It’s what photographers call the magic hour. The sun has begun to set, casting a golden light on the desert sands. Wearing a woven scarf, red turban, frock-shirt and dhoti, Raika Bhanwar Lal, 28, begins to sing.
As his voice lingers over the fields, his audience chomps wide-eyed — the only ones listening are 30 feeding camels. But that’s ok, because this is who Bhanwar sings for.
The Raikas are a camel-herding community from Rajasthan and they believe that the Hindu deity Shiva created them for the express purpose of caring for camels.
For eighth months a year, they trail their herds from one wild pasture to another. As they graze, the Raikas pluck thorns out of their feet, help them deliver babies and, in the evenings, sing to them and the stars.
Their ballads tell of the camel’s beauty, and of folk deity Pabuji Maharaj, who they believe waged wars to bring camels from Sind, currently in Pakistan, to Rajasthan.
Watch | Folk singers of royal Rajasthan unite for music festival
“We learn these songs as children, and now I am passing them on to my eight-year-old son,” says Bhanwar.
This year, Bhanwar — who cannot sign his name and has been herding camels since he was eight — will get a human audience at RIFF, the annual Rajasthan International Folk Festival underway at Jodhpur’s world-heritage site, Mehrangarh fort, from October 23 to 27. Bhanwar will be one of two Raikas to perform in this debut for the tribe.
“Raikas are different from other pastoral communities around the world. They consider their camels sacred and dedicate their lives to them,” says Ilse Kohler-Rollefson, founder of the Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan (LPPS), a 23-year-old NGO working for the welfare of camels and pastoral communities in the state.
She estimates that there are just 4,000 Raika families still solely dependent on camels. Others across Rajasthan have moved on to more economical alternatives such as goats.
“We thought it would be nice to present their unique culture and music to people,” says Hanmant Singh Rathore, director of the LPPS.
“The Raikas are not a community of musicians, but they do have their songs. To have an interactive session with them lets people understand the context of the region’s folk music,” adds RIFF festival and artistic director Divya Bhatia.
The Raikas’ are among 22 traditional Rajasthani folk forms being showcased at RIFF. On the schedule are night-long performances by the Bhopa community, and music by the Langas, Manganiyars and Meghwals.
Each of these forms, though, is accommodating new forms of change in today’s rapidly altering society.
With traditional patrons such as princes, zamindars and Thakurs gone, for instance, and patronage from local Rajput families dwindling, musicians are looking at reality TV shows, playback singing and wooing urban audiences. Simple traditional instruments are giving way to the popular charm of the harmonium. Slow rhythms are being made racier. And pastoral communities are seeing youngsters leave for the cities, to work in engineering and construction.
“It started with the change in patronage after Independence,” says Rima Ahooja, historian, archaeologist, author and managing trustee of the cultural NGO Jaipur Virasat Foundation. “With not enough government attention, funding or platforms, these culturally rich communities were forced to shift from rural patronage to urban. This changed the traditions themselves. These artists now cater to audiences most of whom are ignorant of the context of their art,” adds Vijay Verma, a retired IAS officer and author of Performing Arts of Rajasthan. “When they perform at urban centres and see the kind of music audiences prefer, they might modify slow composition to make them racier and so on.”
For now, though, the lure of their musical traditions remains. “They may move to the cities and find steady jobs, but most can also sing all their community’s songs and play their traditional instruments,” says Bhatia. “It’s just that they don’t want to spend their lives doing ‘just’ that.”
New instruments, altered tunes on popular demand
The Langas are exponents of the sarangi and can play thousands of songs on the string instrument.
Originally from the Sind region, now in Pakistan, they are settled in the Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Badmel regions of Rajasthan but have been travelling extensively around the world since the late 1990s.
All that travel has led to some strange incidents for artistes such as Asin Khan, 26, a Class 7 dropout from Barmel district.
“When in London recently, I took a ride in a huge roller-coaster. It was going steadily at first, but then it climbed to a great height and then plummeted. I was in shock for several days and lost my voice,” says Asin, laughing. “I told all my friends not to try it.”
Kasam Khan, 30, a Class 5 dropout, remembers how a fellow Langa was in shock after using the toilet on an international flight. “He told us the toilet had let out a loud noise and flushed out all his blood,” says Kasam. “We later figured it was a red cleaning liquid.”
Over time, the Langas too have introduced new instruments to their repertoire. “Our forefathers just played the sarangi. We now also play the dholak and jaltarang,” says Asin. “The jaltarang doesn’t really add anything to the music, but it pleases the new audiences.”
From Germany and Spain to a home with no water, power
There are no roads and no running water in the tribal village of Ujaliya in Jodhpur district. It’s an arid, thorny region, and tonight’s night-long devotional music performance by a couple from the Bhopa-Bhopi tribe is a rare break in the uniformity of each pastoral day.
The event is dedicated to Pabuji, the local folk deity. The performers are Tolaram, 65, his wife Kela Devi, 45, and three of their 17 children.
At the venue — a 300-year-old Pabuji temple at the other end of Ujaliya — Tolaram puts on a long red frock and ghoongroos on both feet and starts dancing, singing and playing the traditional ravanata string instrument.
Behind him is a 15-ft-long hand-painted scroll depicting the life of Pabuji, who is credited with bringing camels from Sind, now in Pakistan, to Rajasthan.
It’s 9 pm; Tolaram won’t stop, sit or go to the restroom till 9 am. The others take turns to sing and play a small percussion instrument. The family earns Rs 2,000 per performance and performs about once a month. The rest of the time they seek out work as farm labour. “We don’t like to do that, but we have no choice,” Tolaram says.
While some of the jagrans are held during auspicious times, others are held to call upon Pabuji to help heal a sick camel or a sick child. Over the past five years, with the help of NGOs, Tolaram and his wife have travelled to Germany, Switzerland and Spain to perform. “When I come back, I always wonder why there are so many disparities in our quality of life,” he says.
Turning to reality TV shows, dhols
The Manganiyars are considered among the most learned musicians in Rajasthan. But their music traditions have changed too.
They once played only the khamaicha string instrument, but popular demand has seen them introduce the dholak and khadtal percussion instruments too.
In the face of waning patronage and exposure they have also turned to new platforms such as reality TV shows and talent shows where they sing Bollywood songs as they woo urban audiences.
“If something is not urgently done, the kamaicha stands a good chance of becoming obsolete,” says Kachra Manganiyar, 58, one of the Manganiyar performers at RIFF this year.
Some things, however, remain the same. Their patrons continue to be Rajput Hindu villagers mainly from the Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Sota regions. A part of the patron’s crop yields, and part of the ghee produced, are allotted to his Manganiyar.
As the patron’s and Manganiyar’s families grow, each son is assigned a young musician at his wedding.
“During this ceremony, a turban is gifted to the young Manganiyar and the bond is established,” says Govind Singh Bhatti, 28, an event manager from Jaisalmer who was appointed a Manganiyar when he married in January. “It doesn’t matter whether they are Muslim, no major event in the house is complete without their presence and their music.”
The musicians, for their part, sing bhajans to the Hindu deity Krishna. In fact, in some temples in Rajasthan, only Manganiyars can sing, and they are the first to be given prasad.
The Manganiyars (‘The ones who beg’) have shot into the limelight in the past 10 years, performing on television.
From sufi to kafi and Mira bhajans, they now travel around the world showcasing their talent. But a call from the patron supercedes all else and will see the musicians cancel any gig it interferes with.