The steed is so fleet-footed that its warrior rider, Ridmal Rao, manages to bell the deer running scared in the woods. A haughty princess from the Sodhi clan hears of this derring-do and challenges him to compete with her horses. Rao wins, she loses and many twists and turns later they get married. Fate intervenes, keeping them apart for 12 years, until the horse scales the highest walls of a castle to reunite them.

Star-crossed lovers, evil lords, noble messengers, eccentric camels, transmogrified swans are some of the bewitching characters that inhabit the endangered world of gathas, kathas, vartas and bat – the little-known ballad and oral epic traditions of Rajasthan’s marginalised hereditary musical communities, the Manganiyars and Langas.

Sung or narrated at revans and kucheris, the night-long music sessions in the homes of patrons, these old fables set as duhas (couplets) once mesmerised listeners across the villages of Barmer, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur in western Rajasthan. They had evocative names like Dhola Maru, Moomal Mahendra, Umar Marvi, Ratan Raiko, Ridmal, Ugda Bhanej and Katha Nimbuchand. They were sung to a unique raga system, in Marwari or Sindhi, and grew over centuries of memory building and oral transmission. But like most oral traditions deprived of patronage and context, they too are fading fast, remembered mostly through song extracts.

“Except very few old jajmans (patrons) who know and appreciate these gathas and kathas, no one asks for them to be performed,” said Askar Khan Langa of Barnawa Jageer village in Barmer. “And once the connoisseurs forget this art, so do we.”

Hakam Multan Kalla in performance. Credit: Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology, American Institute of Indian Studies.

Sardar Khan’s rendition of Maniharo, a katha of Radha’s anguish at Krishna’s arrival in Mathura disguised as a bangle-seller after 12 years of absence, is a deeply moving experience, both for the power of his singing and its emotive appeal. He was among the six master Manganiyar and Langa musicians who performed in Delhi recently to mark the end of a two-year project to document these ballads so that they can be revived in their own habitat.

Driving the project over the pandemic years was the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (ARCE for short) of the American Institute of Indian Studies in partnership with Rupayan Sansthan, the Jodhpur institution set up by the legendary folklorist of Rajasthan, Komal Kothari, and author Vijaydan Detha.

“It is a totally endangered tradition and both its patrons and musicians have aged,” said Shubha Chaudhuri, director of the project that was supported by the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation. “In the last 15 years itself we have seen the repertoire shrink – Kachbo, a katha-gatha we recorded over a day and a half, is now wrapped up in two hours. Masters of these forms, such as Chanan Khan, Shankar Khan, Kalla Khan and Jameen Khan, are no more and even musicians who remember some of them often struggle to piece them together.”

For the project, chosen youngsters from the two communities fanned out in 200 villages across remote villages in Barmer, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur to trace, interview and record masters who remembered the repertoires. The result is a collection of 1,200-odd audio and video recordings with 480 hours of music archived at the ARCE and Rupayan. The recordings are also being shared with the community to keep the epics alive.

Manjoor Khan, a project assistant, records a musician in a field. Credit: Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology, American Institute of Indian Studies.

Illusion of prosperity

If the tradition has a chance of reviving, part of the credit goes to Komal Kothari, whose unflagging passion put this powerful music on the world map sometime in the late 1960s. Its popularity has soared ever since, with the result that Manganiyars and Langas are highly visible in world music forums, throwing up legends who enjoy rockstar status.

In the last decade, this folk music has gained a cool quotient. There is a record label around it called Amrass, it is performed as a hugely successful stage spectacle by director-playwright Roysten Abel in Manganiyar Seduction, and it is a must at every big cultural mela. Its genius has livened reality shows, fused with alternate forms at Coke Studio and been showcased by bands such as the highly popular Barmer Boys. The remarkable vocalism of the Manganiyars and Langas, the vigour and fantastic buoyancy of their rhythms and the sheer dramatics of presentation have ensured packed arenas.

This success creates the illusion of a prosperous, jet-setting community of musicians. But ethnomusicologists such as Daniel Neuman, who mapped the tradition along with Chaudhuri and Komal Kothari in 2007 in the book Bards, Ballads and Boundaries, have spoken of the schizophrenic nature of this fame – of artistes who travel across London, Paris and New York and then return to a precarious existence in inaccessible, impoverished villages awaiting summons from a jajman. The loss of relevance, context and respect is a struggle they have to deal with every day on their home turf.

“Those you see on the stage are less than 10% of the actual number of Manganiyars and Langas,” said Kuldeep Kothari, secretary of Rupayan. “If we have heard a hundred, there are thousands in remote villages who are performing only for jajmans. This brings in a pittance but it guarantees a steady, regular flow of money and the musicians like the reliability of this system.”

Aslam Khan with his guru Sardar Khan Langa. Credit: Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology, American Institute of Indian Studies.

Badal Khan is among those thousands of anonymous Manganiyars. He normally performs in the quiet isolation of Konara village in Barmer and the first time he stepped outside was to sing at the Delhi event. His voice is strong enough that it can sweep across vast spaces without a mike as it negotiates tough taans while singing Umar Marvi, a Sindhi Sufi gatha about a beautiful and brave young girl imprisoned by a besotted king. For Mathar Khan Langa of Undoo village in Barmer too, the metropolis is an unknown turf. In Delhi for the same event, he recited Moomal Mahendra, a saga of star-crossed lovers from across the borders of Jaisalmer.

Apart from its beauty, there is another reason this tradition cannot be allowed to die – it represents a confluence of cultures from both sides of the border and brings alive the idea of shared customs, beliefs and practices. Though these ballads do not bear any stamp of authorship, Chaudhuri’s decades-long research indicates they are deeply influenced by the 17th-century Sindhi Sufi mystic and poet, Shah Abdul Latif. Latif travelled long distances between present-day Gujarat, Rajasthan and Sindh, gathering Hindu and Muslim followers. His poetry is sung at his shrine at Bhit in Sindh and described as Shah jo rag (the Shah’s raga). Latif gave a spiritual voice to the seven love legends of the Punjab-Sindh region, such as Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahiwal and Mirza Sahiban. Many of these, as well as the unique folk raga system ascribed to the singing of his poetry, clearly influenced the Manganiyar repertoire, says Chaudhuri.

Loss of ecosystem

The contemporary ecosystem that nurtures the music of the Manganiyars and Langas is tethered to the courtyards of rural patrons and the hunkar (appreciation) of listeners at village weddings, ceremonies and festivals where these epics still occupy popular imagination. There was no way this heritage could be archived or revived without the participation of the community, both the musicians and the patrons, says Chaudhuri.

“When we began working on the tradition in the early 2000s, we asked the musicians, ‘What is not being sung anymore?’ and ‘What should be documented and revived?’” she said. “The project was based on their responses.” This is also the reason that the task of collating this precious material was left to the community youngsters trained at a documentation workshop.

M Umashankar, a sound recordist, conducts a recording session for young musicians at Arna Jharna. Credit: Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology, American Institute of Indian Studies.

Multan Khan, a Manganiyar from Beesu Kalan village in Barmer, is one of the exponents of the tradition. He learned the singing and telling of kathas and gathas from his brother, the masterly Chanan Khan, who is no more. “How much I elaborate, how much I cut short, it all depends on the audience,” he said. “I can add masala if that is what they want – when I talk of a legendary horse, I branch off into a song about its many qualities, if I aam singing of a beautiful woman, I can carry on for hours about her shringar. Par ab yeh sab ab band hai (all this is now over).”

As Kuldeep Kothari points out, these musicians are consummate entertainers, finessed in the art of pleasing their audiences. “Our database of Manganiyars and Langas at Rupayan is massive, but I would say only 10-15 are left with the knowledge of the ballads,” he said. “I am hearing 10% of what I heard when working with my father (Komal). When I asked them about this, they said they need the ‘chhed (teasing)‘ from their listeners to remember them. Which explains why they are not singing even 10% of their repertoire and end up being known in cities as singers of Padharo Mhare Des and ghazals which aren’t part of the Manganiyar tradition.”

All this makes it imperative that the young musicians of these communities remain invested in the katha-gatha style. Under the project, six young Langas and Manganiyars were assigned to six masters for training. Among them, Aslam Khan Langa of Barnawa Charnan in Barmer district, was placed under the tutelage of Sardar Khan Langa. “I knew of kathas and gathas only as the source of the songs we sing often but I knew nothing of their complete form,” he said. “I also worked as a project assistant and travelled to neighbouring villages like Somesar and Undoo and heard the bujurg (elderly) sing them and found them fascinating, especially the wisdom they carry. It was challenging but I managed to learn the gathas, Ridmal and Abal Khimji.”

Last October, Askar Khan, along with Sardar Khan and Kader Khan Langa, was invited to perform katha-gatha at the annual Rajasthan International Folk Festival in Jodhpur. “We sang Dhola Maru for two and a half hours and not one person moved from their seat,” he said. “I can sing it all day and all-night, par grahaki khatam ho gayi hai (the clientele is lost). There is a doha that says vidya (knowledge) holds unfathomable heights and depths – it is like the oceans, skies and the debt of love we owe our mother. All I need is someone to hear me.”

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.