“People in my community cannot read or write their names; everything we sing is in our heads”: Bagga Khan


By Udbhav Seth
In 1976, on a hot evening in the village of Chhatangarh bordering Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, an eight-year-old Bagga Khan began a rhythmic ritual. The rhythm was as follows: every evening he walked to the temple near his home, sat and listened attentively to the bhajans sung in the premises. The music at temple ranged from Ram, Krishna, Kabir and Meerabai and Khan remained for hours captivated by the attention. He wanted to sing like the priest who sang there and decided to become his student and immerse himself in the teachings of his guru.

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At 53, with a long career of bhakti, Sufi and bhajans music behind him, and having performed all over the world, including France, Australia, Singapore and the United States, Khan wants to continue making traditional music for his community. Conversations often revolve around his belief in God and how music is the means to achieve higher spiritual awareness. “When Lord Ram was asked for his address by a distressed follower, he said that only the musicians knew where he lived,” says Khan.

Khan is from the Manganiyar community of Rajasthan who performed devotional music for several generations, under the patronage of their jajmaan, earlier state rulers and later aristocratic families. Before the children of this community pick up a pen or a textbook, they pick up an instrument. It is their occupation and their sole source of income.

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“Whether it’s a wedding, a birth or any other auspicious occasion, the musicians in my community are called upon so that the gods may be pleased… There are no toys in my house for the children. Instruments like the dhol, dholak or harmonium are plentiful, so that’s what the kids pick up. Even when they cry, they cry in harmony,” Khan explains in a video call. Wearing a red turban and his mustachioed grin, Khan is busy rehearsing for a concert hosted by Amarrass Records at Sundar Nursery on May 28. After that he heads to the Ancient Trance Festival in Germany and the prestigious World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival in the UK in July. His concert in Delhi will be followed by that of the Barmer Boys – a Manganiyar group which also visited the WOMAD festival this year.

“When 10 children are sitting in a line to study, their knowledge must be one. In my group, if there are five the musicians, they should have a breath, a tune, a note,” says Khan, who is proud of the oral heritage that is at the heart of Manganiyar music. “People in my community can’t even read or write our names, let alone read music. Everything we sing is in our heads,” he says.

But lately, Khan has seen a change in public attitude towards his music. While he is always appreciated wherever he performs, he does not like the new styles that today’s musicians mix with traditional devotional music. “Someone like me prefers bhajans and devotion sangeet in its pure form, not with fusion and all the instruments in the world,” he says.

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