Dr Sarwar Khan, a renowned musician from Rajasthan’s Merasi singers’ community was in Mumbai early last week, along with 15 of his students. Shruti Shenoy caught up with the performers for a lengthy chat about their tradition, lineage and the art form.
Tell me something about your community. What’s your story?
We belong to Lord Krishna’s bloodline. We were there when he jumped into the water to punish the Sheshnaag. We travelled with Him across cities and landed in Jaisalmer. And we have been here since. We have a poem that talks about all the cities they went to. We even went to Afghanisthan and Baluchistan. Many, many years ago, we used to be Brahmins. Then once, one of my ancestors happened to play a nagada at a temple. That’s when he became an outcaste for the Brahmins, because the nagada was made of leather. The Mughals invaded Jaisalmer thrice. They converted certain communities, we were one of them. That’s how we have Muslim surnames and sing songs in temples. The Muslims don’t consider us as Muslims because we sing praises of Krishna and the Hindus don’t accept us because of our surname. We have our own mosque and our own graveyard.
What is your music about?
This music is our culture. My father passed it down to me, his father passed it to him, and so on. These are songs we sing in festivals – Gangour, Diwali, Teej, songs of celebration, marriages, birth of a boy, welcoming guests, basically on any occasion of happiness. We are traditionally the singers of the kings. During any kind of celebration, they used to call us to sing for them. We are the 38th generation of singers.
You run an NGO by the name of Lok Kala Sagar Sansthan in Jaisalmer. Does this NGO work to preserve the local music? Or does it work for education?
Our NGO works with 60 to 70 children, of whom 15 have accompanied me here. They are all from nearby villages. We pass on whatever we know of our traditional music to these children. They study as well. Education is very important. I realized the importance of education when I went abroad. Every walk of life uses math and sciences. There is math even in music! If these children don’t study, they won’t be successful. So we do our best to keep the music alive, and at the same time to provide very basic education to the children.
I see a little girl here. Is she your first female student?
Oh no, no. Every woman in our community sings. They don’t perform in front of an audience. But music is in their blood. They sing at family functions. But that is slowly changing. This girl is the first to sing in front of an audience.
So of what I gather, your community is oppressed by caste and poverty. In times of such difficulty, how do you manage to keep the music alive?
The upper castes think that performing is our job. For them, this isn’t an art form; it’s slavery. They feel that it is our duty to entertain them. And so, no one interferes with our music. We are allowed to keep making music the way we do, because if they stop us, it is their loss. They don’t want us to get educated, though. They will do whatever they can to stop us from getting an education. Because we won’t be their slaves once we get educated. My daughter is the first girl out of our community of 42000 to have gotten an education.
Does she sing as well?
No. She only studies. She set an example for other girls who wanted to study. Now about 10% of the girls in our community are getting themselves an education.
Now that the children study and learn music, does it get difficult? Also, are you worried about popular culture affecting your music?
One of the child performers: No, no. Singing is in our blood. We love it. We go to school during the day, and sing at night or during holidays. It’s not difficult at all.
Sarwar Khan: Our music comes under the classical folk category. It’s pure classical folk, not any kind of a tribal folk. Even today, there are about 30-40 songs that are sung only for the royals. If we perform these for anyone who isn’t a royal, they can even shoot us. And they are people with guns, how can we disobey them? They will break our bones if we argue.
Does popular culture in any way influence your music?
It’s the other way round. They take inspiration from us. You might have heard songs like ‘nimbuda’ and ‘kesariya balam’. They have been borrowed from us. They have replaced Marwadi lyrics with Hindi lyrics, but the songs originally belong to us.
Now, like in every other state, here also, the dialect changes every 20 kms. Jaisalmer is also influenced by the Sindhi language as we are on the border. So you can see the influence in our lyrics.
You have performed extensively in India and across the world. What do you prefer? Performing in India or performing abroad?
I have performed a lot in India and have had many memorable performances here, but I prefer performing abroad. You know the kind of respect artists get in India. Artists die of hunger here. I am heading to France next month. They respect us there. We look at the way dogs are treated there. There are taken to the parlor, they are taken for vacations; they lead better lives than we do in our own village. In our village, we are not allowed to draw water from a public well. Dogs, bullocks, camels and donkeys are allowed to directly drink water.
One of the child performers: We like any performance that is not happening in Rajasthan. We don’t like performing in Rajasthan. Outside Rajasthan, they respect us. They applaud, click photographs with us; they make us feel like celebrities. In Rajasthan, we are treated like beggars. They call us mangniyars (beggars). They think we sing to beg.
Have you ever thought of getting out of Jaisalmer and doing something else?
One of the child performers:: No. I love my city. I just hate the discrimination. But I have faith in God. Some day, he will get us out of this. Some day we will get respect. And I can see that happening soon. Like, just the other day a headline in the newspaper called us Merasi and not manganiyar. That is a really big step. It might seem like a small thing to you. But to us, it means a lot.
If only they made us feel like the way they make us in Mumbai. Here, we feel like actors. Like, just the other day I was telling someone that I wanted to meet a certain actor. They told me that in reality, I was an actor, because I entertained them. This is the kind of treatment we deserve. Not the sort of treatment we get.
I did go to school. But I stopped after completing my 10th. As I told you, there is way too much influence of the caste system. Even when I used to go to school, I was always treated badly. Whenever I wanted to answer a question asked by the teacher, I wasn’t allowed to. The teacher always said that education is not meant for me. I am born into the manganiyars, I should go sing songs and beg. Even now that I have completed my 10th, I haven’t been given my result. The teachers don’t see it necessary for me to have my result, because for them I am a singer. My marks don’t matter.
And this is not restricted to school. This happens everywhere. At the chai wala, we are served in different cups, at the kachori wala, we are not allowed to pick kachoris from the first lot that he fries; it’s everywhere.
(Shurti Shenoy is a copy editor with iamin.in)