Interactions with Musicians at Home and Abroad
An excerpt from Rustom Bharucha’s book Rajasthan--An Oral History: Conversations
with Komal Kothari (Penguin India, New Delhi).
Komalda, you’re obviously concerned that when musicians from underprivileged groups
like the Langas and Manganiyars go abroad and earn a lot of money, there are possible
tensions that can emerge through such trips. These musicians are not just being
separated from their families, but from their patrons as well. So their traditional
source of livelihood can be seriously affected. But tell me, how do you actually
deal with the discrepancies of money, of those foreign-returned musicians who’ve
acquired new wealth, and of those who stay behind and continue to survive on a pittance.
After all, the moment you internationalize the folk, you’re dealing with another
Yes, on the one hand, there is the question of economy, but on the other hand the
important thing is that, when you select a musician, his other colleagues should
be clear that you’re not trying to favour him. It’s on the basis of his quality
and capability as a musician that he gets selected. I would say that this is one
area in which I have never been questioned by any of the musicians. No one can claim
that I have favoured any one particular musician over the others. When they assemble
in my house before any programme, I tell them very clearly, ‘All right, you play
the kamaycha, can you play me such-and-such piece? And if you cannot play the things
that I’m requesting, then how can I help you? You have to learn these pieces, work
hard at them, and then only will you be able to say why I don’t want to select you.
It’s through your expertise alone that you get selected. So, if your playing is
good, then there should be no problem, but if you cannot play your instrument properly,
or you don’t know how to tune it, then how can I help you? I am sending you to a
foreign country where people are aware of these basic things. In India, if you go
for any tourist programme, nobody will ask if your kamaycha or
dholak is properly
tuned or not-- they don’t know left from right. But when you come to me for any
foreign programme, then I have to check everything.’
In this way, I talk to the musicians and reason with them. And nobody in all these
years has ever accused me of favouritism. The musicians know that if there is an
alternative musician available for any programme, then I will select this musician
over someone else who has already had an opportunity to perform. Once a musician
has participated in a programme for a particular year, then I will not include him
in any other programme for the remainder of that year. I won’t, and I don’t need
to, because there are so many other musicians who are capable of playing well. So
by spacing out the selection of the musicians, I think it has become clear to them
that sooner or later they will all get a chance to perform.
Besides, I’ve never worked in an institutional framework, in the sense that I’ve
never directed any one particular group of musicians on a permanent basis. It would
have been very easy for me to select twenty top musicians and identify them as Rupayan
Sansthan artists, and go on representing these twenty performers for all shows.
But I’ve never done anything like this, and the musicians know that I won’t do such
a thing. For each programme we assemble a number of singers and musicians, and this
grouping could be very different for the next programme. Sometimes this constant
changing of the group creates problems for us, but we do our best to make the finest
selection for each assignment. Of course, we don’t need to have long rehearsals
with the musicians. Whatever they do comes naturally from their own context, and
we merely select the items for each programme and give it a particular structure.
I’m interested to know more about how folk musicians adapt to living conditions
in foreign countries, as in Europe. After all, they don’t just play music in these
countries—they live there, at times for weeks and even months on end. For example,
it seems that on the Zingaro tour in France that the Rajasthani musicians insisted
on cooking for themselves. They rarely ate French food. Could you reflect on some
of the perceptions of the musicians to foreign cultures when they travel abroad?
In terms of food, they will never eat anything that they have not seen or eaten
before. They will not even experiment at any level. In this regard, I’m reminded
of my grandchildren, Tosh and Tejal, who are ready to eat something different only
if they have seen it on television. Otherwise, they are not likely to eat anything
that they can’t identify. The musicians are no different. In the 1980s, when we
first went to Europe, they never raised the issue of halal, even though they are
all Muslim. But later, there were rumblings in the group. After that I said, ‘All
right, I’m taking a group to Germany. Those of you who insist on halal, I will not
be able to take you with me. I want you to eat well when you’re abroad, and if you
don’t accept their food, there will be a problem.’ At that time nobody raised any
questions. But now they all insist on halal, which is difficult to locate, even
though it is available. Of course, one doesn’t know whether it’s truly halal or
not, but that is what is believed.
So, definitely, food has always posed a problem. Living indoors in hotels and apartments
and keeping the rooms clean has posed another problem. In the early days, before
they got used to travelling, their rooms would invariably be in a mess. I would
have to enter each room and tell the musicians how to use the wash basins and toilets,
going into details not only of flushing the toilet after use, but of cleaning the
bowl regularly. Sometimes they listened to what I was saying, and at other times,
they continued doing their own thing.
But a few things have struck me as being quite extraordinary. We travel constantly
on our tours, maybe 20-25 kilometers every day, from Paris to small towns, and so
on. Yet, despite this constant travel and long distances, I find that the musicians
never lose their way. The routes are like maps drawn in their minds. So we fall
back on the musicians for directions when we get lost. They have extremely sharp
observations of landmarks on the road, and can remember any route without any problem.
Another remarkable thing is how, after one or two trips abroad, they have become
very keenly aware of foreign currencies. So, what’s happening to the pound, the
euro, the yen, the moment they check into the hotel from the airport--within an
hour or so, you can be sure that they know the value of the foreign currency in
relation to the Indian rupee. Exchange rates pose no problems whatsoever. Most of
the time, I would have to depend on them for making my own monetary calculations.
Economically, they are very canny.
But when all is said and done, it’s very hard to penetrate their social shell, not
unlike their music, which is also hard to crack. While listening to them play a
particular piece, I can tell them, ‘Why don’t you try this out? You can do this
as well,’ and maybe, in my presence, they will do what I say, but there’s no guarantee
that they will repeat what I, or someone else, may have suggested. To get through
to them in the first phase of our interaction was very difficult. They relate to
their music on their own terms. But one thing should be pointed out here—whenever
or wherever they perform, even if there is a very renowned musician in the audience,
they never lose their confidence.
No stage nerves?
I tell you, nothing. Whether they are singing in their village or in the Paris Opera
House or in the Kremlin, it makes no difference to them whatsoever. Nothing seems
to change for them; they are not tense about the performance or anything like that.
They just do what they have to do in the best manner possible. And they always shine
when they have an audience. Earlier, and sometimes even today, if I am not on the
stage introducing the pieces, I generally ask the organizers to give me a seat where
the musicians can see me. And I tell them to forget about the entire theatre in
which 2,000 people could be seated and sing only for me. Anyway, so strong is their
performance instinct that the moment they start singing, they are able to identify
four or five or six people in the theatre who seem particularly receptive to their
music. And from that moment onwards, their eyes are always fixed on these individuals
in the audience, whose response they elicit in very perceptible ways. And as the
performance proceeds, the musicians never fail to capture the spirit of the entire
audience through their interaction.
Tell me, do you have any rituals that you perform backstage before a show? I’m aware,
of course, that folk performance traditions are very different from classical forms
like Bharata Natyam, which have fairly elaborate pre-performance rituals. But, regardless
of what one performs, there’s a little more anxiety when one travels abroad, where
one may not know the audience at all. So there may be a greater need for reassurance
through rituals, though as you’re saying, the folk musicians have no stage nerves
whatsoever. Nonetheless, is there anything like a warm-up before they go on stage?
No. However, I’ve noticed that they’ve begun to do certain things that they never
did earlier on. On entering the stage they will now touch the ground, and before
starting the programme, they will greet everybody accompanying them, and then formally
greet the audience, before beginning to sing. This kind of etiquette they have developed
for themselves over the years, and to my mind, it looks a bit awkward.
They never did these things earlier?
No, never. They’ve picked these things up from watching classical musicians, and
dancers in particular, who have elaborate rituals. I would say that this trend began
around the 1980s.
What about costume? I know it’s important to you that they look dignified.
Nowadays, it has become difficult to insist on the dress of the younger men, who
tend to wear trousers and shirt, or sometimes a suit, or kurta pyjama. But the older
members of the group continue to wear their traditional clothes—the same clothes
that they wear in everyday life, except that they would be more carefully washed
and ironed. That’s the only difference. I used to tell the musicians quite candidly
that in order to ‘sell’ them [i.e. their performances], they needed to wear their
own clothes, because that gave them more ‘character’. But today the younger boys,
they wear what they want… The behavioural patterns have changed; earlier, they behaved
like ordinary Manganiyars, now they have become kalakars (artists).
How have the folk musicians learned to deal with technology? As you yourself have
indicated, when you first started your research in the 1960s, they were afraid to
be recorded. So a tremendous shift seems to have taken place in their attitude.
They have no problems whatsoever with the microphone today. Nor are they camera
conscious. In fact, they like to be photographed. They are not tense about these
situations, but perfectly relaxed.
Let me now lead to a somewhat harder question: How much do the musicians ‘take in’
of a foreign place? I’m not just thinking about their concerts as such, where they
seem to have no problem in striking a rapport with the audience. I’m thinking about
the larger social interactions abroad. How do these interactions affect them when
they get back home?
What I’ve observed over the years is that when I first used to go their villages
and stay with them, they cared very little about matters relating to hygiene, whether
this involved drinking water, or blankets or quilts or pillows. Their living conditions
were filthy. It was hard for me to sleep in their homes in those days. But now I
find that they are very conscious about hygienic matters, perhaps not always for
themselves, but certainly for their guests. So in more recent years, when I have
gone to their places, I have been struck by how clean and neat everything is. So,
at this level, there has been some change in their social customs and attitudes.
In music, what they tend to do these days is to focus on things that are playful,
and which do not present any particular musical challenge to them--the popular things
that they have come to realize through enthusiastic audience responses. So today
we find them singing songs where they want the entire audience to clap together.
They can go on clapping like this for hours on end. They have come to realize that
the text of these songs doesn’t really matter.
Has the text suffered in the process of all the international exposure of the folk
Yes. We have lost many nuances from the text of the songs. The musicians have also
come to realize that improvisations go down very well with their audience. So today
they are beginning to develop all kinds of clichés. Even after ten minutes of a
song, you will find these clichés appearing. But the musicians feel that they get
appreciated because of these clichés. So, at one level, it could be said that they
are becoming slaves of these clichés. And that is not a good way to render music.
In one of our earlier conversations, you mentioned
that a rather serious feud is taking place between the families of two musicians
whom you have worked with.
It seems to me that even when the folk musicians get internationalized, the point
is that certain things don't seem to change at all.
Exactly. Their lives remain deeply rooted in the family. They are so deeply rooted,
I cannot begin to tell you. I would regard most Langas and Manganiyars as hen-pecked
husbands. It is their wives who govern them. They cannot govern their wives. And
the relationship with their children is so acute and so intimate, it’s impossible
to think of any change in that bond. It’s so firmly intact.
Has there been any intermarriage outside of these communities?
No, it’s not possible to even think of it.
So, then, what does ‘internationalization’ really mean in this very local context?
If we get past the obvious mechanics of travel and foreign trips, in what ways has
this exposure to the outer world shifted the consciousness of the musicians?
I tell you their shell remains so strong that it’s still very hard to penetrate.
Finally, getting back to some of the more difficult moments in your encounters with
traditional musicians, would you care to share that very tragic incident involving
the musician Shafi? What exactly happened?
Shafi was part of a later group that participated in the Zingaro tour in Europe.
In Belgium, he had teamed up with Multan as his room-mate because they came from
neighbouring villages. Since Shafi was very young, Multan could afford to boss him
around. So while Multan took a nap, Shafi would cook and attend to the other chores.
Before going to the performance one night, it appears that they had used the gas
stove, but it had not been shut properly. After their performance, which finished
around 9.30 p.m., Shafi rushed back to his quarters to prepare dinner. Multan was
following him. It appears that as soon as Shafi opened the door to his room, he
switched on the light, and there was an electric spark, followed by an explosion.
The room was full of gas and he was severely burned. Multan was also injured in
the explosion, but Shafi died after being treated for almost a week at the NATO
hospital in Brussels, one of the most highly equipped hospitals in the world for
all kinds of burn injuries.
One of the members in the group brought back Shafi’s body to India. He was accompanied
by the manager of the Zingaro company. The body had been very well preserved. The
hard part—the very hard part-- was to break the news to the family, which I had
to do. For a few days after the accident, Shafi continued to live. So during that
time, I had informed them that an accident had taken place, nothing more. The NATO
hospital staff did their best to save Shafi’s life, but he couldn’t survive. When
the report came, elaborating on the details of his death, it said that though Shafi
was only 22 years old, his inner biological system was that of 50-60 year old man.
On the surface, he looked so healthy and strong, but his body was obviously a lot
weaker than we had thought. Understandably, the group was terribly shocked at first,
but the show went on. The other musicians didn’t need any persuasion in this matter.
I’ve noticed among my contacts with groups like the Langas and Manganiyars that
they don’t respond to death, as we do, like a tragedy or trauma. They seem to accept
it a lot more readily. This was true of Shafi’s family when the body was brought
back to the village. Nor did they expect anything from us. But here one has to mention
the extraordinary care and generosity of the Zingaro company. For a long time, Shafi’s
wife was supported by the company on a regular basis. In my own way, I have helped
to sustain this relationship.
* * * *
It’s hard to enter the narrative at this point, but after narrating Shafi’s death,
Komalda is silent for a while and it’s obvious that we’ve come to the end of our
session. As I see it, this very poignant episode indicates the many levels at which
intercultural exchanges can be deepened through any number of obstacles—in this
particular case, the death of a young performer. If this inflection of ‘friendship’
in the larger contested terrain of intercultural practice seems sentimental, let
me add a story from Komalda’s biography that, sadly, got erased during one of our
recording sessions. If I fall back here on my own memory of his recollection of
this story, I trust that some of it will come alive in my description.
During one of his trips to the United States with the musicians, there was a break
in the schedule of the tour, and the entire company including Komalda, were all
put up in an unlikely ‘dharamshala’ (rest-house): an old folk’s home. This accommodation
was justified on the grounds that it was temporary and inexpensive. Undeniably,
it must have been strange not only for the Rajasthani musicians to be living in
such a place, but for these old Americans, many of them frail and disabled, to see
these tall, bearded and mustachioed men, dressed in kurtas, dhotis and colourful
turbans, sharing their space. Obviously, neither the musicians nor the old folk
shared the same language, so there was no possibility of communication beyond a
few greetings, and inevitably, little gestures of support—like the musicians picking
up bags for the old people, or opening the doors for them. When the time came for
the musicians to leave, they decided that they would sing for their hosts in an
improvised concert. What followed was something ‘unprecedented’ in Komalda’s experience.
Barely a few songs into the concert, held informally in the living room of the old
folks’ home, Komalda recalls—and I recall him telling me this with great intensity,
sadness, and wonder—that there was a peculiar kind of whimpering that began to be
heard among the old people. Gradually, this became crying, and eventually sobbing.
It was not possible either to ignore this reaction or to continue with the songs.
The musicians stopped singing. Of their own accord the old people got up from their
seats and went forward to the musicians whom they embraced, one by one. ‘It was
something unbelievable’, as Komalda recalled it.
Representing this exchange of emotions from what I remember of Komalda sharing the
story, I am reminded of the levels of intimacy and pain that can be shared in intercultural
encounters. Komalda’s interactions with musicians did not merely illuminate the
world of music; it revealed the human connections that can be sparked through music,
both at home and abroad.