We have almost become numb to the many lynchings that happen on a regular basis in India these days, especially of Muslim citizens. But, the lynching of a Manganiyar musician was almost like a personal affront. I have had a memorable encounter with the Manganiyar or Merasi community in 2014 and I always wanted to write about them. I never knew of their caste structures and hierarchies till I visited them in their village. There is now a renewed interest in this community post this lynching. I am just going to write here about this Merasi musician, Dapu Khan, and my encounter with him. The Merasis are the voice of the desert, they have been and will remain so.
Thrice in a week, the walls of the Jaisalmer fort resound with the soulful tunes of the kamaicha and the rustic voice singing about Moomal-Mahendra and other legends of the desert. This doleful voice wafts out from just opposite the exit of the Maharani’s palace deep within the confines of the fort. Perched above a tiny piece of an extended wall which works like a stage, sings Dapu Khan, the voice of the Jaisalmer Fort. He is the only singer who sings from within the bustling fort premises for the last 25 years and yet, he remains as elusive as the desert myths and tales. Not even many locals know him well and he goes by various other names as Dapa, Dapi etc. But perched on that little wall, with tourists surrounding him in a circle like in the old days of the raja’s durbar, magic is oozing out from the mouth of Dapu in the midst of the mysterious Golden City.
In 2014, I along with a friend, went searching for Dapu to Jaisalmer. He isn’t as famous as the other Manganiyar musicians like Kutle Khan and there are a very few videos of Dapu on Youtube. The first day that we went to the fort searching for him, we couldn’t locate him. I asked around with the locals in the fort but it drew a blank. Nobody seemed to know him.
The next day again I went to the fort, taking in the sights and searching for him, still could not locate him. It seemed to me that this person was perhaps just a phantom, another myth from the desert. I could only term this as the hand of providence when after stepping out of the Queen’s Mahal, we hear a voice behind me beckon us with ‘Padhaaro Mhaare Desh’. I turned around and to my utter but delightful surprise, it was Dapu singing out to me. We spent the next hour sitting next to him, listening to him, like a devotees. The magnanimous soul that he is, he invited us to his home the next day. Our trip to Jaisalmer just got extended by another couple of days.
Dapu belongs to the untouchable caste, called the Merasis who are also known by the derogatory term Maganiyars, which mean beggars, by upper castes. However, Dapu had a completely different spin to this nomenclature. Dapu lives in a cluster of houses in the village of Bhadli, 127 kms away from Jaisalmer city in Fatehgarh district, near the Pakistan border, along with 70 other villagers, who he claims are all members of his extensive family. The Rajasthan government website pegs the total population of Bhadli at 1,554 people, consisting of about 236 houses. This cluster which has about a dozen houses is separated by a makeshift flimsy wall of twigs from the rest of the village. This segregation is because of their caste.
The Merasis are Muslims with Hindu names and they are devotees of Karni Mata. The upper caste Rajputs will always ensure that Merasis sing at any important event in their lives, such as childbirth, marriage etc. According to Dapu, the Merasi women only sing for royalty and yes, it is indeed difficult to notice any female Merasi musician. There is no toilet or electricity in the cluster where Dapu and his family stays. The rest of the village houses the upper-caste Rajputs who live in concrete houses and with access to electricity.
Dapu is one of the very few exponents of the Kamaicha, which is often termed as one of the oldest bowed instruments in the world. The instrument is endangered as there are only a handful of Kamaicha musicians left in Rajasthan. This instrument is similar to certain kinds of fiddles played in Egypt and Central Asian countries. Though one calls the Kamaicha a Rajasthani instrument, it is however, present in only a few places including Jaisalmer and Barmer. The Kamaicha is created out of a single piece of wood and consists of a spherical bowl extended into the neck, a fingerboard, and a resonator covered with leather. The upper portion is covered with wood. It usually has four main strings along with a plus a few subsidiary strings passing over a thin bridge and is played with a bow which produces a haunting and mournful melody. The Kamaicha is one musical instrument that has not undergone any structural changes over the last 500 years – it is still played and constructed the way it has always been.
To adapt with the contemporary times, Dapu and other musicians have ushered in a lot of alterations into their instruments by using the harmonium in place of the Kamaicha and other traditional instruments. Harmonium is an instrument that has had a resonance with Indian classical singing styles and even in popular music rather than in the folk tunes of Rajasthan. The Merasis subsisted under the patronage of royalty earlier, but now have become a mainstay of the tourist economy in Rajasthan.
Ethnomusicologist Komal Kothari was the instrumental in bringing the music of the Manganiyars to centre stage in the country in the 1950s. And now, with the fetishisation of folk music from India in the ‘indie’ and ‘world’ music genres through shows such as Coke Studio, some Manganiyar musicians have been catapulted to the mainstream arena. The most prominent among them being Kutle Khan. However, this ‘exposure’ to the mainstream music industry is also contingent upon institutional support that some of the musicians receive. For instance, no academy or institution has given any form of support to Dapu till now, and thus, he or his family have not yet sung on any platform, even in a city like Delhi.
Though the Merasis have been singing about romantic tales, devotional songs etc, what is crucial to understand is the caste oppression that they have been subject to. It is still not clear if this oppression is manifest through their music and if they have been able to bring in any kind of negotiations with the hegemonic caste/class/religion in the region. But they have indeed been instrumental in bringing in trade through their performativity in a tourist-driven economy. Another interesting aspect of their lived histories is the huge repository of oral narrative tradition which is very much different from what written history offers to us. For instance, their oral narratives point to a simplistic origin of the term Manganiyars. Dapu narrates that this term originates from ‘magan har’, means giving the garland to them by the devi (mother goddess). This is myth making as far as written and textual history is concerned. The Merasis also take pride that Tansen was a Merasi. One cannot say for sure if it is indeed true, but it is what their myths say. Of course, their entire oeuvre of music is in the oral narrative again, consisting of at least some 1000 different songs dedicated to various genres. They have six main ragas and 36 raginis.
I wish I could write more and I want to. I will never forget my encounter with Dapu and his family of musicians. It’s an abysmal tragedy to see how a Merasi musician was lynched for the many factors including religion and caste. Dapu gifted me a red sari as a parting gift which was with me till recently. It touched me to the core to see the magnanimity of an impoverished, oppressed and dispossessed musician. They are our living heritages and we need to protect our heritage. What remains of the idea of India if these heritages are butchered away?
The hope remains that an intervention can be made in breaking the hegemonies of the caste structures in a deeply feudal society, which perhaps will indeed open some more opportunities for this community. This lynching must not be allowed to become another statistic, but should shake researchers, musicologists and activists working on caste to take a re-look into the production and circulation of the much loved and fetishised folk music from the desert.
Shaheen Ahmed is a PhD research scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.