Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations have begun in Hyderabad, and festivities in the city would be incomplete without the foot-tapping beats of the Marfa bands. Be it an election campaign, IPL match or VIP visit in the city – the Marfa music inevitably has everyone swaying.
The artists are known to beat the drums till people stop dancing and the celebrations come to a close at the break of dawn.
What makes Marfa music even more special is that it has takers regardless of culture and religion: you will find the musicians at a Muslim wedding, at Durga Pooja, and also a family celebrating their son or daughter's trip to the US. The Marfa artists are also regulars at state-organised functions, charming VIPs and celebrities with their foot-tapping music.
The keepers of the Nizams’ wealth
A Yemeni art form which found its way to the city during the Nizam rule, there is some contention on who introduced the art form into Hyderabad. While some say it’s the Siddis (an ethnic group of African descent), many artists claim it was their Yemeni ancestors who popularised it among music lovers here.
Today, the Marfa artists are easily recognisable in their white kurtas and lungis, with red-chequered scarves wrapped around their heads, beating their instruments to a pulsating, irresistible rhythm. However, the Marfa artists weren’t always just passionate musicians. They were originally guards to the princes of one of India’s richest states.
Speaking to TNM, Kayyum Bin Omer, a third generation Marfa artist, narrates how his grandfather was one of the men brought from Yemen to Hyderabad as a gatekeeper of Mir Osman Ali’s treasures, who later found the Marfa music played by the Arab guards enthralling.
“The music was played on celebratory occasions during the Nizam’s rule. Even today, the Marfa music is played during Independence Day celebrations at the Golconda Fort,” Omer adds.
Omer bearting the marfa
Omer, who has been in the profession for 28 years now, initially had a group with 70-80 Marfa musicians. However, with dwindling incomes in the field, the number has reduced to 15. "But we are still able to earn a decent income, with some performances outside the Telugu states too,” says Omer.
The art form
This form of music is played with the help of a number of instruments – mainly the marfas (also called dholaks or daffs) that the musicians hit with sticks and wooden strips called ‘thapi’. “There are no string or wind instruments used. Our ancestors used to beat on marfas that were made of goat skin. But now, artists prefer fibre surfaces. It’s easier to play on them and we incur lesser costs,” Omer explains.
Some of the different instruments used are called Kandoora, Mushad Jetta, Marfas and Bindiya Peetal. Though most of them resemble a dholak, they vary in size and require a variation in skill. “The artists are also paid based on the instrument they choose to play,” Omer adds.
The Marfa artists usually play at night, in performances of three to six hours at a stretch. This requires the artists to stand erect, carrying the heavy dholaks around their necks while also dancing to a rhythm.
“Celebratory processions usually require us to perform without a break for hours together. It’s common for the Marfa artists to spit blood and fall sick due to extreme fatigue. But none of it has ever stopped us from making ourselves presentable for our next performance,” Omer says.
A Marfa band traditionally comprises 8, 12, 16 and 22 members. On demand, a few of the troupe members may dance while their colleagues play the instruments. The most popular form of dance is the dagger dance which has an artist swinging the dagger in the air as the other musicians incrementally raise the tempo of the beats.
The dagger dance, a traditional Yemeni dance form, was one of the most sought after ones, shares Mohammed Yousuf, owner of the Arabi Marfa Band. However, the real daggers have now been replaced by plastic or wooden ones. “There have been instances in the past of some spectators snatching the real daggers and trying to wield them in an inebriated state, hurting others. The government had almost banned the dance for safety reasons, but we have started using wooden or plastic daggers to keep the tradition alive,” Mohammed says.
From traditional music to Baahubali tunes
“Saali ke baagh ko jaana, waaha ke nimboo churana, waha ka jabri deewana,” Omer sings with a faint smile on his lips. These lyrics are often sung to tease the groom during a wedding, and are a result of Marfa music adapting to include local flavours.
“We used to sing to the lambada music, and the thumri raag was popular, but as the tastes of people evolved, we started customising the tunes. Today, we even perform for hit numbers from Baahubali,” says Omer. “We sing what people want us to. Arabic compositions like 'Ahlan wasahlanya', 'Abu bakar-ya abu salahm' are popular, and then you have the dholak songs like 'Saali ke Bagh' and 'Kankariya Maar ke Jagaya'.”
There are a few artists now who play the piano and wind instruments only to please the audience too – something Omer disagrees with. “The essence of Marfa music lies only in beating double-skinned drums and dholaks,” he asserts.
Though it seems that the popularity of the Marfa music hasn’t diminished, many artists say it’s no longer something from which they can earn a decent wage.
“Earlier, Marfa artists used to earn money as well as respect in the society,” says Ibrahim, a former Marfa troupe member, now driving an auto-rickshaw in the city. “Now, while the band owners can earn in lakhs for a single performance, what trickles down to the artists is very meagre. I was an artist for 30 years, but haven’t earned enough to even provide proper education for my kids. The maximum I have earned for a single performance is Rs 600,” Ibrahim reveals.
Echoing similar concerns, Amjad, who plays in another Marfa band, says that this is one of the primary reasons there are few youths in the city today who want to carry forward the legacy of their ancestors. “The music is inborn. The talent the Marfa musicians have is priceless. But where is the money? The band owners must realise this, and not let the art form die in the city.”