Shivaratri is a busy time for the Muslim jogis of Mewat. This is when the minstrels of the mystic Nath order are booked weeks in advance to sing the epic ballad of Shiv ka Byavla (Shiva’s wedding) at all-night jagrans. The jogis unfold the story over 12 hours, narrating the ordeals of the divine couple with ardour.

For the rest of the year, most jogis live on the edge of penury, their vast repertoire of music fading from communal memory. This includes legends about ascetic kings with transcendental powers, battles of Mahabharata and Ramayana, local heroes who followed the yogic path of Gorakhnath, Krishna’s lores and a treasure trove of folk songs about love and sacrifice.

“The culture and history of Muslim jogis is unconventional, and people no longer understand it,” lamented Jumme Khan, a seasoned jogi from Pinan, a village off the shiny new Delhi-Mumbai expressway. “We are devotees who sing in praise of Gorakhnath and Bhola [Shiva], and we are Muslims too.”

Tonight, Jumme Khan is singing at the memorial service for a patron in neighbouring Burja village. He has been asked to perform a chetavani (warning), a popular folk genre – a song of moral cautioning about the ephemeral nature of mortality and material wealth. The occasion is solemn but the music is raucous, bolstered by a deafening speaker. Jumme Khan’s chetavani is grim but funny: “So you thought your mansions and palaces would be with you forever, but no one, not even the wife who swore eternal loyalty to you, accompanies you in death.” The attendees are soaking it up, many of them singing along.

In the midst of this easy camaraderie, it is easy to forget that Mewat has been the site of unconscionable bloodshed in recent years. It has pushed the Muslim jogis further into the margins – both for the Hindus as well as the Muslims, they are the other.

Jumme Khan. Credit: Malini Nair.

Jumme Khan is disturbed enough by the recent killing of two Muslim youths in February, allegedly by cow vigilantes, to write a song on it, Kaiso Aayo Jamano Beimaan. He is an impromptu songster, with a remarkable and popular skill of putting to lyric any issue that catches his attention. His home sits on land donated by a nearby Mahadev temple as a tribute to his musical services to its deity. This seamless mix of religious and spiritual practices is increasingly threatened today, he says. “The events of the past few years have badly hit our tradition and our place in the community,” he said. “It is frightening.”

Musical memories

Historically, the Meos of Mewat, the larger community to which the Nath jogis belong, have been hard to bracket by any yardstick. They can only be described as a kaleidoscopic mix of beliefs and traditions. This non-conformism caught the attention of both the Tablighi Jama’at and the Hindu right wing in the 1920s, each of whom tried to haul the community into its fold, albeit with little success.

There are four clans of performers among the Meos – the jogis, mirasis (musicians and dancers), bhands and nats, the last two known for their acting skills. Among them, it is the jogis who once occupied a place of veneration for their “powers”. An oft-cited saying on their self-willed nature goes like this: “Jogi, raja, agan, jal/Inki aldi reet/Inse bachta rehna hai/Ki thode rakhe preet”. Steer clear of jogis, kings, water and fire for they belong to no one.

A documentary by West Zone Cultural Centre.

There was a time when the jogis were sought after by their patrons, Meo landlords, to liven up family celebrations. At weddings, the baraat ensconced in the bride’s village for three nights and the entire neighbourhood would sit around on dehlas (large charpoys) set up in courtyards to hear their songs. Harvests too were a time to summon the jogis, believed to be vested with powers to both bless and curse.

But that is now a thing of the past, both their place in society as well as that of their art is threatened. Rarely heard in villages and small towns of Mewat, the ballads are mostly sung in formal performative spaces or institutions dedicated to conservation, such as the government-run zonal cultural centres and bodies like the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Global music forums sometimes offer the space that the old patrons don’t. Many jogis in the area have travelled to Europe with their music, only to return to anonymity and poverty at home.

Interviews with jogi families on both sides of Mewat, between Alwar in Rajasthan and Nuh in Haryana, show that their rare musical memories are fast fading because of shifting cultural preferences of the young as well as the loss of performance platforms, especially for the complex ballad tradition.

A jogi troupe at Sikrawa in Mewat, Haryana. Credit: Malini Nair.

“When fundamentalism became vicious in the early 2000s, we were told by the Meo jajmans, ‘Halla mat karo [don’t create mayhem]. Come collect what is customarily due to you but don’t sing,’” said Yusuf Khan, a bhapang player and singer from Alwar. “For the youngsters of the jogi community, it was humiliating to watch their elders stand at the doors of rich homes, simply waiting for alms, the music silenced. The young turned away from the tradition. They would now rather do casual work at building sites and wedding banquets.”

Yusuf Khan is struggling to document many of the jogis’ epics, especially Pandun ka Kada, about the clash of the two clans in Mahabharata. There is no clarity on this, but the work was supposed to have been written by a Meo poet, Sadullah Khan, between the 16th and 19th century. Another epic of the jogis, Lanka Chadhai, is credited to one Nizamat Meo. In their heyday, these ballads were written and sung by Meos, for Meos.

Ballads such as Pandun ka Kada, Bheruji, Chandrawal Goojri, Katha Gopichand, Raja Bharthari, Narsi Ka Bhat, Nihalda are set and sung in a standard doha-dhani (couplet) style but need considerable vocal skills and power for hours of recitation. Orally transmitted between generations, it is hard to salvage them from oblivion, especially since they are set in an archaic Mewati dialect. “I have to sit with my granduncle Shakoor Khan who remembers well over 20,000 couplets, listen, transcribe and then cross-check with him on meaning and authenticity,” said Yusuf Khan. “It is slow, painstaking work with few takers.”

Shiv ka Byavla sung by Babunath Jogi on jogiya sarangi, accompanied by Umar Farooq on bhapang.

Communal divide

Along with Muslims, there are Hindu jogis in this belt too and tradition assigns them a different role: while the bhapang and jogiya sarangi are the domain of Muslim jogis, Hindu minstrels play the unique bakri ki masak and the chikara, a smaller sarangi.

In Jogi Nangal, a small village off Alwar city, Ram Sarup has specialised in the bakri mashaq, which can only be described as a kind of Mewati bagpipe made with goatskin that resembles a goat’s body and has an origin story that goes back to Shaivite lore. His brother Pappu Ram plays the chinkara, a small sarangi. Together, they travel the village on auspicious days and during bajra and wheat harvests, performing and seeking alms from Hindu families. Never have they had a quarrel with Muslim jogis.

But Alwar is a different story from Haryana’s Mewat. The communal divide here has impacted the music traditions of the area much more. For one, the Muslim jogis here have pretty much stopped performing traditional ballads centred on Hindu deities. Young Muslims tend to adhere to the diktats of the clergy and are far more particular about asserting their identity, said an elder: “If we insist on singing, say, Pandun ka Kada, there could be gadbad [trouble]. But the older generation still relates to this music.” What does click, without ruffling feathers, are local sagas such as Rustam Pehalwan, Jehangir Chor and Qasam Haji. And folk songs like singalwati (eulogies to patrons) and ratwais (romantic ballads).

Ram Sarup (left) and Ram Babu. Credit: Malini Nair.

In Gokalpur, half an hour from Nuh, the Mewat capital in Haryana, Shamsuddin Khan’s family has been adhering to the jogi traditions for generations. In his home, the jogiya sarangi has been gathering dust in a rexine bag hung on a wall. He is irritated with its discordant notes when he attempts to play it. It has been years since he touched the instrument, he says, since there is little demand for it in the villages surrounding Gokalpur.

Once he has tuned it, the sarangi plays a perky accompaniment to his son Asru’s rendition of a popular ratwai:

Mere nandi ka beera ondi to roti hai ghee ghano
Kha le mera raaj tome mero ji ghano

(Oh husband, the roti is coarse so I have layered it with plenty of ghee. Have it, for my love for you knows no bounds).

“Anything beyond this holds no appeal for the young anymore,” said Shamsuddin, packing away his sarangi.

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2022.