An Unequal Music

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A folk musician lauded internationally remains obscure locally, finds Janani Ganesan

Sacred notes: Gafruddin Mewati,
Sacred notes: Gafruddin Mewati, Photo: Vijay Pandey

THEY SING songs of the Mahabharata walking the deserts of Rajasthan. They worship Lord Shiva. They believe they have a strain of the pandava pedigree. But this musician community of Jogis from the Mewat region of the state are Muslims. And it is from this spectacular lineage that Gafruddin Mewati (Jogi) hails.

Back from a concert in London, where he played the bhapang (a stringed percussion instrument) at the Queen Elizabeth hall with noted percussionist Pete Lockett, Gafruddin has also performed locally. International events that earn him Rs 20,000 are not regular. He has to sing at weddings.

These intermittent international opportunities came about through a chance meeting with Komal Kothari, the man credited with putting another Rajasthani musical community, the Manganiyars, on the nation’s cultural map. In 1984, Kothari, then the chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi, ‘discovered’ Gafruddin and his kinsmen and invited them to Jodhpur to record. Often illiterate, the Jogis follow an oral tradition. But like all self-respecting classical musicians, they respect the raag. Gafruddin’s name would’ve been subsumed by his community’s if he were not one of the very few who can perform Pandavon ka kada in Raag Dhani.

Gafruddin was told that the 48-hour recording was for an international play. “Five of us were given Rs 700 — 800 each. It was for some drama,” he says. In fact, it was for Peter Brook’s magnum opus The Mahabharata. But he is more eager to thumb through his passport than recall Brook’s recording. Since the recording, Gafruddin has travel led to France, Canada and the UK.

Tucking the bhapang, under his arm, Gafruddin breaks into a song about how everybody important seems to be a ‘tor’, from a doc‘tor’ to an inspec‘tor’. From mocking urban life to critiquing the UID, the Jogis have quite a range. “this happened when the NGOs began using local musicians to promote awareness about issues in the ’80s,” says Vinod Joshi, community director, Jaipur Virasat Foundation, which has been roping him for various events, both within and outside the country.

Moving to cosmopolitan settings can be alienating for folk artists. But Gafruddin is happy to share stories of Sonia Gandhi playing his bhapang, or showing off his photo with Shyam Benegal at a festival. He is a traditional teller of tales and his travels give him more to recount.

Creating various pitches on the one-stringed percussion instrument requires tremendous energy and the 59-year old is tireless. “He is a deeply spirited performer,” says Lockett. Like his bhapang, Gafruddin’s music sounds simple, but the layers unravel as his boundless voice explodes across the bare-cement walls of his house. His 15-year old son Sharukh Khan Mewati runs into the house to get his turban and join in.

Gafruddin insisted that this meeting happen in Alwar where Sharukh lives rather than at home in Bharatpur. He hopes to hand the torch of his popularity to his son at some point. “People these days don’t sing like we used to. They perform in commercial bands. It is only when we get written about and receive awards that the young will take us this seriously,” explains Gafruddin.

HIS ONLY grouse is not having received an award from the state. “Teejan Bai (a Pandavani artist from Chhattisgarh), also sings songs of the Mahabharata, but she received the padmashree or something,” he rues.

He has a posture of pride but Gafruddin is not a name that event management companies are looking for. That caravan gathers only around communities, clustered together as Rajasthani folk musicians, or if nuanced, the Jogi, the Mirasi or the Manganiyar. With all his accomplishment what Gafruddin still seeks is acknowledgement. For his community. For himself.

Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
janani@tehelka.com

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