I’ve lived a lot of my life in borderlands. Draw a line in the dust and suddenly ‘we’ become ‘them’. The popular mythology is that people on ‘that’ side of the border are different. They are not ‘us’, even though they were ‘us’ for centuries before the line was drawn on the map.
This way of looking at the world has fascinated me because, like the Emperor’s new clothes, it doesn’t seem to correspond to reality. As a kid in India I imbibed all the horror stories about the nasty Pakistanis ‘over there’. But when a huge number of them were interred in a camp, not too far from our house, in Allahabad, I was confused. They looked exactly like Indians and spoke the same language. How scary is that?
Similarly, years later I was sent to a small town in South Sudan to interview some very senior Ethiopian officials who feared for their lives if they were sent back. They were from the Gambela region. When I met them I was taken aback because they looked EXACTLY like the local Sudanese, had similar names and even had, one of them told me, relatives in Sudan. Yet they were being harrassed and feared for being different, alien, illegal and strange.
That’s a bit of a long winded way to introduce today’s music, which is the ‘soundtrack’ from a world-igniting theatrical production called The Manganiyar Seduction. Conceived and directed by the Keralaite Roysten Abels, the show took the International Festival circuit by storm between 2010-12. Gloriously presented in an apparatus of some 40 cubicles glowing with a deep red light the stage was deliberately designed to marry the red light district of Amsterdam (where sex workers beckon from windows) and the famous pink sandstone Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Wind) in Jaipur. Over the course of an hour the audience is seduced by the solo and collective music making of 43 Manganiyar musicians from India. The show begins with one cubicle lit and a solitary musician singing. Over time though the rest light up revealing more musicians and a louder more choral approach to the music.
Manganiyar refers to caste of musicians who have called the deserts of western Rajasthan (in India) and eastern Punjab and Sindh (in Pakistan) home since time immemorial. Nominally Muslim they nevertheless, invoke Lord Krishna before performing, and regularly perform music in honor of Hindu deities and at Hindu festivals. They are the type of people who roll their eyes and get exasperated when others try to pin them down and put a label on them. Sure, nowadays most live in either Pakistan or India but their spiritual home is simply the desert. They are the creators and preservers and promoters of the human culture of that place regardless of where any particular border (physical or mental) is drawn by others.
Their music has been called classical folk! I simply call it folk, or peoples music. Played on ancient instruments Manganiyars sing history, faith and love songs that are equally old and common. The traditional repertoire of a Manganiyar from Jaisalmer in Rajasthan would not differ terribly from his cousin’s across ‘the border’ in the Thar desert on Pakistan. The poets Bulleh Shah, Shah Latif and Ghulam Farid would be their common source of lyrics as would the old tragic love songs of Dhola Maru and Heer Ranjha.
The Manganiyars are indeed, some of the finest examples of borderless, universal music.
Be ye seduced!
01 Alfat In Bin Un Bin (Bulleh Shah)