Lakha Khan closes his eyes, takes a breath and pulls a rosined bow across the stringed instrument in his lap. The hand-carved wooden sarangi emits a drone with unexpected power, piercing like the cry of a hungry infant in a concert hall but soothing like a lullaby. It’s a sound that resonates, an otherworldly note from the beginning of time.
After a moment, Lakha Khan adds his own voice, raspy and warm. He sings a love story hundreds of years old. Where most Indian love songs are about a boy and a girl, this one is a poem about the love between man and God. In a society where light, bouncy Bollywood tunes seem to permeate every corner of every home, there is something timeless about this song that rises above the chatter of the everyday, acknowledges pain and comforts broken hearts.
“When I start playing, it is sounding sweet from the first note,” says Lakha Khan, who was recently awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian awards for artists. “I feel a direct contact with God when I play.”
Born To Play
For centuries Indian musicians such as Lakha Khan, Saker Khan and others have been entrusted with the cultural traditions, history and music—and indeed, the collective memory—of their communities. Music is so socially and culturally important, that it eclipses other considerations such as caste and religion. In Rajasthan, professional musicians like Lakha Khan and his community—who are Muslims—serve as the principal curators of Rajasthani culture, including songs of celebration for all communities. No birth, wedding or funeral—no major event—happens without them.
Lakha Khan’s community are a hereditary caste of professional musicians called Manganiyars. As children, Manganiyars start their training early from their elders, and over time they develop their craft to a high level. Unlike folk musicians who perform part-time in a participatory sing-along environment, Manganiyars demonstrate a virtuosity that allows them to perform on stage alongside better known Indian classical maestros such as tabla master Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Ravi Shankar, shehnai master Ustad Bismillah Khan and mohan veena master Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.
Manganiyar music is specifically written for a society that is alien even to most Indians—a world of arid isolation at the edge of India’s largest desert, the Thar. But just as Appalachian folk musicians broke through ages of prejudice to pave the way for modern country music in the United States, the stories and songs of Manganiyars have an emotional power that transcends the borders of languages, cultures and even national origins.
An untrained ear may hear similarities between Rajasthani ragas and those of Indian classical music—the drone of a tamboura, the surging polyrhythms of the dholak drum and, above it all, the complex melodies that sound improvisational but are in fact well-beloved melodies handed down for generations. But what sets a Manganiyar raga apart from other classical ragas are the regional stories they tell, and the tone and the power of the singer who tells the story.
Fans who heard Lakha Khan’s collaboration with Malian kora player Madou Sadiki Diabate were struck on how well the sounds of two distinct desert cultures—Rajasthan and Mali—blended with each other. But those who listen to Lakha Khan’s 2015 album, Live in Nashville, first notice his voice. Its keening tones invite comparisons to the rugged power of bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley or blues singer Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter. Some voices just pierce through the howling wind, pass through you and leave you wanting more.
For inspiration, Lakha Khan turns to his faith, even if he is performing for audiences with other belief systems.
“For us, there is only one God,” he said. “Bigger than the night is the sky. Bigger than the sky is the word. Beyond words there is nothing, and in that nothingness is where the Lord is.”
Yet the social arrangement that allowed Manganiyars to become some of the top musicians in the country is under strain. Age-old economic relationships in villages across Rajasthan have broken down, and market-based solutions have yet to emerge or to take hold. While some better known Manganiyars are traveling farther afield to find paying gigs, many young Manganiyars are leaving the family business to find work in the big city.
The consequences of these changes are potentially catastrophic, with the potential of losing centuries of music that exists only in the memories of aging masters. Keeping the great Rajasthani songbook alive has now become an urgent matter. Allied with academics and music impresarios, Rajasthani traditional musicians are working hard to sustain their livelihoods while preserving their music before it disappears.
Ethnomusicologist Shubha Chaudhuri said Indian society is already witnessing a slow cultural destruction. And for more than 40 years, Chaudhuri—as director of the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Gurgaon—has been conducting field recordings to preserve Rajasthani music before it is lost.
Time is of the essence, of course, but time is also an enemy.
[The] challenge has been to document the songbook of the Manganiyars and Langas, and other musician communities before it is lost forever.
“In our modern society, people don’t want to listen to something that is longer than three minutes,” and not all traditional music fits into a three-minute format, Chaudhuri says. It’s common for Manganiyar musicians to entertain guests at a Rajasthani wedding all night long, singing and performing compositions that can last for hours.
“Lakha Khan is the only one of his generation left now,” Chaudhuri says. “He knows the whole repertoire. He is special.”
And when Lakha Khan’s generation passes on, he will take much of this music with them.
Chaudhuri’s solution to this challenge has been to document the songbook of the Manganiyars and Langas, and other musician communities before it is lost forever. Just as the father and son team of John and Alan Lomax visited rural America from the 1930s to the 1960s to record work songs, blues and ballads for the US Library of Congress, Chaudhuri began in the 1980s to visit hundreds of villages across Rajasthan to record the musical traditions of the Manganiyars and Langas. (She has also done field recordings in other Indian states, like Goa and Meghalaya.)
Much of the material Chaudhuri and her team have gathered is now available for paid download on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings at folkways.si.edu, a repository that not only preserves these traditions but also gives living Rajasthani musicians a stream of income from the download sales.
More recently, a collaboration between Chaudhuri’s archivists and the folkloric organization Rupayan Sansthan has given tools and training to young Manganiyars to carry out their own fieldwork identifying, interviewing and recording the older generation of musicians, and preserving the great Rajasthani songbook before it disappears.
“Music represents culture,” Chaudhuri says. “Music has that emotive power. It has that power to connect people. My training is as a linguist, so I approach my work as a linguist, the text and the context. What is the song about, and who is it for? If you know the language, then traditional regional music is very rich. But what gets me most are the voices.”
Building new stages
Like Chaudhuri, Ashutosh Sharma gathers field recordings of traditional Rajasthani musicians. But his methods and motives are different. Sharma hopes that high-quality traditional music will find a market among a new generation of Indian youth who are tiring of formulaic Bollywood pop and hunger for music that feels authentic.
With the digital transformation, every smartphone is a recording studio, and every YouTube channel has opened a new market for smaller indie-rock bands, singer songwriters, and increasingly from regional traditional musicians like Lakha Khan. With friends, Sharma has helped musicians to take their music to not just the hipsters in Delhi and Mumbai, but also to world music festivals in Europe and the US.
“The audience for this music exists, but the festivals didn’t exist, at least not here in India,” said Sharma, founder of the New Delhi-based Amarrass Records, which promotes Lakha Khan, the Barmer Boys and other regional musicians.
With Amarrass’s help, Lakha Khan has toured in Germany, Portugal and Canada in 2022. Another Amarrass client, the Barmer Boys, have performed their mix of Rajasthani traditional music and hip-hop at the world music festival WOMAD, the international arts festival in Germany, as well as festivals in Spain and Netherlands.
“We understood that a lot of American artists made it in Europe first before they made it back home,” Sharma said. “The same thing proved true with our artists. As they got big abroad, they got more accepted back here in India. With the Rajasthani band the Barmer Boys, our initial plan was to get them onto the popular Indian TV show Coke Studio. But in two years, they were playing with Outkast and the Rolling Stones.”
To help give musicians greater exposure closer to home, Amarrass has set up a monthly concert series in Delhi called Amarrass Nights. Held in the historic Sunder Nursery, which abuts Delhi’s historic Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi music lovers huddled in shawls under the open sky, listening to a wide variety of regional musicians from north and western India. The opening act, the Tapi Project, a dreamy rock-fusion band from Surat in Gujarat, performs songs about spirituality and breaking boundaries. Jumme Khan, a Muslim yogi from the Alwar district of eastern Rajasthan, promotes a message of the unity of all religions through his music. And Rehmat-e-Nusrat is a band of five young Hindu men and one Muslim from the foothills of the Himalayas, paying tribute to the late Sufi qawwali master Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
As different as these bands are, they all share a perspective that is perhaps best stated by Jumme Khan: “You can divide anything you want on earth, but how can you divide the open sky?” he sings. His delivery is sardonic, prompting laughter. But his message is serious, gentle, warm and inclusive. “There is just one god,” he adds, “yours and mine.”
Sarrjeet Tamta, the lead singer of Rehmat-e-Nusrat, turns the focus away from people and toward the divine creator of all, in the popular qawwali tune “Allah hu” (which means “God is”).
There is no one like you
And that is your grandeur, O unique one
You are the imagination and the inquisitiveness,
You are the wish
You are the light
and the voice of the heart
You were there, you are there, and you will be there
God is, God is, God is.
It’s striking that Tamta, like most of his audience, is not Muslim. He was born Hindu into a family that performed Hindu religious music, but now he prefers the timeless poetry of Amir Khusrao and Nizamuddin Dawliya, which promote the open-mindedness and inclusiveness—and the hope—that he craves.
A New Generation
In Hamira village, a short drive from the hilltop walled city of Jaisalmer, Ghewar Khan and his brother Firoze are keeping the spirit of their father’s music alive. Sons of Saker Khan, the first Manganiyar to receive the Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian awards in India, Ghewar and Firoze perform for their Hindu patrons in Hamira but have also traveled across India and to Europe and North America as well.
They learned their trade at home, memorizing melodies and lyrics from their father. Starting when other children would have started elementary school, the boys learned enough to begin performing with the family at events and gradually gained proficiency in playing instruments. Ghewar learned his father’s instrument, the kamanche, while Firoze played the barrel-shaped dholak drum.
Recently Hamira has seen a revival of some of the traditional crafts that make Rajasthani music possible. At the request of Saker Khan, a local carpenter named Shankara Ram Suthar returned to Hamira from the big city of Pune and learned to make kamanches that met the maestro’s exacting standards. Suthar now has dozens of consignments with musicians and non-profit organizations, and he has begun to train his son the trade.
They learned their trade at home, memorizing melodies and lyrics from their father, starting when other children would have started elementary school.
Now, like his father, Ghewar has students of his own: his own children and other relatives, and even a few foreigners from England and the US. Some local musicians have left Hamira, and arguably regional traditional music behind, moving to Mumbai to seek work singing for Bollywood films. Ghewar’s own brother, Sattar, is a soldier in the Border Security Force, although he continues to perform music as part of his duties.
“This is my profession, this is something I was born to do,” Ghewar said. “The next generation will decide if they are interested in carrying on with it.”
In Saker Khan’s house, one is only ever a bowstring away from music, and Ghewar and Firoze find themselves playing again. The melody that emits from Ghewar’s kamanche is at turns powerful and tender, and Firoze matches his brother step by step, his fingers building up speed and an intensity like a desert thunderstorm passing through. Between them, Ghewar’s four-year-old grandson Ayan arrives, and the two men urge the boy to sing along or to try the kamanche or dholak.
As Firoze puts a kamanche in his lap, an instrument that is easily as large as the boy, Ayan holds the bow perfectly with his left hand, but shakes his head. “You better tune this,” he said. “You can’t just let me play it.”
The two old men are patient, and they offer encouragement. This is how they first encountered music, taught by their elders through play, not through pressure. And this is how the new generation will take up the mantle—Saker Khan’s descendants in Hamira; Lakha Khan’s descendants in Raneri. This is how a cycle of renewal begins again—through play.