There are several important musical traditions that have developed from the differing regions throughout Northern India’s state of Rajasthan. However, it is first important to get a sense of the vast amount of history that occurred throughout this region- all of which gave Rajasthan it’s cultural zest and richness.
This particular dance ceremony represents Rajasthan’s well renowned folk dance called “Kalbeliya/Kalbelia.” Today, Rajasthani folk dance is recognized worldwide for its amazing movements, colorful costumes, and sizzling music. Every piece of dance in Rajasthan both resembles and respects the essence of desert land. The Kalbelia folk dance is also known for its heavy focus on the Bin/Pungi instrument, as well as the dancer’s serpentine movements. (I will go into further details about these instruments later in the post.)
5000 years ago, today’s Rajasthan was apart of the Indus Valley Civilization which “was a Bronze Age Civilization (3300–1300 BCE; mature period 2600–1900 BCE) in the northwestern region of the Indian Subcontinent, consisting mainly of what is now Pakistan and India (Khan 1). This region was especially important for various forms of commerce. “The Indus civilization is one of three in the ‘Ancient East’ that, along with Mesopotamia and Pharonic Egypt, was a cradle of early civilization in the Old World (Childe 1950). The cultural trade and blending that occurred caused a great deal of influence as borders slowly changed. This Indus Valley Civilization was long ago owned by Pastoral groups of people called “Gurjars/Gujarras.” At that time, the region itself was known as Gurjaratra. According to The ITC Sangeet Research Academy, “ Little is known of the musical culture of the Indus Valley civilization of the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. Some musical instruments, such as the arched or bow-shaped harp and several varieties of drums, have been identified from the small terracotta figures and from the pictographs on the seals that were probably used by merchants. Further, the famous bronze statuette of a dancing girl, probably representing a class of temple dancers, clearly indicates the presence of music. Evidence of Rudra-worship during this period has also been found. Rudra was later to become popular as Shiva- the supreme deity of dance, drama and music.”
Eventually the territory was called Rajputana when the British Government established their stakes within Indian-territory. “Rajputana included 18 princely states, two chiefships and the British district of Ajmer-Merwara” (which remained a province of the Dominion, and later Republic of India.) ”The British official term [Rajputana] remained the official name (early in the Muslim period) until its replacement by the name “Rajasthan” in the constitution of 1949″ (Gupta 143). There are tales of Rajput warriors (“sons of kings”) who fought their way through the region, staking this land as their own. Whether or not they were Pakistani or Indian, it is difficult to decipher as “there are scattered references in historical sources to struggles between Rajputs who were either decedents of foreign immigrants or interlopers from adjoining regions. (Gupta 143-144). Regardless of lineage, new traditions developed and time pressed on creating a melting pot of achievement and philosophy.
Here we can somewhat see the urbanism in the Indus Valley: both during the mature, and late phases.
1876 engraving of Rajput Warriors
In Northwest India, Rajasthan prevails as “The land of the Kings.” Recognized as its own state within India, Rajasthan has been heavily influenced (both musically and culturally) by its surrounding Indian land, as well as various Southern Pakistani traditions. This is because the Northwestern regions of Rajasthan (Sri Ganganagar, Bikaner, and Jaisalmar) border Southern Pakistan alongside the region of Sindh. “[Sindh] is also locally known as the “Mehran” and has been given the title of Bab-ul-Islam (The gateway of Islam)” (Dawn.com) Therefore, it’s quite fair to say that Islamic history and customs have culturally influenced Rajasthani music and traditions.
So that you can get a fair look at the state of Rajasthan, check out all the different districts:
The Udaipur district, (commonly referred to as “The city of the Lakes,” or “The Venice of the East” is located in the Southern region. (See Southern Fuchsia district on map above) Plenty of Bollywood movies have been shot in Udaipur, and in addition, many Bollywood films’ songs were filmed in Udaipur. 80% of the district identifies with being Hindu, while 14% are distinguished as being Muslim. With Jainism as one of the oldest religions in the world, the number of Jains may have been much higher during ancient times, though only 4.7% of Udaipur’s residents identify with this religion today.
Jodhpur, known as “Sun City,” is the second largest city located near the center of the state, with well over a million residents. (See the Fuchsia district near the middle of the Rajasthani map above) Jodhpur is considered the second Metropolitan city, as it was once a Princely State under British ruling. With the capital kingdom called Marwar, there are plenty of temples, palaces and forts that attract a great deal of tourism to help sustain Rajasthani economy. Jodhpur’s official spoken language is Hindi, but most people in Marwar speak Marwari.
The Jaswant Thada mausoleum in Jodhpur in the early morning.
Jaipur, or “The Pink City” is Rajasthan’s official capital and largest Indian state in Northern India. With a population of 3.1 million, the city inhabitants speak Hindi, Punjabi, Rajasthani, and yes….English. (On the map above, Jaipur is the brown colored district towards the East.) Jaipur was founded in 1727 by the young Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, who at age 11, immediately became a ruler when his father suddenly passed away. Leaving the former destination of (what was then called Amer/Amber) to his son, the location is now apart of the Jaipur Municipal Corporation, and contains some very old, lavish forts/palaces.
(1875) Rajasthani’s in Jaipur who practiced Jainism (“an indian religion that practices non-violence towards all living beings, and emphasizes spiritual independence and equality between all forms of life -Wikipedia.)
Though it’s very important to note the traditional Rajasthani folk instruments, “In 1757, during colonization, the British brought brass instruments to India and the native population grew to love these alien instruments. Since independence in 1947 till today, the trumpets, trombones, clarinets, bass drums, snare drums and cymbals of a brass band are everywhere as a part of life. They accompany national and religious celebrations, popular festivals, political processions, weddings, births and funerals” (Kawa 1). According to Kawa, there is no marriage without a brass band in India. All of the musicians of the “Jaipur Kawa Brass Band” have ancestral ties to their art as the recipients of many generations of musical culture and knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation.” If you would like to hear some of this music, click here. This particular music most certainly has a heavy Jazz/big-band influence (due to the particular instruments brought by the Brits). The musicians also incorporate traditional indian instruments within this music as well, such as the Sitar. It’s no surprise that this music has developed as a result of much earlier musical traditions. The rhythms used allude to a much more diverse musical understanding.
Traditional Folk music in Rajasthan can be broken up into 4 sections: Percussion (Membranophones), Wind (Aerophones), Autophonic (Idiophones), and Strings (Chordophones).
Rajasthani musical instruments are essential in making traditional music more melodious. The most common percussion instrument in Rajasthan is the Dhol drum. Highly ornamented and rather large, it slings over the players neck/shoulders and is played in front of the body. Made out of wood, the two ends are kept hollow with tightly-held skin parchment on either side. One side of the drum gets played with the hand, while the other side gets struck with a wooden stick. This drum “form[s] the basic rhythm of the folk music of Rajasthan” (Nad Sadhna).
The smaller version of the Dhol is the Dholak, where the hands play both sides of the drum. This drum will almost always accompany a larger ensemble.
The Nagara has a metallic-like drum tone because the body is made of metal, iron, or copper. This particular drum is struck with wooden sticks at various ceremonies and functions (such as weddings.) Generally, the Nagara is accompanied by a smaller Tasha drum, and Shehnai (Reeded Aerophone with a nasal/buzzing timbre)
Here’s an Mp3 example of what the Shehnai sounds like:
The Dhaf is a large tambourine with stretched skin attached to a rim of iron or wood (played especially during “Holi” or the Festival of Colors)
The Khartal is another form of percussion commonly used for devotional/spiritual purposes. A bit like clappers, the Khartal has two pieces; one held in each hand. The “male” piece is thicker and held with the thumb, while the “female” piece is thinner, and balanced by the ring finger. “It has derived its name from [the] Hindi words ‘kara’ mean[ing] hand, and ‘tala’ mean[ing] clapping” (Wikipedia). This wooden clapper has metallic discs or plates that produce a clinking sound when clapped together. Therefore, it would be considered an Idiophone due to the combined properties of the vibrator and resonator. Rapid and complex rhythms are encouraged, as this instrument represents assertiveness, strength, and stamina.
Flute’s are also commonly played in Rajasthani Folk music. Similar to the Shehnai in its elongated, vertical figure, flute players in Rajasthan have mastered playing two flutes at once…You may notice some circular breathing techniques being utilized in this next video.
This particular kind of flute assembly is called a “Satara.” One flute has holes, and the other does not in order to provide the fundamental base tone.
Very similar to the Satara, the Algoza is also a double flute played simultaneously. A lot like a bagpipe, the player has to master playing various notes on one flute, while the second flute acts as a drone. Again, circular breathing is quite essential!
This video shows a Dholak drum accompanying Sayer Khan as he plays the Algoza.
According to the The Institute for Indian Music and Research Center, there is another interesting wind instrument that is widely used by snake charmers. At the beginning of this post I mentioned the Kalbeliya/Kalbelia dance tradition in Rajasthan. The snake charmers believe that the Bin or Pungi instrument has a hypnotic effect. The instrument itself is made from a dry bottle-gourd, and consists of two reeds or bamboo tubes known as Jivala. Like the previous flutes, one is used for playing a melody, and the other is used to create the lower defining drone.
Mp3 Example of the Pungi
The most common stringed instrument, considered a Chordophone, is the Sarangi. According to Nad Sadhna, “This is a multi-stringed instrument that is played by using a bow drawn across the strings and running of fingers on the strings. The modern guitars have probably been modeled upon [the Saragi]. Incredibly popular all over India, Rajasthan embellishes upon the
Here’s a video that explains the Saragi in greater detail
Here’s a video I absolutely loved: Sarangi sound design….. Want to hear what a Sarangi can sound like when you sample each potential sound? I do!
The other popular stringed instrument is called the Kamaycha. This instrument [has] nineteen strings, three of gut for melody, two of brass for drone, and fourteen of steel for sympathetic resonance (cgsmusic.net).
In Rajasthan, Ravenhatta’s are also quite favored, and considered to be a type of Sarangi. Today, these instruments are quite rare. The bowed Indian fiddle has a rich history and the instrument itself is quite ornate. It has jingle-bells attached to the long bow, and the bowl at the bottom is made of a cut coconut shell. To cover the opening, goat hide is stretched tight to the outer shell. Bamboo acts as the long neck of the instrument, while the strings are made of both steel and horse-hair. “Throughout the medieval history of India, kings were patrons of music; this helped in increased popularity of [the] ravanhatta among royal families. In Rajasthan and Gujarat, it was the first musical instrument to be learned by princes” (Wikipedia).
The Bhapang is a variable tension string instrument from Rajasthan. It is used in Lok Geet, an Indian folk music tradition. The instrument is used both for accompaniment, and solos. It is played all over North India and is unique to South Asia. The Bhapang consists of a small cylindrical drum with an open end. At the center of the skin, a string is fixed. The player holds the drum between his upper body, and under his arm, while the hand holds a little bamboo stick fixed to the end of the string. To produce different pitches, the string is stretched and relaxed by the player. (Information from Asian Music Circuit) Generally, the Muslims play the Bhapang in Alwar (Rajasthan) on the occasion of Shiva Ratri (Birth Day celebration of Lord Shiva of Hindus)
While India still functions under a strict Caste system, and the Mughals are not considered “Untouchables” but they are from the lower caste community. They will never be in the center of the community, and they will always be on the outskirts of society. Besides being weavers by profession, the rest of the time, these people are singing and playing music. The Harmonium has been adopted by the Rajasthani Mughals because it has a bright melodic tone, and it’s generally a rather loud instrument. These particular Mughal communities consider the Harmonium to be more along the lines of “pop” music.
Within the Mughal communities, the men sing to supplement their efforts from farming, building and weaving. The women don’t sing in public, but they do sing at village births, deaths, and weddings for themselves, and for their deities. The girls have had hundreds of songs passed down from earlier generations, and amazingly enough- they have memorized them all. The oldest woman in the Mughal village will pass these melodies down, and the next generation will remember and continue to teach the younger girls. This cycle creates a beautiful tradition, but this passing of knowledge is 100% essential if they want to keep their customs alive. When singing, the musicians shut their eyes, and are able to put themselves in a spiritual trance and venture into mystical realms. The women who have gotten permission from their Gurus to sing in public have done quite well for themselves monetarily. (Though it seems to be misunderstood in the community. Times are changing.)
It is said that to find happiness, one must find a teacher to help them achieve these emotional highs. The songs sung are devotional with regards to their Hindu deities, but they will sing for the people after they have already sung for the divine. Bells are wrapped around their angles and arms while dancing and playing music, and it does not matter if these people are professional; the point of music within the Mughal community is joy.
When getting married, it’s important that both the man and woman know the music. They must know how to sing the traditional songs. If this is not the case, there can be no wedding. As a living heritage, the songs must be remembered, or the cultural significance of these people will die out.
There are many supporters that feel Rajasthan’s wealth of tradition (“Vera Sit” “or “First tradition”) can potentially reinvent itself within the modern world. However, it’s completely up to the people. The Rajasthan International Folk Festival seeks to support village musicians on the outskirts of rural society.
Most of the music is not considered entertainment; It’s a way of life for religious ceremonies, marriages, births, deaths, and any other large community function. In regards to the Festival, the performers come from all over Rajasthan and perform for each other. All these different people can act as a brotherhood, in order to make sure their own traditions can stay alive and respected. Generally, most artists would only perform in their own village settings, but traditional settings are beginning to fall-apart. The old ways of being a musician and making money is no longer working within these communities. Sadly, the Mughal Rajasthani people cannot sustain themselves this way against the new modernized India. The concept behind these particular festivals is to create a new-found interest in what is unfortunately dying out. Segregation regularly occurs because Hindus and Muslims would not generally blend, and the same goes for people from different Castes. Bringing the Rajasthani villages together creates positive vibrations and gives hope for the future of their vivid cultures.
Even regularly paid performers are considered low within the Indian social hierarchy. It doesn’t matter if they are amazing performers or not because they still cannot break free from their caste. It is only when they are unencumbered from their patrons, and free to perform as they please that they feel especially talented. The patrons practically own these musicians! It reminds me of a modern day American music-label.
The first person to work with the musician castes of Rajasthan was Komal Kathari. He was an Indian folklorist and ethnomusicologist from Jodhpur. In the 1960′s he set up a folklore research center, and as his partners collected stories as he became enchanted by the music of different Rajasthani villages. Kathari decided to record this music in order to preserve it! He was the first person who brought these traditional performers out of their traditional circumstances (away from their patrons), and onto the stage.
Before he died in 2004, Kathari worked heavily with the Kabelia Gypsies (as previously mentioned), and it is clear that Popular Bollywood has soaked up their gypsy style, and reflected it back to them. It’s almost as though the Bollywood style copied the Kabelia Gypsies, and now, the Gypsies are copying the Bollywood interpretation. The traditional Kabelia songs were sung in Marwari, and the traditional instruments didn’t have the modern flashy embellishments used to entice tourists.
Collaboration has become a way for tradition to grow and influence the next generation of Rajasthani people. India is changing so much due to technological advancements, so it’s impossible to keep things the way they use to be.
“Culture is not static. It is fluid. So we have to find the right place for these traditional musicians. They have talent, they have great skills”- His Highness Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Jodhpur
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