I am due to visit a concert in a weeks time featuring Manganiyar artists and thought it was good homework and fitting tribute to have a blog post about them. The Manganiyar and related Langa are Muslim communities found in the desert of Rajasthan, India in the districts of Barmer and Jaisalmer, along the border with Pakistan. These are the groups of hereditary professional musicians, whose music has been supported by wealthy landlords and aristocrats for generations.
Their songs are passed from generation to generation, which make them effectively the keepers of the history of the desert. They sing songs about Alexander the Great, about the local Maharajas and past battles in the region. Manganiyars have survived for centuries on the patronage of wealthy merchants in caravan towns, particularly Jaisalmer where there is an important settled community today. The traditional jajman (patrons) of the Manganiar are the locally dominant Rajput community, while the Langha have a similar relationship with the Sindhi-Sipahi, a community of Muslim Rajputs. At times of birth, marriage or any family festivity for their Rajput patrons, the Manganiyar musicians are in attendance to evoke the right mood with songs of the desert and many especially composed songs to praise the patron and his family.
There is a fair bit of drama and theatre to the vocalists performance. The artist fishing for appreciation and gauging how his masterful renditions are received by his audience. In folk music there are no pretensions. While strongly rooted in classical foundations, this style of music is of the people, by the people and for the people. So even if the finer nuances of the singers calisthenics are lost to a less classically trained audience, the emotions it evokes is used by the protagonist as a barometer of how succesful he has been in his pursuits. Eye contact, body language, hand gestures, all come together to engulf the audience and take them along for a ride amongst the life of the desert folk.
The instruments used by the Manganiyar singers are unique and spend their time on stage in purposeful existance.
There are the Ravan Hattha, Kamayacha and Sarangi. These performances are much like a breathtaking relay, where vocalists with different tonal qualities pick up the delicate thread of the song from each other in a sort of goodspirited creative duel that propels the performance ever upwards. Among them the Sarangi, Ravan Hattha and Kamayacha act as the magic glue that binds the vocalists together in an embrace lest they step out of line. The possibility of that happening though are non-existant as the vocalists demonstrate a complete command over their faculties. Also the wail of these instruments gives the much appreciated soul to these performances.
Then there is the khadtal, dholak and other percussion instruments. Specially the clickety-clack of the khadtal, immediately resets the listeners bio-rhythms and not in gentle persuasions, but with a sudden snap you are tapping, nodding and bobbing to the rhythm of the song. Rising above the rounded rhythms of the dholak, the crisp taps of the khadtal jumps from one beat, tempo and rhythm to another daring the audience to follow it – like jumping on stones to cross the river.
And last but not the least, the morchang and bhapang. These add the whimsical distinctiveness to these performances. While Manganiyar singing is grounded heavily in classical music of some erudition, the morchang and bhapang add the earthy feel to the performances. This probably is the bridge on which the Manganiyar’s move from classical to folk.
The soulful, full throated voices of the Manganiar’s have filled the cool air of the desert night for centuries in a tradition that reflects all aspects of Rajasthani life. Songs for every occasion, mood and moment; stories of legendary battles, heroes and lovers engender a spirit of identity, expressed through music that provides relief from the inhospitable land of heat and dust storms.
While trawling the net in search of Manganiyar performances, I stumbled upon Morchang Studios (based out of Jaipur Rajasthan) and Rajasthan Roots. These are performers following in the same tradition put together with interesting fusion of western instruments like the guitar, saxophone and surprise surprise – a beatbox performance.
Munshi Khan – Savariyo ghat mahi … keep an ear out for when the saxophone jumps in…
Munshi Khan on vocals and Jason Singh on the beatbox.
Jalal Khan on vocals drawing upon sufi inspirations like others before him.
Munshi Khan vocal warmups before a recording session.
And last but not the least, I also stumbled upon Roysten Abel’s theatrical production called - The Manganiyar Seduction. It has been around for a few years now and looking too good to be missed. The concept creates a dazzling union between the Manganiyar’s music and the visual seduction of Amsterdam ’s red light district. The sets are a combination of the Hawa Mahal and the Red light district of Amsterdam. It can also be compared to a magic box. 43 musicians are seated in 36 red-curtained cubicles arranged in four horizontal rows one on top of the other; and the concert begins when a single cubicle lights up and the first singer begins his song. Soon another cubicle lights up and then another thus creating a dramatic and astounding build-up of musical instruments and voice as young men, women, children and the elderly of the Manganiyar community take you into a world which is even beyond yours or their own. The Normal practise is to take and use music for theatre but here Roysten reverses the process and uses theatre to create magic in music.
If it happens to wander into my backyard, or I happen to wander into their touring backyard, I wouldn’t miss it for anything. We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning.