True News|Sep 3, 2006 6:59 AM| by:

Old is New

You may have seen them on stage or the telly. Five or six unmistakably Indian men in colourful oversized turbans. A couple of rugged middle aged vocalists among them, ranging high and low. A drummer with a toothy grin. Maybe a wizened old man plying his bow on the strings of a kamayacha. An impish young boy or two clacking away on pairs of khartals held in each palm. One of the singers is squeezing a harmonium and belting away. The other vocalist waits for a cue to join the ride. The drummer rouses his dholak. The boys rise on their knees and arc and weave their arms as they clack on. The old man plies his bow quietly. The colour of their costumes, the sounds of the desert, the passion in their voices and the animation of the boys makes it more than a concert. It is gripping theatre, as audiences world-wide have come to realise. To send a Manganiyar group on stage is at once to evoke India itself.

[Langas, that are referred to as we go, are musical cousins to Manganiyars. Their art is identical except that Langas are accompanied by a saranghi instead of the kamayacha. Both are string instruments, but the saranghi has more strings and so, is richer in range demanding greater training and virtuosity from the vocalist.]

Minstrels of the Desert

Strangely, for artistes who so visibly enjoy their act, Manganiyars were obdurate traditionalists and reluctant to go on stage. In the wide and desolate country of Sind and northwest Rajasthan, Manganiyars have for centuries survived on the patronage of wealthy merchants in caravan towns. At times of birth, marriage or any family festivity, the Manganiyar troupe would be in attendance, evoking the right mood with songs of the desert and many specially composed by them in praise of the patron and his family. As they have owed allegiance to the same patron’s family for generations, it’s no surprise that they are also keepers of the family tree! They weave into their songs their patron’s ancestors’ enterprise, heroism, character, pedigree, and – without fail – generosity! Little incidents of the past were embellished with imagination and poetry. The patron assured them an annuity and so survived the Manganiyars’ world till the fifties.

There is another eye-opening aspect to the Manganiyars. While their patrons were invariably Hindus, the Manganiyars were always Muslims, though with a twist. They were indeed devoted to Islam but without any rigidity. There were, until recently Shankar Khans and Krishna Khans among them.

The story of how, in the changing economy of India, as their patrons’ fortunes began to wane, the Manganiyar craft found new support, cannot be told without getting to know Prof. Komal Kothari.

“It Will Rob My Voice!”

Born in Jodhpur, in 1929, Komal Kothari studied in Udaipur. In 1953, he started a magazine called ‘Prerna’ along with a close friend of many years, Vijay Dandetha. Prerna set itself the task of discovering and transcribing a new folk song every month. His family’s nationalist leanings and Kothari’s love of music and fine arts amalgamated into an interest in another genre of Rajasthani folk songs. These were songs, created between 1800 and 1942 by the common folk of Rajasthan, that focused on anti-British sentiments. That opened his eyes to the richness of creativity that lay undiscovered .

After several adventures in Shantiniketan, ghost-writing and fine arts journalism Kothari, in 1958 found himself at Rajasthan Sangeet Natak Academy.

And there began a 40 year long obsession to record for posterity, many of the dying strands of folk singing. The obsession continues.

In 1960, he ran into Antar Khan, a Manganiyar in the street. Kothari knew the Manganiyar culture was under pressure. Why not bring them to the notice of the world through recordings? He led Khan to his office to sing for him.

“I was preparing my vintage tape recorder to record him,” says Kothari. “It took a few minutes. When I turned around, he was gone. I went to the door and looked out. There he was, sprinting away. I chased him and caught up after some effort. Turned out, he feared the machine will swallow his voice away forever, if he sang in front of it!”

    Beginning a Growing Archive

During the next two years, Kothari made several trips to Jaisalmer, which is Manganiyar country. He explained the technology of recording and assuaged their anxieties. He lectured them on the promise of worldwide publicity and a new livelihood for them.

Then in 1962, the first ever recording of Langa music took place!

And again, in 1963, a Manganiyar troupe performed in Delhi, for the first time on stage.

But Kothari wanted to take them farther afield and show-case them for global audiences.

Intense all night rehearsals ran between 1965 and 1970. Kothari and a small band of dedicated culture activists worked on their stage craft, repertoire, programme planning etc.

In 1967, Kothari travelled to Sweden with a troupe of Langas for the first ever performance outside India. Soon the Indian Council of Cultural Research [ICCR] got into the act. Acclaim, interest, invitations and recognition followed thick and fast. By the time India staged the popular Festivals of India all over the world in the mid-eighties, Manganiyars and Langas had become the darlings of audiences drawn to India. Today, Rajasthan’s tourism industry is driven quite substantially by these charismatic performers.

Komal Kothari himself has come to be loved by them as their godfather. But he has moved on to his original obsession: recording folk music for posterity.

    Rupayan and the Work!

In 1964 Kothari had started ‘Rupayan’ in Jodhpur to co-ordinate archival recordings. Collaborating with scholars from Sweden, Australia, UK and France he has carried on the work ceaselessly.

“The idea of creating such an archive was indeed that of Deben Bhattacharya, an Indian music scholar, settled in Paris,” says Prof. Kothari. “Now in his eighties, his vision was global in scale. Mine is restricted to Rajasthan. Deben’s wife is Swedish and that is how the interest spread to Sweden. But one of the dynamos of the project was Genevieve Dournon who was with Musee les Homme in Paris in the sixties. She raised the funds, created awareness and brought people together.”

Prof. Komal Kothari is a handsome man in his seventies working out of a modest home in Jodhpur. He still travels extensively and isn’t slowing down yet. But there is an air of reflective awe in his observations.

“I am amazed at how these simple folks have mastered their instruments, codified their craft and marketed themselves over the centuries,” he says. “And now, despite their initial reluctance, they have quite rapidly adapted to the new potential. They seek markets, travel the world, deliver professional performances and handle success with great suavity. I laugh when I hear of the backwardness of India’s unlettered masses.”

And then, after a time, he whispers meditatively: “It seems the relevance of every art form changes with every generation.”

What he does not add is that he has given to the Manganiyars and Langas a new relevance in our times.

    (This article was taken from GoodNewsIndia is dedicated to little known stories of positive action and is published by D. V. Sridharan)