Musical malady: Folk singers and their tales! | The Financial Express

Musical malady: Folk singers and their tales!

Long before regional, national, and international events took off, their local patrons, referred to as jajmans, were the sole source of sustenance for the Langa-Manganiyars.

rajasthan, folk music
Padma Shri Anwar Khan Baiya performing in Living Legends session

When one thinks of Rajasthan, one cannot forget the mellifluous music appropriated to a great extent by the Hindi music industry. Coke Studio and composer Amit Trivedi gave us a song like Chaudhary and made its singer Mame Khan, a folk singer from a little-known village named Satto near Jaisalmer, a household name. This year, he became India’s first folk singer to walk the Cannes red carpet. Artistes like Gazi Khan, Lakha Khan, Anwar Khan and Asin Khan Langa, among countless artistes from Rajasthan’s Thar region, have worked their way to showcase their art while preserving their heritage.

But going is not always easy. “I achieved everything, but also lost it all,” says Sawan Khan Manganiyar, when asked about life post his stint at Coke Studio and working with AR Rahman for a song in the 2014 film Highway. He was answering during a session at the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF), Jodhpur, held in October last year. Khan, like any other Manganiyar, started learning the craft within the community, before travelling to Pakistan to learn from his Ustad (teacher) Khair Mohammad. “Once done with my performance at the Coke Studio, no one asked about me,” says Khan, adding: “They pay well but remembering someone who performed once is important too.” When asked about life post singing in Imtiaz Ali’s Highway, he replies, “Nothing happened after that, I didn’t get any work.”

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The situation aggravated further during the Covid pandemic when events worldwide came to a screeching halt. “I did not get to perform for three years,” he says. “But everything costs money,” he says, adding that despite the difficulties, his children are continuing the legacy.

Asin Khan Langa (35), a singer and Sindhi sarangi player, believes that a lack of education is the reason why the Langas and Manganiyars could not get the fame and financial security they deserved despite being gifted artistes. Khan is one of the two recipients of this year’s Aga Khan Music Award from India, the other one being tabla maestro Zakir Hussain.

A lack of education is the reason why “Sawan Khan ji, despite performing at Coke Studio, could not profit from it. He performed but never asked them what would happen to him in the future and how they would support him,” he says.

Khan, who has studied till the seventh standard, says it is common in the community. “As music becomes important, education gets neglected and as a result, “we get good at music, but not so much in talking and other things”, he adds.

Bismillah Khan, a young musician from the Manganiyar community, concurs. “Most of us are uneducated,” he says and attributes it as a prominent reason behind the economic woes. “We never get in direct contact with platforms or event organisers that hinder our economic growth,” he says.

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Accepting that sustenance on folk music can be difficult, he interjects saying, “There is no other job either.”

Apart from education, it also matters how big a person is as an artiste, says Asin Khan Langa. “Some artistes who are not only good at their craft but are also Padma Shri awardees, such as Lakha and Anwar Khan, will get whatever amount of money they ask. But that will not happen for a lesser-known artiste,” he adds.

Long before regional, national, and international events took off, their local patrons, referred to as jajmans, were the sole source of sustenance for the Langa-Manganiyars. While Langas have Muslim patrons called Sindhi sipahi, Manganiyars’ jajmans are Hindu Rajputs. For generations, they sing for their patrons at every important occasion, weddings, childbirth, deaths, et al. In exchange, they get paid in cash and kind. “They sustain us and keep our craft alive,” the musicians say.

However, that is not always enough. “My grandfather and great-grandfather used to get just Rs 1 or so,” he says. “I still wonder how they sustained themselves, their families while keeping their craft alive,” he says, adding that things have improved over time and now they get something around Rs 10,000 or so.

However, with no secured source of income yet, the journey remains an arduous one. “In the end, I believe I do not care about money more than my craft,” says Sawan Khan.

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First published on: 15-01-2023 at 00:40 IST