In the 1968 spy blockbuster Ankhen, there is a scene in which comedian Mehmood plays an “international fakir” in search of abducted agent Dharmendra. Dressed in a patched robe, he walks the streets of the world with Mala Sinha and Mukri while they sing composer Ravi’s hit number Tujhko Rakhe Ram Tujhko Allah Rakhe. The result is pure screwball comedy.
Underlining the humour in the song is an instrument that, on screen, can be seen tucked under Mehmood’s arm as he twirls and sways. To the viewer, this instrument looks like an open hand drum with a string that is strummed with a plectrum. To the listener, it serves a capricious twang that sounds like the perfect soundtrack for musical backchat.
Ankhen was not the first or the only film to put this drum to use for a folksy, slapstick effect. Scan through old folk and comic songs of Hindi movies, especially of the late 1950s and ’60s and you are likely to find it played on or off screen, such as in Gunga Jamuna, Naya Daur, New Delhi, Son of India, Teesri Kasam and so on. But for decades, it never really got its due.
The instrument was the bhapang of Mewat. You get variants of this talking drum across India: khamak in Bengal, bagalbacha in Punjab and choudki in Karnataka, for instance. As fascinating as the drum is the story of the man who brought it to the Bombay film industry, a Muslim jogi from an impoverished family of Mewat, the late Zahoor Khan.
Barely an hour from the concrete and chrome of Gurugram, Mewat has yet to benefit from the prosperity its neighbourhood has seen. Bordered by the Aravalli hills and bookended by districts of eastern Rajasthan and southern Haryana, it is known for a host of depressing reasons – poverty, illiteracy, gender inequity and, more recently, a spate of horrific communal attacks by cow vigilantes.
State borders here are chimerical. What marks the region is the large presence of Meo Muslims, who are believed to have converted from Hinduism in multiple waves and followed – and still largely do – an intersectional culture straddling both religions.
A subcommunity among Meo Muslims are the Muslim jogis, wandering minstrels belonging to the Jogi Nath sect once criminalised by the British. These musician-ascetics consider themselves the descendants of Ismail Nath, a disciple of Gorakhnath who is revered as the fountainhead of a Shaivite mystic order. In our fractured times, this syncretism may be hard to imagine, but in its heyday it was a belief system that transcended religious borders.
It was into this community that Zahoor Khan was born in 1941. His family, like others in the clan, banked on jajmani (patronage) of the Muslim agrarian community. They sought freshly harvested wheat and bajra as they sang dohas (couplets emphasising spiritual themes) and songs that either praised Krishna, Rama and Shiva or spoke of the miraculous feats of Gorakhnath’s followers. The Muslim jogis blessed the crops, undertook faith healing, but whatever they did, music was an integral part of it.
This world was already falling apart when Khan was born. It was by now considered humiliating to seek alms, patrons were less than gracious, and the area’s seamlessly syncretic culture had already been vitiated by fundamentalist elements.
This disruption is also where the story of Khan’s non-ritual work with the bhapang begins, far from the villages and commingled culture of Mewat.
There are a few sources that offer us an insight into Khan’s journey and life. One is his grandson and bhapang wizard Yusuf Khan Mewati’s documentation centre in Alwar, the Zahoor Khan Mewati Bhapang Kala and Shiksha Samiti. The other is the recorded narrative of Umar Farooq, himself a prodigious bhapang player who did much to give his community’s musicians a platform. Rupayan Sansthan, the Jodhpur-based centre for Rajasthan’s folk arts begun by ethnomusicologist Komal Kothari, also holds a repository of Khan’s music that runs into hundreds of hours.
Khan was born in Lapala in rural Alwar, which was his mother’s village, but his paternal home lay in Jehtana in Haryana’s Punhana tehsil. His musical education started at home. Bhapang, like most generational folk traditions, is mastered by watching and listening. Khan’s father, Kanwar Nath (many names in Mewat can be befuddling because of the interweaving of faiths), was an expert bhapang player; his elder brother Hussain was known for his mastery over multiple jogi instruments, including the jogiya sarangi and chikara (smaller versions of concert sarangis); and his oldest brother Shakoor had memorised well over 20,000 verses of epic songs.
What separated Khan from others in his clan and community was an overreaching need to break out of the mould, say his family members. He was a free spirit, irreverent and generous.
“There were two things my grandfather was passionate about – bhapang and movies,” Yusuf said. “He also loved bidis. And he managed to bring the three together to earn an income.”
New Tej Talkies is now nothing more than a parking lot in Alwar, but in the 1950s it was a thriving centre for movie-goers. It was on the pavement outside the theatre that Khan, given no option but to earn as a child, took to selling bidis. To attract passersby, the enterprising youngster would use his bhapang, and with the earnings he made, he would watch movies.
It was a busy day at business when he was spotted by the man chauffeuring the stars Dilip Kumar and Nirupa Roy who were shooting at the historic Company Bagh in Alwar. When the driver stopped for a chat, family legend has it that he was ticked off by the sassy youngster: “Time khota mat karo, pichar dekhna ka time ho gaya hai (Don’t waste my time, the movie is about to start).”
Impressed, the driver offered to not only buy all the bidis but also introduce him to the stars. At Company Bagh, Dilip Kumar is said to have been so smitten that he invited Khan to Bombay. According to Yusuf, it was only after reaching the megapolis that Khan sent his family an inland letter assuring them that he was safe.
It’s hard today to gauge the accuracy of this anecdote. Khan couldn’t even have been in his teens at the time, but it is exactly this kind of madcap story that Bollywood is famous for. According to his family, he sold tea and played music in Bombay and made enough in a decade to invest in a chawl dwelling. But initially shelter and mentorship came from Mehmood, who was taken up with the comic potential of Khan’s bhapang. From the 1950s to the ’70s, Khan played in numerous songs, not least among them Tujhko Rakhe, Yeh Desh Hai Veer Jawanon Ka and Chhalia Re Chhalia.
Khan later teamed up with hugely popular qawwals Yusuf Azad, Rashida Khatoon and Prabha Bharti and folk singers such as Narendra Chanchal and Gurdass Mann.
But Khan was beginning to weary of his role as a background musician. “It bothered him that he was rarely credited in films and he was not respected enough as a musician in his own right,” said Yusuf, who hosts a Mewati folk arts festival every year in Alwar.
Return to roots
Khan’s return to roots started a new phase in his career. He began to strengthen his oral repertoire from Shakoor, relearning the vast epic ballads of Muslim jogis such as Pandun ka kada (story of Pandavas) and Shiv ka Beyavla (the wedding of Shiva). In a documentary on him shot in the last years of his life, Khan can be heard talking about the hardships he faced on returning home and the difficulties of earning a livelihood from music. He complains about being abandoned since he no longer carried the Bollywood aura.
It was around the early 1980s that Komal Kothari, who had done sterling work documenting the tradition of the Langas and Manganiyars of western Rajasthan, stumbled on the riches of Mewat while attending a folk festival in Lachhmangarh, Sikar. He heard Khan perform and insisted that he put together a travelling troupe. The newly-minted Zahoor Khan Mewati and Party of four musicians started with a 48-hour recording of Pandun ka Kada for Rupayan.
The association with Rupayan afforded Khan travel to world music events. But at the same time, he was strengthening his popularity on home turf. He started writing humorous folk ditties in Mewati on contemporary issues – the social aspirations of his people, pitfalls of ambition, familial conflicts, saas-bahnu-nanad-jethani exchanges, the yearning for the flash of so-near-yet-so-far Dilli. One thing Bombay had taught him was how the bhapang can be put to great comic effect. His songs, funny but in the nature of conservative cautioning against excessive modernity, became so massively popular that they are referred to as lok geet though their provenance is relatively recent.
There was Jamilo Tero Duniyo su Sukh Nyaro and Fashion ne Mere Desh ki Bigadi Kaise Chal on the perils of fashion. His famous satirical composition on the razzle dazzle of a consumption society, Duniya Mein ho Rahi Tarr Tarr, briefly referred to as Tarr, now occupies the place of a viral hit.
Partly because of Khan, the bhapang has moved out of its traditional spaces and onto the performance stage – at cultural festivals, folk events, as part of fusion music and of course on televised reality shows. It is often seen in sawal-jawab type performances with the tabla. Apart from Yusuf’s own troupe, there are four other Mewati ‘parties’ featuring the bhapang.
The versatile Khan died in 2007, leaving behind a large body of work. Ten years later, Umar Farooq passed away too. It is now up to the inheritors of his legacy, his brother Mohammed Khan, Yusuf and nephew Jumme Khan to carry forth his legacy.
Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2022.