Art & Culture · Heritage · Life · Photography

Pure music from India’s desert


The music of the Thar desert is from the heart , the voices are deep and shake you up from the inside. This is the music of the Manganiyars – a desert faring caste of court musicians that faced dwindling patronage after India won her independence and power shifted from the royalty of Rajputana to the people of India.

‘The Manganiyar Seduction’ is a traveling music production – an ensemble of exponents chosen by the instruments they have mastered and selected such that the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. It was a tough task for the production’s director – Roysten Abel – to seek out individual performers and harmonize their performances to Rebuild a tradition that was increasingly getting lost. In march this year, I was witness to the inaugural ceremony of ”Navras” [Lit: nine flavors] – a Performing Arts festival at Jaipur, India, where the troupe performed.

The stage set is an iron rack of approximately 34 cubes and cuboids, stacked atop each other, semi folded like a three piece chest. Red velvet curtains give each cube the appearance of a jewellery box – so mysterious.

When the performance began, the entire triptych was covered with curtains. Then, a single box opened up, revealing a man playing a Sindhi sarangi – arguably the most difficult Indian instrument to master.

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Then, a box above him opened up. The electric bulbs lining other boxes was mellow – and the sky behind a deep indigo – much like the mood of the evening.

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Then somewhat counter-intuitively, when yet another box opened up with a vocalist, the first one did not stay open, instead, it closed!  And then another four opened up to the left of the vocalists revealing players with dholak (a two headed hand drum played commonly across south asia). Unlike the hand-drums in a circle in the western hemisphere, the dholak can be played from either end – the smaller goat skin head emanating higher pitched sounds than the larger, buffalo skinned one.

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Minutes later, an inverted L shape opened up, the vocalists sang for a bit and then went quiet. The man on top right of this photo, played a morchang – loosely translated to a ‘Jaw Harp’ – an instrument that originated in India over 1500 years ago. It defies belief, even when seen in person, how a contraption no bigger than a cigar and so deceptively simple, just three pieces of iron , gives rise to such sounds.

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It was interesting to observe how the players interacted with each other – when the lights were dimmed for them – some of them waited patiently, others stared at the ones literally under the limelight.

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A folk music performance in India, does not have a need nor a place for a ‘conductor’ as there’s no formal system of notation, nor are the players necessarily arranged in a particular seating order. ‘Jugalbandi‘ or jamming is achieved by one performer looking at another – but with many curtains in-between, it’s hard!

So this production becomes an exception – due to the complexity of stage design, the length of the track and the overlays of many more instruments than is the norm, an anchor performer has been given the pride of place. He plays the khartal in each hand – just two pieces of wood that clap against each other. He dances, looks at the audience and then back at his troupe – to the members that are playing.  This element of theatricality lifts and enlivening performance to an exceptional one.

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Moments later, an algoza picked up – a double headed flute – unique and endemic to the deserts of Punjab, Sind and Balochistan. Most of these places no longer fall within India’s political boundaries, but the instruments and the musicians that have remained, carry on a legacy of an India of old. There’s no space for digital noise here. This selection of Analog instruments goes so far back that even the Harmonium, the mainstay of present day Indian popular music or its equivalent – a synthesizer keyboard finds no place here.

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The center was quite ‘open’ by then and as the rhythm flowed an enraptured audience listened and watched.

…and I was getting restless to get a clean shot of the entire stage, minus the audience’s heads that bobbed slowly up and down. It was a tough task, for the second head on the right is of the chief minister of Rajasthan and the left extreme is the princess from Jaipur’s erstwhile royal family. Ergo, to avoid an awkward situation involving self and the state police, I was on my knees and getting shots like these.

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As the performance climaxed, the top right section showed (from top left, clockwise), a man playing ‘bhapang‘ (single string plucked by hand), a trio with khartals, a drummer (dhol player) enjoying his pause, two players with been (snake charmer’s woodwind), and two darkened boxes of vocalists.

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I desperately wanted a better perspective but when i looked behind for a vantage point, in the amphitheater, where the steps rose, it was packed.

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I figured then that a bit of risk would be worth it. So, after a rousing crescendo, as the lights dimmed and the performance came to an enthralling closure, the rapturous crowd was on its feet, clapping. Security cordon surrounding the high-risk guests was lax momentarily and I dashed along with rest of the press to the edge of the stage – I suppose they presumed I was a press photog.

It was that photograph, which got selected as a competitive entry by the National Geographic Your Shot community editors. It was one of 30 selected out of 9600 entries.

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End note: You may find a troupe of a few in outside the famous forts of jodhpur or jaisalmer but in over two decades of my travels never have I seen so many, not in this form and of this high quality production. Turned out that the troupe has been performing together for ten years and were invited to the US, UK, Aus, NZ and elsewhere in India but this was their first ever performance in their home state! You can find bits of their performance on youtube under the title ‘Manganiyar Seduction’. Here’s the official clip i found –

Dear Reader – do you like Indian folk music or dance? Please let me know. I love exploring India and would be happy to write another post on a similar topic!

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7 thoughts on “Pure music from India’s desert

  1. I am listening to the video as I write. So hauntingly wonderful. I wish I understood the words. I am in Canada but I have always had a strong desire to visit India. My Parents (British) were both born there, married there and talked so passionately of their love of India and the Indian People.

    Liked by 1 person

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