Musicians in rural India, who depend on religious festivities for a living, face hard times as all gatherings, including social events, stand cancelled in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak.
Fifty-year old Sarvan, a Dalit, is a resident of a village called Parichha — a gram panchayat in Pohri tehsil of Shivpuri district in Madhya Pradesh. He was eight years old when he started learning music, “I have no Guru,” he says, “I learnt the harmonium and the dholak out of sheer passion.” Sarvan plays the harmonium in various local functions. People from nearby villages invite him to perform at events like Dussehra and Navdurga.
Since the lockdown, he has not gone anywhere and is now concerned about his future. “I have had no problems until now. I have enough to eat, but in this lockdown, everything is uncertain and I am afraid how and when things will normalise,” he said.
Sarvan has faced untouchability, knows its pain and is therefore very cautious about it. “I have cancelled my programme at Sagaur, I am afraid if I had gone, how my fellow villagers would have reacted.” The lockdown has rendered his mandali (group of performers) unemployed and they are all holed up at their homes.
Hargyaan Jatav, a friend and the dholak player in Sarvan’s mandali, is in dire straits. He says since people are practising social distancing and are unwilling to take risks, they might be unemployed for at least a year.
Lampi Jatav, a dancer and singer, is also quite concerned about the future. He says if this lockdown goes on for a long period, members of the mandali will have to rely on the harvest, which will not be enough.
Talking to the Patriot, Sarvan said that when he started playing the harmonium, he was not allowed inside the temple because of his caste. So he, along with other musicians belonging to similar castes, formed a group and started a programme at Kanhaiya Kakka’s residence.
Kakka, who died of old age a few years ago, belonged to the “khawas” caste (members of this caste primarily work as barbers). “Every eighth day, we used to sit at Kanhaiya Kakka’s home and perform kirtan. In just a few months time, the group’s strength swelled, with many people from the upper castes also joining us in this effort.”
The weekly event, says Sarvan, went on for 12 years. And after the dispersion of Bajrang Mandal, the music group that traditionally performed in the temple, Sarvan’s group was tasked to perform the yearly function at the old Hanuman temple in the village.
Hargyaan says that music has been liberating for them. “Whenever we perform at temples, we take care of the sanctity of the temple. We don’t unnecessarily touch anything. We are allowed inside the temple just because we have the power of music in our hand.”
Sarvan is now relatively better off but he remembers his life journey and the struggles that untouchability brought with it. He shares how he started playing the harmonium. “Once after a programme, intrigued by the harmonium, I started playing the instrument after the end the programme had ended. However, Bhagatji (one of the members of the performing music group) scolded me saying that I was damaging the instrument.”
The casteist language used by Bhagatji prompted him to narrate this entire incident to his mother. Upon hearing this, she gave Sarvan Rs 750, all her savings, to purchase a harmonium for himself. That’s how his journey in music began.
When talking of music in Parichha village, Sarvan is an important name. He says he found a guru in Kesav Chacha, a Muslim man whose family has traditionally been involved in music.”I gave Rs 50 as ‘guru dakshina’ and accepted him as my guru”.
Talking about the importance of music in his life, Sarvan says that despite being the only male child, he was able to give 12 bhaat (dowry) on his own. Music, he says then, has liberated him. And although he knows dowry is wrong, the mindset of people makes it difficult to get daughters and sisters married without it.
A Muslim musician in a Hindu village
Kesav Chacha (Isshub Khan), in his 70s, is one of the famous harmonium players of the village. He is called Chacha by the villagers and has taught music to many. But he is not proud of his career. “I was good at studies, my teacher and classmates loved me for that. But destiny wanted something else” he says.
In his twilight years, Kesav does not rely on music for a living. “I quit music some 20 years ago. It has perverted and become nothing but noise. That’s why I provided a good education for my kids.” He performed for years and was revered for his prowess at harmonium in various villages. “I started my journey performing music in the Ramayana played in Parichha and ended with it. Music for me is limited to the bhakti of God.”
Keshav shares that his coming to Parichha has an interesting story behind it. His father, he says, used to play the tabla as accompaniment to the dance of ‘tawaifs’ (courtesans). In Parichha, the Ramayan played during Dussehra was very famous and his father would receive Rs 5 every season for his participation. “Dada was more interested in Ramayan than performing with tawaifs,” he says. “He soon left his ancestral village in Padoda to settle down here”.
“Villagers gave us food grain and later we acquired land and built our house. I learnt music from Dada and started helping him,” he says. Kesav adds that his participation in these yearly religious gatherings earned him the respect and love of the villagers adding philosophically, “In the time of such crisis, these things help us all.”
Asked about the impact of lockdown on his life, Kesav says, “As an old man, I don’t go out that much. But it will impact us badly if it goes on for long. Everyone has to work for food and good health. People will not have money to spend on their health if this goes on for long,” he says.