The Manganiyar Seduction, a theatrical piece combining the visual effect of the Hawa Mahal and Amsterdam’s Red Light District, gave the folk musicians global exposure Image Credit: Getty

Across the vast expanse of the Thar Desert in western India, the spirited melodies of the Manganiyars have echoed for centuries. Perhaps the most well known of Rajasthan’s folk musicians today, these descendants of Rajputs sing songs that have been passed down through generations and from family to family: oral narratives of the desert, stories that range from Alexander the Great to the mischievous Lord Krishna, from kings who lost kingdoms to warriors who died as heroes.

Their songs — so powerful that when their voices rise in crescendo all other sounds drown — are all-encompassing. Their passion is to protect history, an endeavour supported by Wisconsin- and New Delhi-based record label Amarrass Records.

Out in the east, in Purulia — one of West Bengal’s poorest and underdeveloped regions — an ageing Jhumur singer, Amulya Kumar, asks British-Indian sarod virtuoso Soumik Datta if he knows how cut off Kumar is from the outside world. He looks like he has come alive from a vintage archive. With a voice hoarse from smoking bidis he asks if Datta realises just how ignored their existence is.

And when he sings Jhumur to the accompaniment of the harmonium, you’re transported to a verdant paddy field swaying in the rain and women dancing to his songs to celebrate the harvest.

A renaissance

These are but two snapshots of classical talent in an India even many Indians remain unaware of. Given how vast and diverse the country is, and the fact that at about every 100 kilometres a different dialect is spoken, its musical traditions have been woefully neglected for lack of interest, knowledge and touristic value.

But times are changing, with young Indians pledging to restore them to the glory they deserve. They travel far and wide, recording on-site and polishing their finds in studios before making it available on modern platforms such as iTunes, SoundCloud and YouTube.

“De Kulture was born out of my disenchantment with mainstream music, especially Bollywood,” says Sambhav Bohra, Founder of this now-prominent artists’ agency, record label and festival production company based in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

“I wanted to work with music primarily performed for joy and not money, which is relevant not only to the lifestyle of the musician but that of the entire community.

“I realised folk music is essentially authorless and thus the individual becomes insignificant in the holistic rendition of music.”

Created as an initiative to enhance awareness about the need to preserve local culture, DK has, for more than a decade, worked to shine a light on musical instruments as well as genres fading into oblivion. Take, for instance, the ravanhatta, one of the oldest and rarest instruments in India — a two-string fiddlestick made of a long piece of bamboo set in a dry coconut shell, which acts as a resonator. The instrument’s main string is made from horse hair, and Bhopa singers use it to sing tales of Pabuji, a 14th-century folk deity from Rajasthan.

“A large number of music forms we work with are endangered, and we’ve recorded some very strange, exotic, rare and wonderful music over the years,” says Bohra. “We found the last player of surando (a string instrument from western India) who had quit playing it, and publicity from our album helped him book shows.

“In fact, most artists we work with have their first recording with us.”

The decline

Over the centuries, Indian folk music was encouraged by royal families and wealthy patrons, but as the urban-rural divide grew, people’s connection with rustic genres began to wane. Soon, many musicians found it impossible to maintain a livelihood performing professionally and gave up their legacies to work as labourers, drivers and so on.

“Often, what is presented for the benefit of tourists is a shiny, heavily edited version of the original, as a result of which there is a unbalance between the authentic traditional forms and the commercial form,” explains Datta, who along with his brother Souvid are behind Tuning 2 You, a film series created by Soumik Datta Arts and Weavers Studio Centre for the Arts with support from the Bagri Foundation.

“This is why we wanted to go to the villages ourselves and capture the raw material on film, before younger generations lose interest and/or the traditions are lost.

“India is changing rapidly and with this new wave comes the threat of losing the things that exist on the edges.”

Considering that Soumik is an established musician and Souvid a freelance multimedia journalist and film-maker, shooting the film wasn’t an impossible dream. On the road they came across soul-stirring Baul singers and powerful and rare Chaita songs. But it has been time-consuming and financially restraining, which is why the brothers turned to Kickstarter to raise funds for post-production.

The documentary, filmed in West Bengal, Rajasthan, Nagaland, Karnataka, Goa, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, raised £10,000 (about Dh48,880) in a fortnight, with Farhan Akhtar as its most high-profile supporter.

More such films are planned for the future, and an album should be released later this year.

A diverse repertoire

Elsewhere, Amarrass Records, set up by three friends — Ankur Malhotra, Avirook Sen and Ashutosh Sharma — record Rajasthani folk musicians such as the late kamancha maestro Sakar Khan and Sindhi sarangi exponent Lakha Khan and release their albums on vinyl. Amarrass, which means eternal essence, has been promoting Indian blues, or in their parlance, great performer traditions from India, for more than five years.

“We reinvigorate traditional forms of expression in music and the arts by staging world-class events, production and distribution, and education,” explains Malhotra.

The label continues to explore the traditions of the Sidis of Bhuj, as well as Indo-African musical connections.

“Amarrass Records is our attempt at finding new solutions to address old issues and find a sustainable way forward to preserve, promote and enhance music that matters.”