19th October 2014,
Ishararam and team, Dhanau, Barmer
Pabuji Ki Phad is a religious scroll painting of folk deities, which is used for musical rendition by the Bhopa community in Rajasthan who are considered to be the priest singers of Pabuji. This art form is performed in front of the scroll (Phad) through a combination of folk singing and dancing. The songs narrate the story of the deity Pabuji in a particular sequence. The Bhopas carry the Phad to the place/village they are invited to. The Phad is kept rolled during transit. Before starting the performance, Bhopas set up the Phad between two poles in a suitable public place shortly after dusk. The performance goes on throughout the night and terminates only towards dawn.
The Kuchamani Khyal performance at Tilonia Lok Utsav was a rare chance to witness a theatre tradition that is fast fading. Ever since its inception almost two-and-a-half-decades ago, the Tilonia Lok Utsav has managed to create a rare space for the performing artists of Rajasthan to meet and interact with each other. This year was no exception. As the actors of Kuchamani Khyal played on stage, the Langa-Manganiar singers of Barmer watched them with keen interest. Enthused by their appreciation, the actors performed with added zeal and precision, unravelling gems from their repertoire, filling the surroundings with musical lustre. When artists know they are being understood, they delve to surprise further, rendering intricacies that are dazzling yet playful, because both nurtured skill and improvisation are then displayed at their best. This is also the beauty of the performance, the versatility of the artist being the sole glamour element that pulls the audience to the venue.
Kuchamani Khyal is a musical rendering of a narrative, wherein the singing is expressive of emotion. The base is a poetic text set to ragas and fixed formulations which are mastered over years of practice. The nagara is crucial to the performance as it sets the pace and mood of the scenes, and actors dance to its rhythm in between the singing. Dialogues are improvised and functional. However, actors suffuse them with everyday colloquial references so the audience connects to the narrative. Robust rustic comedy provides a base, then gradually moves into the realm of pure music as the night deepens; the noise around subsides and the story encounters the dark, dense realms of human experience, trial, tribulation and pain inflicted by destiny manifested as intrigue, disaster or vow fulfilment. Gradually as dawn approaches, the power of resilience and principles triumphs in all its glory and the greatness of the human spirit prevails. The story is the message: the khel (play) is the khyal (thought or philosophy). Lofty ideals and ideas are placed in everyday situations; earthy humour is juxtaposed with soulful singing.
That evening in Tilonia, the legend of Amar Singh Rathore was brought to life by the Khyal performers. It is amazing how this narrative which is centuries old has been kept alive by the performers and puppeteers of Rajasthan. It is true the story is basically about the Prince of Nagour, but it is also a tale that defines brotherhood as a bond between human beings based on trust, friendship and compassion, transcending the narrow confines of religion and kinship. At another level it is also about a prince who is granted leave to consummate his marriage and whose innocent desire to extend his vacation to be with his newlywed wife makes him a victim of court intrigue. Such a beginning strikes an immediate connection with the audience because the prevalent bureaucratic maze is also replete with such situations. The wife’s request that he value her youth over his duty and salary has been popularised by many film songs. However “Amar Singh Rathore” gave vent to such feelings much before Bollywood was born.
The episodes around the newlywed couple are full of humour, and comedian Mithulal’s support to these sequences as Amar Singh’s assistant kept up the fun. The leave-from-work situation is treated as a modern-day bureaucratic tangle of norms, jealousy and deceit, doing away with the niceties of court decorum. This is how the performers bring the story in the timeframe of the audience; they set history in the present by drawing on familiar references. The contemporariness then does not lie only in the thematic content of the narrative, but in the actor’s handling of the situations that build the narrative. The switch from bawdy humour to fine-tuned melody was often sudden and this kept the audience actively engaged with the performance.
The next day featured “Satya Harishchandra” by the same group at village Paner, about 30 kilometres from Tilonia. The stage was set on a cement platform in a corridor-like space squeezed between two buildings. Cement ramps from the platform connected with the audience area. The actors played this narrative also with humour and everyday references, Mithulal trivialising the Gods and rituals with an irreverence that thoroughly amused the audience. In today’s context, the honesty of Harishchandra translated into the character of an incorruptible man who stands out for his dutifulness. Both Taramati and Harishchandra refuse to budge from the position they have received as orders from their present employer. This is also their predicament and sorrow. Harishchandra advises Taramati to beg from the residents of Kashi to collect money to pay the required cess for the son’s last rites, without which cremation cannot be permitted. The actor playing Taramati then held a thali in hand and walked into the audience, singing and begging. This singular movement transformed the plane of performance and startled the audience with the proximity of such misfortune. That the queen was no longer a queen became clear with all the implications that such a reversal would have in everyday life. The art of begging amidst the audience made Taramati less privileged than a commoner. The performer by moving into the audience pulled them into the illusion of the performance. They responded as residents of Kashi and money poured into the thali. They did not mime the act of charity, but willingly gave away currency they would have used elsewhere in their everyday life. They thus entered Taramati’s ordeal and with subdued quietness tried to relieve the distress of the character. This meeting of the unreal and real dissolves boundaries as performance melts into behaviour; spectators too become performers.
At the other end when the actor playing Harishchandra stood blindfolded with sword in hand as the obedient servant, ready to slay Taramati as per orders, he reminds us of the symbol of justice blindfolded, that must not see; for to see is to recognise. And recognition of the other as part of himself would make his sword tremble. Integrity to the master demands that he be the executioner. To grant mercy is the privilege of the king, the title Harishchandra has forsaken, and he must bear the consequences of his act. A prisoner of his vow, he has lost even the citizen’s right to claim mercy.
Amar Singh Rathore was not confined by the rules and Harishchandra stood by the rule to negate himself, his family and all happiness. However, there is an underlying belief in resurrection. Amar Singh’s body is salvaged by his nephew and a Muslim friend, Harishchandra by the Gods themselves. Despite this contrast, they both stand tall and are ideals because of their innate strength and commitment to principles.
While both these narratives deal with men as heroes, the women characters are no less significant and play crucial roles in plot development. This gives an interesting start to the performance because this is a genre where women performers are conspicuous by their absence. There is a long and serious tradition of female impersonation by the male actor who is very much at ease with this role and plays without exaggeration. The actors spend hours donning the costume of the woman and by the time they are ready, have altered their walk and gesture. Mangeylal who played the chief queen on both days is a seasoned actor who carries the woman almost as a part of himself and is neither coy nor bashful, addressing the male counterpart as an equal. He reminds us of Ugamraj who made his mark by playing the queen and made a statement by receiving awards clad in attire that made him famous. Bansilal, the leader of this team, also played female roles before moving on to male roles. Umaid, who played the central role in both the productions has earlier excelled as Meerabai. His voice has matured and his singing too has acquired a range and depth that could take him far. He is ready for a long journey ahead provided the road is cleared for Khyal.
Many masters (khiladis) are no more. This is one of the few groups that continues to survive against many odds. Perhaps it is the only one that has been able to keep together so much talent and is aware of the aesthetics of the form. Bansilal himself is a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award recipient. That certifies his talent and contribution. However, he is finding it difficult to hold the group together because of financial difficulties. The actors love their moment of performance but face hardship and discrimination at many levels. A society fragmented by caste is yet to take cognisance of the talent of such performers who come from marginalised communities. Government schemes like pension and production grants have not reached them. In spite of the lack of support they keep the show going. But for how long? This is the question many artists asked during this festival.
Correlating freedom of expression with democratic values, two vocalists today said culture and democracy go parallel in the society to establish “pluralism of voices”.
Carnatic vocalist T M Krishna and Manganiyar community vocalist Anwar Khan Manganiyar, presented a musical morning emphasising importance of culture and democracy at Jawahar Kala
Kendra’s open air amphitheatre here.
In about three hours of concert both vocalists delved into specific themes of culture and democracy through their art.
Explaining Anwar’s message given in the form of music and folklore, Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) said “Anwar told audience that his art is rich, but his community is poor. As long as we sing, till then public talk, after that we are no where”.
“It is responsibility of every one to respect plural voices…There is an appeal by both vocalists for pluralism in the society…It is a warning that you (government) cannot have dictatorship of either popularity or majoritarian … ” Dey explained.
“Both artists are of the opinion that one voice can not dominate the society… We do not sing to muster clappings… these voices be linked with democracy,” Dey elaborated.
Meanwhile, Aruna Roy, social and political activist, said, culture has always been influencing and dominating our lives and people were forgetting music’s importance.
“There was a need for understanding culture and democracy as the market forces have captured citizens’ choices, and we are all victim of this market force,” Roy, who interacted with audience and
artists here, said.
She also underlined artists’ apathetic situation as they were given low remuneration. A website on artists would be made soon so that they could be approached directly by music lovers and others, she added.
Roy also expressed grief over the Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s suicide at Hyderabad Central university, saying it was shameful.
“It is strange where the country is going… Is it not a disintegration in the society. Now there is a need for unity and communal harmony in the society,” she added.
The Langas and Manganiars are Muslim communities who have lived for centuries in the Thar Desert region of western Rajasthan; in the districts of Barmer, Jaisalmer and the villages along the border of Pakistan. Both are communities of traditional musicians who make their living by singing for higher caste patrons.
The patrons for Langas are Muslim Sindhi Sipahis, whereas Manganiars mainly sing for Hindu patrons. Langas are further divided into sub castes based on their main accompanying instrument that they inherit from their lineage. The Surnaiya Langas play various wind instruments such as Surnai, Algoja or Satara, Been and Murli. The Sarangi Langas play the Sarangi. The main accompaniment for Manganiars is the Khamaicha. Both Langas and Manganiyars play the Dholak and Khadtal while performing. Their repertoire of music includes Sufi kalaams and folk songs, which have been passed on from one generation to the other. Amongst eulogies and songs specially composed for patrons there is a strong undercurrent of philosophical comment. Women have a separate and full repertoire.
The Manganiyars and Langas sing specific ragas for specific time of the day, time of the year (season) and for different occasions such as weddings, births, and other ceremonies. They also have a collection of devotional music, which include compositions of Kabirdas, Surdas, Tulsidas and Meerabai Bhajans. These musicians are also excellent in their Sufi renditions; Bulleh Shah, Amir Khusro and Latif are amongst the most popular.
There were inherent socio-political differences and barriers even amongst these two communities. Komal Kothari, eminent folklorist and ethnomusicologist who worked with them, brought the two communities closer and made them perform together by breaking the barriers.
(March 4, 1929 – April 20, 2004)
Komal Kothari, the acknowledged doyen of Rajasthani culture, who set up the Rupayan Sansthan with the eminent writer Vijay dan Detha more than 25 years ago, the recipient of innumerable awards including the Padma Bhushan this year, passed away in Jodhpur on 20th of April, 2004.
“Komal da” was a phenomenon. He was an institution in himself. Komal Kothari ethnologist, folk historian, musicologist, cultural anthropologist, researcher of socio-political processes, a development analyst, a patient instructor in music and knowledge, eluded classification. He was a rare combination of tremendous gifts and complete humility. His natural rhythm of work touched thousands of lives.
As a friend, teacher, mentor, guru, a dogged pursuer after truth, he blended traditional and informal methods of sharing knowledge with a distinctly modern sense of equality. His mind was always seeking answers, discovering patterns, delving into the causal patterns behind the façade of ordinary things. Many of us have been enriched in the texture of our understanding in our association with him. He will live on in many minds that will now think differently, with greater sensitivity.
When I first met this apparently simple man more than twenty years ago, dressed in a white pajama and kurta, chewing pan, hair unkempt, with piercing but compassionate eyes, there began a learning relationship of an extraordinary kind. Komal da’s answers to a simple question, was the evolution of an intricate pattern, where knowledge of culture, agriculture, tradition and social conditions combined unfailingly to provide surprising insights. I remember a cold winter morning in Tilonia, where a Lok Utsav was being held in 1984. He was sitting over a cup of tea and someone started talking about the “impurity” of the left hand in Indian tradition. Komalda casually- he wore his knowledge lightly- expounded the most interesting theory of the use of the hands in pottery, cooking, crafts and finally we came to music. He talked of musical instruments, drawing our attention to the fact that the left hand does the more intricate work, brings quality to the music. The right only strums. Maybe the taboos associated with the left have to be argued differently. What he said that day has profoundly changed my perception in many ways of the ‘politics’ of the hands. We went on an intricate journey of connectedness, learning with the stream of consciousness that flowed from a perceptive mind, the interconnectedness of all cultural expression.
For him culture was not merely defined within the narrow confines of the performing arts. In the last two years he was planning and creating an alternative museum, where the heritage of people would be re-created with the brooms and pots, pans and tools that have helped create history.
I have always gone to see Komal da with a sense of expectancy, like a great musician or a person of wisdom. Even when I met him at the ICU, a month ago he was full of ideas. He was insistent that the museum will have no feudal overtones, in architecture or in the items on display. The museum would not be for the exotic, for the tourist. Even in the choice of stones we make a political statement. There would be no communal overtones, in this museum. It could not be otherwise for a man who had lived his life establishing the common musical heritage of Hindus and Muslims. Breaking barriers of untouchability in bringing together the valmiki drummer and the kanjars in the chakri dance, eating with them all. Treating them as great artists, he also made a protest against the arbitrary comparison between the classical and other folk forms, placing ‘folk’ at the bottom of a hierarchy.
He was a practical person and a great researcher. He went to fundamentals of an issue. If it was the kamaicha, the wood, the strings, the instrument maker, the national boundary which has left the musicians on one side and the instrument maker on the other, were all matters to be addressed. For him therefore, the purely aesthetic had no place in his museum and in his world. It could never be a place of awe, making people feel unwelcome.
His last dream has not been physically created, where brooms and items of household utility, will prove a bigger point about feudalism and the skewed writing of history, than many political statements. It will establish more firmly his life long struggle and his success, in making folk traditions establish their right to cultural equality. Just as he made it possible for the Langas and Manginihars to perform with Yehudi Mehuin, Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain, the museum will establish the right of the modest broom, to a place next to the exotic bronze sculpture!
Komalda we thank you, for the knowledge you shared with us, for the privilege of receiving your love and time, we promise you that we will contribute our little bit to realize your dream.
(Written in 2004)