Ramsar village, Barmer, Rajasthan. “Desert dreams sting as sharply as the desert sun,” Rukma Bai warns.
At five in the morning, you can already feel against your skin, the sun sucking the chill out of the desert dawn. Memories of Rukma Bai piercing the night with her powerful rendition of Kesariya balam, give way to the sounds of a morning raga. We clamber out of our sleeping bags to the words of a playful bhajan, about a young Krishna talking to birds. The ‘nandlal’ in the bhajan is clearly her grandchild, who plays by her side as she makes bajre ki roti with lehsan ki chutney. Our breakfast.
Rukma Bai lost both her legs to polio. She drags herself on the stubs of her knees, burnt repeatedly by the scorching earth. It’s painful, she says, but less so than some episodes in her life. Her husband left her, ran away with her sister. She had to bring up three children. Recurrent drought killed all her cattle. With no legs to walk on, she could not go, like others, to work at drought-relief sites. Hunger threatened her children, which is when Komal Kothari, ethnomusicologist and unrivalled expert in desert music, suggested she sing in concerts, in public, for money.
“When a Manganiyar baby cries, it is in the tune of a raga.”
“If I cut you, blood will flow. If you cut me, there will be blood, but with it sand and music will flow too.”
Rukma Bai’s idiom is full of the metaphors of her music and of her dhaura dharti—her desert land. In Ramsar village, there are 40 Manganiyar families. By sunset, the entire basti reverberates with the sounds of the khadtal, the sarangi, the khamaicha—blending with voices of the young and the old. Rukma Bai’s stunning voice stands out. Manganiyars, a professional caste of musicians, are Muslims, and their patrons or jajmans are Hindus. In old feudal structures, a Manganiyar family would have been part of the extended retinue of a Rajput household. They would sing family histories, and sing at festivals, weddings, funerals, and of the colours of the land.
But as change rapidly reached even the most remote villages in Barmer, feudal structures loosened. The jajmans had less money to pay. Their weddings shrank from 12 days to two. Their desire, knowledge and even appreciation of their own music declined sharply.
In the late 1970s, Kothari realised that poverty for Manganiyars, like other castes of musicians, threatened their lives, and also endangered the music. In 1976, he first sent a group of Langas and Manganiyars to perform in France. That was a turning point, a revival both stunning and complex. Today, these singers are a familiar sight at several festivals in India and around the world. But their repertoire is sadly changing to suit audience tastes. They claim their songs are often stolen by music directors and converted into hit film songs—for instance, Nimbuda in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.
But some things don’t change. It is still the men who sing in public.
When Rukma Bai first accepted the offer to sing on stage, she was instantly ostracised from her community and forced to live in virtual exile for two years. But there was no option. Alone, with three children to feed, no legs to walk on, she decided to use her voice in public concerts. The success of these performances meant repeated invitations from across the world. “BBC maro programme kariyo hai,” she told us. The Beeb stayed in Ramsar village for a week to document her life. Our NDTV team is, by comparison, a smaller sign of glory.
With fame came the gradual acceptance from her community, who come to her today out of love and envy. But it’s clear she’s an exception, not to be emulated. While filming her on the porch of her house, neighbouring girls gather. She points to one and commands her to sing. The 14-year-old breaks into a breathtaking Panihari, but is quickly shut up, first by her younger brother, then her mother, who chides Rukma Bai, reminding her that her daughter is yet to be married. “You see, it is still not acceptable for women to sing. The men don’t let them. The women in their own families won’t let them even though everything a Manganiyar man sings is a song that he’s got from his grandmother.”
“And now, along with the stupidity of the men, you have these new maulvis who tell us that singing is not Islamic. I don’t care a hoot for them, but many younger people are listening to them. Interfering in other people’s business is more important for these maulvis than doing their namaz properly.” ( I remember, on an earlier shoot, meeting one of the more renowned Manganiyar musicians, Ghazi Khan, who 10 years ago wore a dhoti and saafa but now frequently sports a kurta pajama. I asked him about his new style and he said, “It’s the typical Muslim dress.” Were you not a Muslim earlier and wasn’t your grandfather one? I asked. He smiled sheepishly.)
Before heading out, we go to a newly constructed mosque at one end of the village to look for the new maulvi—a young man who came from Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, in 2004. He had no connection with the Thar, its language, or its people. He has no sense of how powerful Rukma Bai’s faith was, even as he struggled to bring it closer to his version of Islam. His connection is far greater with us—people who just sounded more ‘Urdu speaking’ to him.
When a film festival in Rome invited us to screen the episode on Rukma Bai, I called to give her the news. Nonchalantly, she replied that she’d been to Rome, sung for the Prime Minister and met a famous Italian actress called Sophia. “Sophia Loren?” I exclaimed. “I don’t know English names so I can’t remember very well. But when you visit me next time, I’ll show you a photo of her posing with me.”
Radhika Bordia is Features Editor, NDTV