The lockdown measures because of the coronavirus pandemic haven’t prevented Mame Khan from connecting with his vast fanbase. If anything, the acclaimed Rajasthani singer has been using technology to reach out to his admirers. On April 1, Khan performed from his home in Mumbai for a concert organised by Hungama Artist Aloud #StayAtHome #StayEntertained and streamed over Facebook. Since then, Khan has been online almost every other day.
“The home is where my bag is,” Khan told Scroll.in over the phone. “I have been in Mumbai since day one of the lockdown, performing for my fans, ensuring they don’t feel low and stay home. Meanwhile, I am also working on my own material, which might be out later this year or in 2021.”
Khan is among a long list of musicians and singers who have been reaching out to listeners through free digital concerts during the lockdown. The list includes DJ Nucleya, pop group Parekh & Singh and veteran playback singers SP Balasubrahmanyam and Asha Bhosle.
Khan’s online concerts, in which he performs with just a harmonium, are vastly different from his boisterous stage events as well as the traditional performances by the Rajasthani Manganiyar community to which he belongs.
The first track Khan performed on April 1 was his version of the popular Rajasthani folk tune Kesariya Balam. While Kesariya Balam is usually performed in the six-beat Dadra taal, Khan’s interpretation has a 4/4 time signature.
“Our kind of Rajasthani folk music lends itself easily to fusion and can mix with anything because we don’t have rules,” Khan explained. His debut album Mame Khan’s Desert Sessions (2015) features the saxophone alongside the primary instruments of his community – the stringed kamaicha, the khartaal, and the dholak.
“It’s all oral tradition and there’s room for improvisation,” Khan explained. “I believe if you master your own art well, you can collaborate with anyone, like I have with jazz musicians, Spanish flamenco artists, Romanian gypsies, opera singers.”
A descendant of a storied family of Manganiyar musicians that stretches back 15 generations, Khan trained under his father, Rana Khan. His first love wasn’t singing but playing the dholak. “I would buy all the cassettes of Zakir Hussain saab and replicate his work on the tabla on my dholak,” he recalled.
Khan first played the dholak outside Rajasthan at the age of 12 on the occasion of Independence Day to a crowd that included Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 1999, after a seven month-long tour of Brussels, Khan returned to India without his precious dholak. He had assumed that he would return to the Belgian capital to retrieve the percussion instrument, but that was not to be.
Khan’s father suggested that he switch to singing – advice that has resulted in concerts in close to 60 countries and at such prestigious venues as the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, and the Sydney Opera House.
In 2005, Khan performed at the wedding of Ila Arun’s daughter, the VJ and actor Ishita Arun, in Mumbai. Among the guests was Shankar Mahadevan. The singer, who composes music for Hindi films along with Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonca as Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, recruited Khan to perform the folksy dance number Baawre for Zoya Akhtar’s directorial debut Luck By Chance (2009).
Baawre was Khan’s first-ever studio recording. “When Shankar Mahadevan called me, I thought it must be for a performance, so I went wearing my entire costume, the turban, everything,” Khan recalled. “I entered the studio and there was Shankar, Zoya Akhtar, Javed Akhtar. Shankar said, we have called you just to record a song.” Baawre was followed by several collaborations with Mahadevan, including playback for films such as Mirzya (2016) and live performances.
Khan’s association with another film music composer, Amit Trivedi, led to the hugely popular Coke Studio India recording of Chaudhary in 2012. Chaudhary is among a handful of tunes strongly associated with Khan, alongside Kesariya Balam and Mitho Laage, produced with guitarist-composer Dhruv Ghanekar.
Khan performs these crowd-pullers along with his folk fusion group Rock’n’Roots Project. “When people would tell me folk music was dying, I’d get angry, and then I promised myself that I would never let people say this again, so I began the Rock’n’Roots Project,” he said. “I believe everyone should respect time and move with it, not against it.”
His singing inspirations include Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and his father Rana Khan, whose Loli is part of the Desert Sessions album. “This album is special because it’s the first crowd-funded folk album by any Manganiyar artist,” Khan said. “In the old world, we survived from donations by our Hindu patrons. In the new world, our online funders are our patrons.”
While the origin of the name Manganiyar is disputed, Khan put forward two theories. “Manganiyar either stems from maha-gun-yaar, as in those with a treasure of talent, or it goes back to ancient Islamic history, when two singers performed at the birth of Hussain and Hasan, and their mother, Fatimah, asked them what do you want, and she gave them her necklace, and called them mang-ni-haar,” he said.
Among the most well-known tributes to the community is Roysten Abel’s stage production The Manganiyar Seduction, whose singers included Mame Khan. Hindi film music and television shows such as The Dewarists and Coke Studio India have also propelled Khan and his contemporaries, including Kutle Khan, towards popstar status.
“Earlier, in life, there was struggle, learning, and improving,” Mame Khan observed. “The struggle isn’t there anymore as much by god’s grace, but learning and improving never stop.”