Desert Drummers

The struggle of Sarwar Khan

01 August 2013
Musician and activist Sarwar Khan outside the music institute run by his non-profit foundation.

ON A SUMMER EVENING IN JAISALMER, the last urban outpost in the country’s north-western desert, Sarwar Khan stood on the terrace of his house and gazed out into the distance at the Jaisalmer Fort, which stands on a hilltop in the centre of town. After a scorching afternoon, the sun had mellowed at last, and the lane below had cooled enough that barefoot children could venture out to play. The evening light cast a splendid, golden glow upon the fort, whose yellow sandstone walls stretch for miles around the hill, circumscribing the old city, with its palaces and temples and mansions made of intricately carved stone. From the terrace, the fort looked like a picture postcard mailed from centuries ago. But as I looked at it admiringly, Khan described a city where the persistence of the past is not limited to the enduring presence of the 12th-century fort.

Even today, the people who live inside the old city are almost all Brahmins and Rajputs. The city that lies beyond the fort’s walls is divided into neighbourhoods segregated by caste: for merchants, shopkeepers, stone workers, or potters, with proximity to the fort serving as a rough marker of social status. Several kilometres away is the neighborhood of the Merasi, a caste of musicians at the absolute bottom of the ladder. This is where Khan has lived his entire life.

Khan objects to the term "Manganiyars" or beggars, widely used for the Merasi community.

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is a staff writer at Science magazine in Washington, DC, and a contributor to the New York Times magazine, The Atlantic, GQ, Wired and other publications. Some of his work can be read at

Keywords: caste Rajasthan folk music tourism feudalism Merasis