When folk music maestro, Saakar Khan Manganiar, the most renowned Khamaicha player, alive today, puts his nails under the strings of his musical instrument, the music comes like the cold showers in the dry deserts of Rajasthan. It melts in the ears, touches the soul and challenges our proclaimed wisdoms, where we have left almost no room for folk or traditional music as compared to Indian classical music.
It was a hot summer day. ‘The city of gold’ was the phrase originally used for Lanka (which might have been imagined by Tulsidas after observing the craze for gold among South Indians) in the Ramayana. But this was really a city of gold. City of Sonar Kella. We stepped out of the bus at Jaisalmer Bus Stand, with the sun shining right on our faces. Our backpacks were overloaded with cameras, audio and A/V devices, recorders… and there was gold everywhere. Th e sand was like gold dust on our bodies. Every brick, every stone piece, each house, office, rest houses… all made of the famous Jaisalmer stone, shining like gold. We were in Jailsalmer to welcome Saakar Khan Saheb. He was coming back after receiving the Padma Shri from the President of India.
I have seen scores of Langa-Manganiar artists playing the great music of the desert in various gatherings. Th e musicians from the Langa-Manganiar community and the Kalbeliya lady dancers are the first images that many of us think of when we talk about the tourism and culture of Rajasthan. As soon as we checked into a Dharmashala at Hanuman Chowk, we received word that Saakar Khan had come and now the welcoming procession would go around the city. We rushed to the first Torana outside the city, where he was to be received but we were some five minutes late and he was now inside the city, making his way around the Havelis of Patwas and the narrow lanes of the old market.
The first glimpse was of an open-roofed red jeep, decorated for the occasion. Saakar Khan, his elder son Ghewar Khan and his grandsons were greeted by people from their own community; from the business-class and the upper castes as well. Garlands covered his chest and neck; dry pink and red colours of celebration on his cheeks. He was tired but excited and through the dull lenses of his glasses, he was trying hard to capture every face, every moment of his welcome.
A Dull Welcome
But contrary to what I had imagined, the number of people participating in the procession was few- hardly 50 including ourselves and some other social, cultural representatives. His Jajmaans were apparently appreciating him for his achievement but there was more jealousy than pride in their body language. It was for the first time that a member of the Jaisalmer-Barmer based Langa-Manganiar communities had got a Padma award. Yet the procession comprised mostly his family members. He was welcomed at some shops and houses of the city. We reached a campus where a welcome ceremony had been organised. The sun was burning. Everyone was sweating and thirsty, eyes red thanks to the dusty winds. Then out came the first celebrity; the great Mohan Veena maestro, Pandit Vishva Mohan Bhatt. He greeted Saakar Khan. There were some 10 chairs, set out, most of them occupied by policemen and constables. But strangely, the district administration including the collector, development officer, tourism department had passed up the event. I was surprised by their ignorance and passivity.
A state level minister was just passing by. He stopped to join the function. He came with his gang of Mr. whites. His speech had less to do with the music of Saakar Khan and more to do with the purported commitments and contributions of his government towards the promotion of performing arts in the state. I felt restless and asked him why did he not speak to the Chief Minister to implement a cultural policy for the state as it was a shame that a state with one of the biggest tourism industries of India, did not have one. He found my question a thorn in his side and made a joke. His hangers-on bombarded me with counter questions about my name, my profession and other misc things. As always, the minister became busy. My question made him more restless and he disappeared in a few minutes.
Now, it was time to leave the city for Saakar Khan’s village. Hameera village is some 30 kilometres from the district headquarters. All yellow; shining and bright. Sand and leafless shrubs in patches. Children following cabs and the curiosity in their eyes for every newcomer. A colourful fabric tent with a small stage in the midst of the village. But the same crowd of artists and friends. Not more than 150, including the people from his own village at the venue. 75-year-old Saakar Khan, tired and dehydrated, approaches home for some food and rest. But he is restless while lying in his room; the people waiting outside make him peep out and join the tea-beedi sessions, discussions and gossip.
As sunset approached and the shadows on the sand dunes lengthened, the function started. Everyone was excited; some for the great achievement of Saakar Khan and others for the booze. Again, the Mohan Veena maestro was present with his family but no one from the district or state administration except one employee from the local tourism office. The programme started as the moon appeared in the sky. Speeches were made; garlands, pagdis and shawl were gifted.
Then it was time for one of the best musical experiences of my life. Saakar Khan and his entire family came together with their instruments on stage. They started playing and there was pindrop silence. Saakar Khan’s splendid performance was followed by performances by Bhatt sahib and other great musicians from Saakar Khan’s community. And all followed by lovely food. Very traditional and tasty.
That night I could not sleep. Thousands of questions hovered in my mind. Why was Saakar Khan’s achievement ignored by the city, the administration, the intellectuals, media, other artistes and his community itself? Was it the caste and class factor? Was it our changing taste in music and performing arts? Was it because he belongs to a community which survives on the peanuts paid for their music by their patrons? Was it because feudalism and fundamentalism still decide our social behaviour and approaches? Indeed, he is a great musician. I see him as being very much like Bismillah Khan sahib and other musicians, who did not lose their folk roots even while performing classical music. Saakar Khan has travelled to dozens of countries and played in the most famous halls, concerts and festivals. Yet there was no warmth in the air. So what went wrong with the welcome of Saakar Khan? Yet there are 35 thousand households of the Manganiar community in these two districts, Jaisalmer and Barmer. Th at means a population of more than one lakh. To add to that, are thousands of Langas who are now very close to the Manganiar community, especially in terms of music and performances.
There is a young artist, Saroop Khan Manganiar, a singer in his 20s. He is from the same community. A few months back, he participated in a talent hunt programme and became a sort of celebrity within few weeks. He was also present for this celebration. He drew a lot of attention mostly from the youth. He is a completely different Manganiar artist now. Long boots, Jodhpuri designer trousers, branded shirts, Bombay jackets and a complete studio appearance. He drew more cheers than the real maestro, Saakar Khan.
Music, money and masculinity
Next morning, after tea, the music started. Some old faces who have avoided singing for years, started reciting and singing some rare songs and compositions from their musical tradition. It was followed by a discussion on efforts to promote, restore and archive their music. People of this community have music in their blood but not everyone is a musician. They have other professions according to their talents and skills. Some nonmusicians, who are teachers, government employees were also present at the meeting. As a result, discussions on music were overshadowed by concerns over their education, alternative means of employment, welfare schemes and funds for them. I came to know that many had registered NGOs for music. Some are working for the cause, others are waiting for some funds, grants and support from different sources. The focus is less on saving the music is less and more on how to make more and more money out of it.
The final observation is shocking. Most of them want to move towards other professions. Even their choice of music for performances have started changing – more film songs and item numbers than traditional songs written by great poets, sufis like Bulle Shah and Kabeer and their original compositions as well. They are becoming more and more political, self centred and money minded.
It is ironic that the world is unaware of Saakar’s felicitation and those, who could seek inspiration from him, are focusing on business, market of music, new trends and professions. They have more respect for Saroop Khan.
The wind is blowing sand into our eyes. While we are talking under the shade, women from the village are collecting water from the village water body. Goats are walking beside them. I recall there was not a single female present at Saakar Khan’s welcome ceremony. Children are playing in front of the kitchen where a feast is being prepared. Entry to Saakar Khan’s room is restricted; there is a red ribbon at the door. A banner of some NGO is hanging on the outer wall which promises to work for the music and tradition of the area and community.
Two images made me write this story. One, what would be left after Saakar Khan’s generation passes away. Who will preserve his music? When you know the instant route to fame, why spend a life, honing your craft ?
The second image is of Saakar Khan himself. Nothing has changed in his life. There is no ‘before and after award’ transformation. The same silent face, same peaceful eyes, same gentleness and simplicity. Same love and devotion for his music.