Will the kamaycha disappear? Manganiyar players of traditional Indian instrument seek help to revive their careers

The pandemic has made it difficult for musicians to make a living

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It’s a hot afternoon in Hameera, an Indian village known for its golden sand dunes and located 30 minutes from the city of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan.

It’s 3pm and Ghewar Khan sits cross-legged on the floor, alongside his brothers Firoze and Darra. On the blue wall opposite them hangs a photograph of their late father, Sakar Khan Manganiyar, who was honoured in 2012 with India’s fourth highest civilian award, the Padma Shri.

Ghewar's family belongs to western Rajasthan's Manganiyar community. He comes from a long line of professional musicians who traditionally earned their livelihood by performing for wealthy patrons. In the case of the Manganiyars, these patrons usually belonged to the Rajput community, who count noblemen, warriors and kings among them.

Though the Manganiyars are Muslim by religion, their repertoire features a range of bhajans and songs devoted to Hindu gods, as their patrons were predominantly Hindu.

Feroz Khan Ghewar Khan Family Hamira. courtesy : Manjoor Khan.
The Khan family come from a long line of professional musicians. Courtesy Puneet Samtani

The high-pitched voices of these musicians are usually accompanied by the deep sound of their traditional instrument, the kamaycha, the body of which is carved out of a single block of mango wood (or sometimes sheesham, also known as Indian rosewood) and covered with goatskin. Its two main strings are made of goat intestine, with the other three made of steel. It is played with a bow called the gaj.

Picking up the large instrument beside him, Ghewar explains how his father was one of the greatest proponents of the instrument. “When the kamaycha is being played, you know you are listening to a Manganiyar musician. It’s our identity.”

Pointing to his sons and two nephews, he says they all live together in what is almost like a gurukul, a type of education system from ancient India where students or disciples lived near or with a guru, in the same house.

This way of living and learning was particularly common within the Indian classical music scene, and young princes were known to leave their palaces to learn warfare, politics and administrative skills from Brahmin teachers in gurukuls.

India's kamaycha players hope to pass on tradition before it is lost

India's kamaycha players hope to pass on tradition before it is lost

"Our relatives also come and stay with us to learn," he says. "That's how we try to keep the tradition alive. If we don't, the kamaycha will disappear one day."

The past year has been difficult for the Manganiyars, as it has for many folk artists who make a living from performing live. Ghewar's family, for instance, has travelled around the globe and performed at venues such as the White House in Washington, US and the Royal Albert Hall in London, UK.

But with restrictions on public gatherings, including concerts, weddings and other religious ceremonies, because of the coronavirus pandemic, these musicians have found themselves completely out of work.

Since the pandemic struck, we have been receiving distress calls from several folk artists

Thankfully, Mumbai event company Banyan Tree launched the Meri Kala Meri Pehchaan Project, which aims to provide assistance in this unfortunate situation. Over the years, it has worked to promote India’s cultural heritage and organised multi-city festivals, each dedicated to a specific genre of Indian music.

“Having spent almost three decades in this field, we share a good rapport with artists across genres,” says Banyan Tree founder Mahesh Babu. “Since the pandemic struck, we have been receiving distress calls from several folk artists from different parts of the country.

"We realised that we need to first address the immediate need of getting food to those who need it urgently and also think of a solution for their sustenance, until things stabilise. Our support includes finding ways for them to practice more, making best use of this downtime while earning a fee to look after their basic needs."

Feroze Khan Ghewar Khan family. courtesy: Manjoor Khan
The kamaycha is carved out of a single block of mango wood and covered with goatskin. Courtesy Puneet Samtani

And so The Kamaycha Project was born out of a partnership between Banyan Tree's non-profit organisation, Tender Roots Academy of Performing Arts, which works towards introducing young minds to the world of performing arts, and Rajasthan's Rupayan Sansthan, a cultural outfit which also runs the popular Komal Kothari School of Folk Music.

This new initiative involves senior kamaycha players from the community teaching young Manganiyar boys the art of playing the instrument.

“The kamaycha is the very backbone of Manganiyar music,” says Nandini Mahesh, director at Banyan Tree. “Like any other evolved instrument, it requires time and dedication to excel in playing. With a view to sensitise young Manganiyars to the beauty and depth of the kamaycha, and to encourage them to take it up as their long-term instrument, we decided to launch [this project] … and these children will be carefully monitored,” she explains.

The programme was launched on March 4, a date that also marks the birthday of Komal Kothari, a pioneer of Rajasthani folk music and the founder of Rupayan Sansthan.

Komal Da, as he’s lovingly called by the artist community, was largely responsible for promoting folk musicians among national and international audiences. He walked from village to village, documenting the music of these communities.

His son, Kuldeep Kothari, who currently runs the organisation, is deeply involved with the kamaycha project. "Four decades ago, when my father was working, we had around 300 kamaycha players coming to him for guidance. Now, you'll find only a handful," says Kothari.

"There are also few people making the instrument now, largely because the number of players and patrons are both dwindling.

“We wanted to help the senior members of the community and develop the skills of the younger members. Our archives today have recordings of more than 20,000 hours, including some from over 60 years ago. These help us create awareness of what was traditionally played."

We have no work. The patrons don't want us to come because of Covid. Things are difficult and earning a living is becoming very tough

With India now facing a severe second wave of Covid-19, however, it's difficult for them to know how long it'll be before artists are able to resume live performances and classes. "We had a meeting on Thursday [April 28] and we have now identified 10 kamaycha gurus we can work with," says Babu. "Staying at home allows them to practice for longer hours. The fee to teach is an incentive, too, at a time when there is no work outside.

"Soon we are planning Zoom sessions where the senior kamaycha players will collaborate with international artists and also talk about their tradition. Many such initiatives will be planned in the near future.”

One of the first teachers to join the project is Hakam Khan, 75, from the village of Sanawada, in Jaisalmer district.

Over a crackling phone line, Hakam tells The National how excited he is to get started. "No one wants to listen to traditional songs and string instruments any more. When we play for our jajmans [patrons], too, they ask us to bring the harmonium since it supports more contemporary music.

Hakam Khan with his students. courtesy: Manjoor Khan
Hakam Khan with his students. Courtesy Manjoor Khan

“So the kids want to learn that, too, since it takes a few months to learn as opposed to the kamaycha, which takes at least two-and-a-half years to learn."

The cases of Covid-19 are not as severe in his village as in big cities across India, he says. “We are locked at home, though. The police are very strict. We have no work. The patrons don’t want us to come because of Covid. Things are difficult and earning a living is becoming very tough.

"Luckily for this project, the two children I'm teaching for two hours every day are my grandsons – Sarvar Khan, 13, and Moti Khan, 15 – who live with me. We don't step out. Hopefully things will get better.

“And I hope they take this up seriously and the generations to come don’t forget our art.”