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Songs dipped in honey: the music of Rajasthan

  • Author: Jahnavi Harrison

Say the word ‘India’ and many people conjure up images of Rajasthan. Used as a filming location from everything from James Bond’s Octopussy to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Bollywood epics such as Jodhaa Akbar, Rajasthan undoubtedly is one of the most iconic states of India. Home to spectacular deserts and tourist destinations such as Jaipur and Udaipur, as well as a rich artistic heritage, its raw and spirited music has unsurprisingly been popularised all over the world.

What most know as Rajasthani music is the sound of the Manganiars and the Langas - two distinct groups of hereditary professional musicians who have been patronised by the local aristocracy for many generations. Though both are Muslim, the Manganiars are more liberal, often singing about Hindu deities and festivals, and invoking Lord Krishna at the beginning of a concert, whereas the Langas generally stick with focusing exclusively on their Muslim heritage.

According to Rukma Bai, a famous Manganiyar singer, "when a Manganiyar baby cries, it is in the tune of a raga". The Manganiars are highly skilled as musicians and sing songs from their history - desert kings, regional battles, and even Alexander the Great! Their music can be heard accompanying every celebration, be it birth, marriage, death or any festivity in between.

Manganiar singers are almost exclusively male, although there are a small handful of women who are active in the field. Female singers are generally strictly forbidden to perform in front of anyone but other women, though a few have flouted tradition and appear on both national and international stages.

There is a particularly large Manganiar settlement in the town of Jaisalmer, where they have survived for centuries on the patronage of wealthy merchants. A Manganiar folk singer interviewed by Poonam Goel, said: “We have no use for technology. We are not formally trained in any sargam, our music comes from our heart. Our songs are dipped in honey, whether they are about trees and plants, sun and moon or decorated horses and elephants. Our music brings us close to mother earth.”

Traditional Manganiar instruments are distinctive and evocative of the desert landscape. The kamaicha is a 17-stringed bowed instrument made of mango wood and goat skin. It has strings made of both goat intestine and steel, and played with a singing, vocal quality similar to the classical sarangi.

Percussion is provided by hand held wooden castanets called karatala, and the large dholak drum. The dholak has a simple membrane and a handle on the right-hand side. The left-hand membrane has a special coating on the inner surface of tar, clay and sand (dholak masala) which lowers the pitch.

In recent years, the music of the Manganiars became more well known internationally through The Manganiyar Seduction - a touring show directed by Roysten Abel that featured 40 musicians from Rajasthan. After opening New Delhi in 2006, it toured to rave reviews in the US, UK, Austria, Germany and Australia.

Performers remarked on the difficulty of travelling through international airports with over 40 Muslim men named ‘Khan’, but ended each show with a final bhajan (Hindu devotional song) dedicated to Lord Krishna, reminding international audiences that their tradition transcends boundaries of faith.

Rajasthan also has a strong classical tradition, as the birthplace and home of the classical Jaipur-Atrauli gharana - one of the four main stylistic schools of music and dance of North India. Its style and repertoire was evolved foremost from the Dagar lineage of Dhrupad music.

The modern Jaipur-Atrauli gharana is distinctively recognised by its crooked and complex melodic phrases that require a high degree of skill to perform. The gharana became formally recognised around the early half of the 20th century, though its ancestral lineage goes back to the famous Swami Haridas, a spiritual poet and classical musician. Two of his most famous students were Tansen - one of the ‘nine jewels’ of Emperor Akbar’s court, and Baiju, a legendary composer and Dhrupad singer.

Four to five generations later, Natthu Khan and Mantol Khan became two legends of the Jaipur gharana. Interestingly, akin to the Manganiar’s liberal approach to their repertoire, they followed both Hindu and Muslim traditions. Their succesor, Alladiya Khan wore the sacred thread and traditional dress of a Hindu, yet dedicatedly said his namaz (Muslim prayers) daily. His compositions praise Hindu gods and Allah with equal enthusiasm.

Many generations later, the successors of these Jaipur-Atrauli pioneers are among some of the most respected names in Hindustani music - Srimati Kishori Amonkar, Shruti Sadolikar-Katkar, Ulhas Kashalkar, Arati Ankalikar-Tikekar, and Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande - many of whom have performed at previous Darbar festivals.

Rajasthan is also home to the less famous Mewati gharana, whose most prominent contemporary exponents are Pandit Jasraj and Kala Ramnath. Pandit Jasraj describes the Mewati gharana as being distinctive in including an extensive number of devotional bhajans in its repertoire, as well as having a ‘Sufi-like feel’.

Listen to the music -The karatala and dholak in action. 

More info and interviews on The Manganiyar Seduction: -Documentary about Manganiyar music featuring female singer Rukma Bai.

Watch an excerpt from The Manganiyar Seduction. 

Jaipur-Atrauli gharana exponent Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar singing at Darbar Festival 2011.

Jaipur-Atrauli gharana exponent Dr. Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande singing at Darbar Festival 2018.

Mewati gharana violinist Kala Ramnath playing at Darbar Festival 2006.

Jahnavi Harrison is a multi-disciplinary artist, specialising in vocal music, Kirtan meditation, and Indian devotional dance.

Darbar believes in the power of Indian classical music to stir, thrill, and inspire. Explore our YouTube channel, or subscribe to the Darbar Concert Hall to watch extended festival performances, talks and documentaries in pristine HD & UHD quality.

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