites his latest work, a satire on Indian bureaucracy and red tape.

Bhai tu naa jaane toh aaj hakeekat sun le bharat ki/Lagi naukri, afsar ban ke jaa baithe office mein/Aur kaise khaaye maal paraaye, aur reh rahen yahaan koshish mein/Aur naa karen sachchai ko kaam, poorti raakhe kagaz ki…

His phone rings. A local politician has been calling him to sing for his party. But Jumma won’t sing. He doesn’t want to be seen as taking sides with any one party because they are all “equally useless”. When it comes to voting, says Jumma: “In Alwar votes are rigged so openly that voting becomes pointless”. During the last state elections in 2008, for instance, a thakur (feudal landlord) had stood guard by one of the booths. “You’re going to vote for my party, right?” he would ask the poor farmers standing in line. Terrified of reprisal, they would nod. Then the thakur would ask one of his henchmen to cast their votes for them, with the election officers looking on helplessly. “Being an election officer in Rajasthan is like going to war,” says Jumma. “Your family never knows if you’ll return alive.”

He speculates aloud about the prospects of MP Kirori Lal Meena, of Dausa constituency in Rajasthan. Meena had broken away from the BJP in 2008. In early 2013 he joined a third front. Jumma is convinced the new party will create a stir in the next Rajasthan state elections, scheduled to take place this December. 

With performers from most castes and religions and most constituencies of Rajasthan staying here right now, the sabha bhavan has transformed into a sort of microcosm of the political moods of India’s largest state. Given that these performers have spent the year travelling in and around their districts, they are better prophets of grassroots sentiment than most psephologists. And while you may challenge their conclusions, you can’t fault their ability to hold your interest. Will the Congress Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s health schemes translate into votes? Will the fact that he’s had two tainted ministers in his government affect the Congress’ chances? Does the party need a new face in the state? Is there growing support for the BJP’s Vasundhara Raje? Will the Rajput vote go almost entirely to the BJP or will it be divided? How will the Meena community’s vote be divided?

Answers come in fragments, as per caste, sub-caste, community, constituency and religion – perhaps the best way to get answers in a country too complicated to analyze otherwise.

There is, for instance, a group of six turbaned old men, each wearing only white, who sit inside the bhavan in a grim circle, passing around a pouch of chewing tobacco, as one would expect them to at a panchayat. Fifty-eight-year-old Revat Ram, with a rugged clean-shaven face and a square jaw and the physique and demeanour of an akhada wrestler, could be the sarpanch.

Revat Ram and his companions are Jats from the village Pabusar, in Churu, worshippers of Gogaji (a warrior hero and folk deity), players of the dhol-thaali. He learnt how to play the dhol-thaali from his father and has been playing for the last 30 years. This is the second time the group is playing at RIFF. They don’t play professionally (they are farmers), but only to be able to sing praises of their lord and spread word about him. 

He calmly takes away my notebook when I approach him, opens it out to a blank page and, slamming it down on the mattress, points to it and commands in Rajasthani: “Write!”

“The elections will be decided by the smaller details,” says Revat Ram. “Whether [Narendra] Modi campaigns in certain constituencies or not, whether the Congress can waive farmer loans in some areas in time... ” He talks of a time when Chaudhary Devi Lal from Haryana, founder of the Indian National Lok Dal, had come to Rajasthan to mobilize the Jat vote for the BJP.
“He conducted rallies for the Jat population in Rajasthan and went forth among the crowds, without security, saying: These are my people – I have no reason to fear them,” he recounts. “As a result, 25 seats were won by the BJP.”

Revat Ram says that though the Jat population may not be significant enough in most places to win an election, it is spread out strategically enough to swing it for constituencies where the BJP and the Congress are in a close contest. He also believes that four out of six seats in Churu will go to the BJP. “But that is my prediction,” he says, with a grimace, the first sign of humility he has displayed since we met.

Right next to them is a bhajan singer called Roshni, who was singing Mira bhajans and playing a harmonium through all this, till Revat Ram shushed her so he could speak. Now he gestures for her to begin again.

***

IT is afternoon at the Marwar Rajput Sabha Bhavan and most of the folk musicians are resting or asleep on their mattresses. In one of the rooms is 50-year-old Bhanwari Devi, the famous singer from the Bhopa-Bhopi tradition. ‘Bhopa’ is the husband and ‘Bhopi’ is the wife – they are performers who see themselves as priests who narrate and sing epics and folk tales about deities.

After her husband’s death 10 years ago Bhanwari Devi decided to perform alone, but always in a ghunghat. She has since gone on to sing all over India and abroad, notably at the Edinburgh International Festival. Bhanwari’s performances have an eerie feel to them at times. In the beginning, you hear a deep powerful voice coming out of nowhere. Then you spot a veiled figure among the musicians on stage. And she exits in a similar phantom-like way. You don’t realize she’s gone until you scan the moonlit stage and discover that the veiled figure isn’t there anymore.

It is afternoon and Bhanwari is asleep. Watching over her is her son Krishan Bhopa, a harmonium and dholak player. Krishan has a photo-album in his bag with pages made of hand-made paper. In it are snapshots from his mother’s performances, as well some off stage during her tours; some of the photographs have been stuck on firmly, others hang loose. The first one shows Bhanwari, her veil pulled back, smiling; another, that teeters from the page, has her and her other son Inder at Mumbai’s Juhu Chowpatty beach, reaching for the sea as it washes over their feet.

That was the first time she had seen the sea.

***

ANOTHER lazy afternoon. 30-year-old Hakam Khan is singing in my ear, very low, so as to not wake the others. He has an earnest face with plain features, and a mouth that, amazingly, is capable of singing and masticating khaini (chewing tobacco) at the same time. Rani Kasbai, the song he’s singing, could be the most beautiful lullaby, except that it is about a queen conspiratorially urging the king to give her the wealth of another woman.

Rani ne re Kasbai/ Arjari karaaraa/ Saankar liko Shaaro/ Dhan Ne Deejo/ Mohoro Bhaverji/ Khama Khama Khama…

Hakam pauses to insert more khaini into his mouth. He is a Manganiyar from the village Neemla, in Barmer. He plays the harmonium and dholak too. His father played the dholak. His grandfather, the khartal. Hakam says the Manganiyar, Rajasthan’s most well-known musical community, are descendants of the legendary singer Tansen. Besides being musicians, they are also genealogists who record the names of their patrons in the form of a poem that is recited or sung, and passed down through generations. Manganiyar Sakhar Khan, who passed away recently, has won the Padma Shri.

Hakam began learning music at the age of 12, when he was in the 7th standard. “I wasn’t interested in studying anymore,” he says. “I tried tailoring but it didn’t work out.” So he began to learn the dholak from his parents, then the harmonium, then singing. He would travel around with them from village to village, performing and learning at the same time.

“Sometimes I’d fall asleep in the middle of the music,” says Hakam. “Toh phir lapat lagaaten (they’d give me a slap). Learn properly, they would say.”

Today Hakam charges, on an average, Rs. 1000 a day to perform. He sings, with the other Manganiyar, at festivals, weddings and birthdays, at occasions when a son-in-law or jamaai visits a household and at events in the cities of Jodhpur and Jaipur and every now and then, in Mumbai and Delhi. But he wants to be able to sing more, charge more. He tells me to let him know if there’s anyone in the cities who would like him to perform.

This is something every musician I have spoken to has asked me to do. They understand that representation is key to their survival. They are thankful to RIFF and the Jaipur Virasat Foundation (which works with them through the year and which, along with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, organizes RIFF) for providing them with this platform, but it has also given them a taste of what they can achieve if they are able to reach out.

“Where are you going off to… ” Sheru Khan Manganiyar sings out this line in a perfect melody as I’m about to leave. It is evening now. Sheru, 20, is the brother of the famous morchang player Rais, who is 5 years older.  The morchang is a wrought iron instrument shaped like a horseshoe, with a metal tongue in the middle, and is played by blowing through it and using the finger to strum the tongue.

Sheru and Rais are from the village of Harba, in Jaisalmer. Their grandfather Lune Khan was a horse-trader. It was their father Aladin Khan who began playing the morchang professionally. Rais also learnt beatboxing from Jason Singh, the UK beatboxer who’s been collaborating with him from the first RIFF on. Now he often travels on shows abroad and has been on the acclaimed TV music show Coke Studio as well.

Sheru plays the morchang too. He’s learning how to beatbox from Rais. This is his first time at RIFF. On stage, he played the morchang, and beatboxed with an ensemble of Scottish musicians.

“I want to compose a Rajasthani song in English,” says Sheru. He is tall and lanky and darkly handsome. He understands English almost perfectly and is able to speak it too, if in a somewhat broken manner. He wants to be able to travel abroad and collaborate with foreign musicians in the same way in which they have traveled to Jodhpur and collaborated with him. He feels something like a “music scholarship” abroad may be a good first step towards this.

Manganiyar dholak player Manzoor Khan, 32, joins us. He’s about to leave soon for the US, for shows of Roysten Abel’s Manganiyar Seduction. The show places 40-odd Manganiyar in boxes, in a grid like set that is apparently inspired from Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal as well as Amsterdam’s red light district – an exoticized presentation of an ancient folk form that is insensitive, disrespectful and appalling all at once.

Manzoor is happy, though, that he has gotten work in the production. He does say, however, that, “while people keep talking about the lighting and the sets, they often miss the work each Manganiyar has put into the show.”

RIFF’s last set of evening concerts for this year has begun. On a whim, Manzoor, Sheroo, Hakam and I decide to leave for the Mehrangarh Fort to watch one of this year’s headlining acts: ‘The Manganiyar of Marwar’, dedicated to the late Sakhar Khan. It will be fun, watching the Manganiyar with the Manganiyar.

We are seated on the last row. The Manganiyar on stage put up a spectacular performance. The crescendo is a dhol-beating contest. Maharaja Gaj Singh II comes onto stage to congratulate them. “I present to you the Manganiyar of Marwar,” he says to the audience.

Hakam is seated next to me staring wide-eyed at the stage. “Manganiyar is Marwar,” he mouths, as if in a trance, and then turns to me smiling. “Marwar is Manganiyar.”

Rishi Majumder is Senior Editor at the cinema magazine The Big Indian Picture (thebigindianpicture.com) and co-producer at the online music show BalconyTV (balconytv.com) in India.

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