Lakha Khan, who was awarded the Padma Shri this year, is one of the last masters of the Sindhi sarangi
Lakha Khan had just wrapped up his riyaaz on the Sindhi sarangi — one of the few musicians who play the instrument — when I called. The 76-year-old from Rajasthan was awarded the Padma Shri this year. For those familiar with his music, the recognition was long overdue, but Khan shrugs off all such comments gently. “Music is the reason I am here today, it is the reason I have got the recognition,” he says, “As long as we have our music, our tradition, we will be fine.” And then, as if on cue, he answers my query on his favourite bhajan by singing in his earthy voice, ‘Bhajan bin baawre…’
Songs for all occasions
Undoubtedly, music is the language Khan is most comfortable in, although he sings in multiple languages — Marwari, Sindhi, Punjabi, Hindi and Multani. His voice accompanies the tunes on his Sindhi sarangi, and together they sing about nature, about the depth of human emotions; they sing in praise of Hindu deities, about festivals, about their patron families, and about life in the Thar. The Manganiyar community, to which Khan belongs to, are the oral historians of the desert. Their songs have been passed down through generations and often document life as they see it at that time.
“The Manganiyars are a community of hereditary musicians,” says Kuldeep Kothari, secretary of Rupayan Sansthan (Rajasthan Institute of Folklore and Museum), “Their repertoire of songs is varied, but mostly about the life cycle — birth, wedding, death — about fairs and festivals, about katha and gatha (tales and epics).” Through generations, the community’s patrons have largely been local Rajput families and wealthy landlords and the Manganiyars often perform for them on all important occasions and also for their guests. Although Muslims, invoking Krishna at the beginning of a performance is a common practice.
There are around 8,000-10,000 Manganiyar families in Rajasthan, most of them in the western regions of Barmer and Jaisalmer. Like them, the Langas too are a hereditary musician community, but their population is not as scattered as the Manganiyars. “Traditionally, the Manganiyars play the Kamaicha, a 17-stringed, bowed instrument. The musicians take great care in the making of the instrument and sit with the carpenter when it being made,” says Kuldeep, whose late father and Padma Bhushan awardee, Komal Kothari, had set up Rupayan Sansthan. “It is a difficult instrument to play and the number of Manganiyars playing it is shrinking. Many are taking to the harmonium instead, although the octave on both instruments are different.” Lakha, who he calls a “genius with an amazing memory” is one of the few who has mastered the Sindhi sarangi.
The moving away from a traditional instrument, however, is indicative of the transitionary phase that the Manganiyars find themselves in. Lakha Khan lamented that the “business of music” is often a deterrent to folk music. Folk musicians have to often abide by organisers and play popular Hindi movie songs when they are invited to hotels and other places to perform. Children of the Manganiyar families, who learn music as naturally as we learn the language spoken at home, are also aspiring for a better life, with education and jobs.
Traditionally, patron families have looked after the musicians, gifting them with portions of the harvested crops, or, during weddings and festivities, with clothes and money. It would take care of their basic needs. “But now both patronage is weakening, as well as they (the Manganiyar children) want more,” says Kuldeep. A few years ago, Lakha Khan’s son, Dane Khan, started a tour business, but when he found it difficult to juggle work and music, he gave up the latter. The last two years have been particularly devastating for the community, with hotels shut down and music festivals cancelled.
Rupayan Sansthan is supporting an initiative to record and digitise Rajasthani folk music, to preserve the cultural tradition of the desert region. The initiative, by the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology at the American Institute of Indian Studies, has involved 600 musicians in western Rajasthan, including the Manganiyars. Meanwhile, Dane Khan, inspired by his father, has returned to music — to the dholak, to be specific — while his younger brother has taken to playing the Sindhi sarangi.
The Jodhpur-based writer is a freelance journalist.