Sunday, May 17, 2015 - 05:30
Marwari Khyal performance in Rajasthan. Image Source: Khamayati   Degana at Nagaur district in Rajasthan is not a very small town. Till about two decades ago, it was a mining centre producing top-grade tungsten, and remains one of the first few places in India to have had a panchayat election after Independence. But today, the town, which holds one of Rajasthani folk art’s rarest gems, is symbolic of a dying tradition. There is little hope that 75-year-old Bansilal Khiladi Chuiwala’s exceptional musical theatre, the Kuchamani Khyal, will outlive him. A frail looking man, who can barely walk thanks to a hip dislocation, Bansilal himself is the embodiment of the fading art form. Everybody knows about the Langas and Manganiars of Rajasthan. Artists from the two extraordinarily talented communities go on world tours, appear on Coke Studio and participate in international shows, and many among them have also managed to sustain their art and attain financial success. But there are hundreds of other such equally-talented artists, their numbers dwindling by the day, who are gasping for breath in the dry plains of Rajasthan. Dalit and tribal communities like Dholis, Bhopas, Nagarchis, Kalbeliyas, Kanjars, Bhavains, Bhils and Banjaras, are witnessing the death of their own music, dance and theatre. Bansilal, a Mirasi from Marwar, is one of them.   Bansilal Khiladi ‘Chuiwala’ at home in Degana   Born Bashir Mohammed in 1940, he took the stage name Bansilal Khiladi “Chuiwala” when his career took off. “l was born into a family of musicians. My father, Imam Baksh, was my first teacher. I performed in Ram Lila and Nautanki. Then I started learning Marwari Khyal,” says Bansilal, as he struggles to get himself comfortable on a wooden cot. Marwari Khyal is a type of folk theatre which is narrated through song and dance, and is popular in the Marwar region of Rajasthan. “In the era of Maharajas, these groups were engaged by the war-party to travel along with them for entertainment. At war camps, artists would enthrall soldiers with their dance and drama. Some plays are known to be as long as 12 hours, one even runs to three days,” says Shaukat, Bansilal’s son who cannot perform the khyal but manages the few artists in Degana who can. Stories of valour and theatre of politics There are different types of Marwari Khyals, like Shekhawati and Rambvat, and the Kuchamani Khyal is one of them. Bansilal started performing Kuchamani Khyal about 50 years back, and has stuck to it ever since. It’s an all-male performance with harmonium and nagara, a loud drum with two heads. Over five decades, the likes of Bansilal have regaled their audiences with dramatic stories of Raja Amar Singh Rathore and Raja Harishchandra, among others. When I ask Bansilal to explain the difference between the various Marwari Khyals, he breaks into a song almost instantly, lying down on his cot.   Bansilal Khiladi performing in Tilonia decades ago. Image: Archives in Tilonia, Rajasthan   Several other such art forms, like the Turra-Kalangi, are on the brink of extinction. A form of strong political theatre popular in Chittorgarh, performers are divided into two groups of political thought, Turra and Kalangi, one liberal and other conservative, and they fight out their ideologies through song and drama on stage. “This form of political theatre is rare, and thanks to the diminishing interest in such performances, there are very few left who can do it. And this has socio-political relevance, it’s a shame we are letting it go away,” says Paras Banjara, a social activist based in Rajasthan. These artisan groups were also sterling examples of Indian secularism. Langas and Manganiars are Muslim communities, but both sing Hindu songs and perform for Hindu audiences. In fact, Manganiars’ royal patrons were primarily Hindus, and many of their songs are about Hindu rulers and gods. “Rajasthani folk art surpassed religious barriers. While the caste system was indeed rigid, there were no religious differences between them,” says Paras. “People don’t even consider us separate as Muslims. We have our faith in Islam, but we live happily with Hindus, and so do they. Earlier there were no such problems,” adds Shaukat. The decline over the years It’s not difficult to understand why these musicals are vanishing. For one, tastes are changing. At Bansilal’s own house in Degana, popular Bollywood songs are more sought after than the story of Raja Harishchandra. When I ask his grandson Ameen why he cannot perform the Kuchamani Khyal, Ameen’s father Shaukat intervenes and says, “He does not even know about it, we didn’t teach him.” I ask Ameen what he likes, and his response is immediate - “Atif Aslam.”   Ameen (right), with tinted hair and Bollywood mannerisms, is a fan of Atif Aslam. He is Bansilal’s grandson.   In the villages too, “DJ-music” on loud speakers is replacing traditional music and drama. During the yearly festivals, villagers want to listen to the latest Bollywood item numbers, the musicals from their own backyard long forgotten. Even in the few concerts folk artists get to perform, the income is low and unpredictable. At the mela in Pushkar where Shaukat’s troupe performed last year, they were promised just Rs 1000 per person. “That was nine months ago. I just got a call from someone saying that the government office has lost the file, now we will have to wait for the file to be made again. I think by the time we get our money, we will be preparing for the next Pushkar mela,” says Shaukat, laughing it off. Fortunately for him, his small cab service business brings food to the plates. The rest of his troupe is not that fortunate. They have to do odd jobs to survive.   Artists posing in the green room at School for Democracy, Rajasthan   There is another important reason for the dwindling numbers of folk artists, and it is rooted in the caste system. Most of Rajasthan’s folk art groups, including Langas and Manganiars, were chained to the Jajmani system. The artists, who were usually from the lower castes, were patronised by Jajmans belonging to the higher castes, like Jats and Rajputs. The Jajmani system is deeply rooted in caste. For several centuries, through war, drought and social change, the folk arts of Rajasthan flourished because the patrons, who were from wealthier and powerful upper castes, supported the life of artists by giving them food and money in return for entertainment. With the artisan castes now aspiring to be social equals, several families have deserted their music which is entrenched in the caste system. In Bansilal’s family, apart from his son who manages artists, only two of his nephews perform the Kuchamani Khyal, and that is because, Shaukat says, they were unable to complete their education. Finding patronage without social stigma It is an unenviable conundrum. Can the Jajmani system be kept alive to let the art survive, or can the art be allowed to die to reform society? “We think there can be a middle path, and that is what we are trying to find out,” says Radhika Ganesh, another social activist based Rajasthan. The trio, Radhika, Paras and Shweta Rao, also an activist in Rajasthan, are working towards a solution. “Patronage is a necessity here since the market cannot help them survive. And patronage can come from anywhere, without social stigma. So our endeavour is to work towards building partnerships to support these communities in their art,” says Radhika. Shweta is also a part of Khamayati, an effort by Barefoot College, Tilonia, to support and facilitate Rajasthani folk musicians. The programme helps artists showcase their music to wider audiences across the world by documenting their performance, and used modern methods for the process. But why is it that the Langas and Manganiars are world famous and successful, but other folk artists have not been able to achieve the same? Shweta says “Not all Langas and Manganiyars are successful, only some of the polished ones with marketing skills are. There are several of them who have not been able to survive.” “They had business interests behind them. And people like Komal Kothari helped them take their music to the world. We did not receive such backing,” says Bansilal. Komal Kothari, known as Komalda, was a musicologist from Rajasthan who is credited with giving the crucial boost to Langas and Manganiars in the national and international arena. “Also, the instruments they use, like khamaicha and sarangi, are very novel. That grabs the audiences’ attention,” says Shaukat, on why Langas and Manganiars have been more successful. For Shaukat, and several others, the government is the last resort. “The state government started an artists’ pension scheme, and all they paid my father was Rs 2500 per month, and only for a year. Is that enough? And what about artists performing now?” he asks. So should the government be their Jajman now? “Yes,” he says, thoughtfully nodding.

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