This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on March 2, 2016.
This is a story of communities whose world of knowledge, skills and wisdom lies in oral and audio visual communication. Despite being functional illiterates, their current generation is fast adopting digital tools and media to leverage their traditional skills, like folk music—not just to survive but to flourish.
Qadir Khan is 65 and he remembers more than 250 songs. He can sing them without looking at any paper. He can’t read or write. Qadir Khan is a Langa singer from Bernawa village in Barmer district of Rajasthan. He claims his father knew more than 500 folk songs and hundreds of traditional stories and tunes. Askar Khan and Mehruddin, in their early 50s, claim they can easily remember more than 200 folk songs, including musical scores and stories, that were passed down to them from their parents and elders in the Langa community. They were part of a group of about 95 people from various parts of Rajasthan who had gathered to learn about social media and how it can help propagate folk music—perhaps even save several traditional folk instruments from extinction.
In the middle of a conversation with senior folk musicians, Nek Mohammad, 54, quipped, “You have your pen as your sword but for us our sword is our tongue and our voice.” The Langa community claims that even a newborn, when it cries, is in tune and rhythm. Each and every child in the Langa community and Manganiyar community, learns music in the family. Family members and neighbours are their teachers and mentors, and the entire village is like a living school. On 21 December 2015, we held a workshop with folk musicians of western Rajasthan. The topic was How social media could help traditional and folk musicians. The venue was Arna-Jharna: The Desert Museum of Rajasthan, located on the outskirts of Jodhpur in memory of the late Komal Kothari, a folklorist and oral historian who was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2004.
“The Arna-Jharna Museum can be described as a process of interactive learning experience linked to traditional knowledge systems”, according to the museum website. We thought this place could be apt for holding such a workshop. More than 65 musicians from places like Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Barmer confirmed their participation. But the final tally of participants crossed 100. Three generations of folk musicians from communities like Langa, Manganiyar, Kalbeliya, Dhadhi, Bhopa and Bhat turned up to learn about social media.
It was quite interesting how different generations have different approaches to media, practice, and leisure. While the older generation gave an outstanding performance to start the workshop, as soon as the performance was over and the meeting began, they started leaving. They would be outside, chatting and smoking.
I decided to walk out with them and start a banter. Their gesture was highly respectful, so much so that they stood up as soon as I sat with them on the floor. And they continuously addressed me as malik or hukum (Lordship)—a feudal custom prevalent all over Rajasthan—and prefaced every sentence by saying: “We don’t know much since we are illiterate and uneducated.”
I got a little upset and told them, “Actually we are the ones who are illiterate and you are not. You know music, I don’t; you know raaga, I don’t; you know how to make musical instruments, I don’t; you know singing, I don’t; you remember hundreds and thousands of songs and stories, and I have to refer to an electronic device for every bit of information; you know your language, I don’t.”
And then to prove my point further I asked them what instruments they made and played. Their list was noteworthy: Sindhi Sarangi, Algoza, Sarinda Sarangi, Murli, Morchang, Matka, Dhol, Dholak, Khartaal, and so on. There are, however, several instruments that have become extinct and some from this list could also vanish soon.
Here comes Sakil Khan Langa. He is only 21 and hails from the same village, Bernawa, where the elders travelled way from. His father is a Khartaal player, but he makes bangles and sells them in Jodhpur; never went to school, but speaks English; does not have a smartphone, but has set up 200 Facebook accounts for others; he has a passion for the Internet and social media, his Facebook account is full of postings about his bangles; he has 150 friends on Facebook, including one from Germany whom he talks a lot about.
Sakil, and about 47 of the 95 who participated, turned out to be those who use WhatsApp and other social media; most have a Facebook account to promote themselves, their programmes, their music, their shows and performances. Mahendra Chamga who is in his late 20s has used Facebook since 2010 and once bagged a Rs.50,000 gig after uploading his group’s Bhangra performance on Facebook. Chamga said, “With social media we are easily traceable and that has made us visible and reachable.”
The elders and the best known of the musicians who participated in the workshop were not terribly keen on social media, but they were very happy that their younger generations were taking the music to the masses through digital and social media. Yet they warned, “Unless you are very good in what you do, no media is going to help, and that needs a lot of practice, not hours in front of your mobile screen.” Qadir Khan, who was the leader of all the elders, added, “If you really want to help our community and our music with digital media, please come to our village in Bernawa and establish a digital resource center there so that all our women and men learn the modern technologies without leaving their space.”
So we created a WhatsApp group of folks musicians of Rajasthan with 47 members to start with, and we established a digital resource center in Bernawa so that the oral history and wisdom of the artistes could be taken to the world outside through digital media and by the community themselves.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment
Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is co-author of NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. Tweet him @osamamanzar.