Rajasthan’s dying folk music finds a voice

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

Jodhpur : Traditional folk music from the remote villages of Rajasthan is finding high-profile voices to carry it mainstream.

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A five-day Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF), which began Oct 1 at the sprawling Mehrangarh Fort, is promoting “unheard of music from the desert villages that is dying a slow death due to lack of patronage and popularity”.

On Saturday, the country’s leading exponent of classical Rajasthani sarangi and vocal music, Ustad Sultan Khan, jumped the “class divide between classical and folk music” to throw his lot with marginalised ethnic folk musicians of Marwar in a rare “folk-meets classical” concert Maru Tarang at the RIFF.

“I want to highlight folk music and work with talented folk musicians because I love Rajasthani folk. I belong to Marwar,” Sultan Khan, who has worked in several Bollywood movies and has collaborated with rock bands like Duran Duran and Beatles, told IANS.

“It is difficult for folk music to achieve the refinement of classical music in the state because folk is memory-based, handed down the generations by word of mouth. There are no written compositions. In contrast, classical music follows the strict grammar of the gharana and is honed with years of ‘talim (tutelage)’ and practice,” he said.

Sultan Khan, who will work with rock legend Carlos Santana in California later this year, said, “Folk music is a visual feast because of its sheer energy and colour while classical music is subtle, meant to be heard and felt”.

“But I am glad to have met them on common ground,” the ailing ustad said.

Maru Tarang was first performed in December 2008, thanks to the efforts of the RIFF which was trying to make the two genres meet on a common ground, director of RIFF Divya Bhatia said.

The concert is a watershed since it “bridges the class divide that exists between the two – folk and classical”.

“Though the origin of classical lies in folk, the father and the son can look alike,’ Sultan Khan’s son Sabir Khan, a budding national talent, explained to IANS.

Maru Tarang featured Sultan Khan, his son Sabir Khan and Sultan’s brother Hamid Khan and leading Manganiyar Sindhi sarangi maestro Lakha Khan and vocalist Anwar Khan. The group sang popular Rajasthani wedding and festival numbers, ‘sufi’ ‘bhajans’ and ‘rajwari maand’ (in praise of the maharaja) in both classical and the traditional folk styles, accompanied by the sarangi.

Manganiyar guru Lakha Khan said, “The collaboration is a shot in the arm for Manganiyar folk which is dying a slow death in the villages of Jodhpur, Barmer and Jaisalmer.”

“We are poor people and cannot live on music alone. Moreover, Rajasthan is a dry state and our crops in the villages are erratic. We have to depend on sponsors to promote our music. In this case, we were lucky to have a sponsor like the virasat (royalty) and Sultan Khan as a collaborator,” Lakha Khan, a frail old man told IANS.

Mumbai-based Sufi and folk vocalist Rekha Bharadwaj, wife of filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj, is also collaborating with female folk musicians in the state.

In a concert Oct 2, ‘Maand and More’, Rekha pitted her powerful contralto and earthy style of music with the state’s living Maand and Bhopi (folk styles) legends, Bhanwari Devi Bhopi and Rehana Mirza singing Rajwari Maand from Udaipur and Sufi Zikr (the whirling chant ‘la illaha il Allah’) in jugalbandi with the duo.

“This is my first collaboration with folk musicians from Rajasthan. Though our styles are different, we sing of the same emotions – love, god and valour. Essentially, it is a bonding of feminine music from the state,” Rekha Bharadwaj told IANS.

Rekha, who met Bhanwari Devi and Rehana Mirza in June this year for the first time felt she should have spent more time with them. “I had to know their lifestyles and soil to get deeper into their music. I want to take them to Bollywood, if possible,” Rekha said.

Most of the instruments, barring the sarangi, are on the verge of extinction.

Ustad Allaudin Khan Langa, a string maestro from the endangered Langa community of musicians of western Rajasthan, attributes the decline to the unavailability of the instruments.

Allaudin and his family of four are the last exponents of surinda, a hand-crafted string instrument from Pakistan.

“But there will be nobody to keep the tradition alive barring my son and nephews, who have learnt it from me,” Khan told IANS.

His grandfather brought the surinda to India from Pakistan 70 years ago but “no one makes the instrument in Pakistan any more”, he said.

A concert, ‘Strings of Thar – Living Legends’, at the Mehrangarh Palace Oct 3, showcased instruments like surinda, kamaycha and the sarangi.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])