Desert Drummers

The struggle of Sarwar Khan

Musician and activist Sarwar Khan outside the music institute run by his non-profit foundation. SANJAY AUSTA FOR THE CARAVAN
01 August, 2013

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. SANJAY AUSTA FOR THE CARAVAN

A community of about 40,000 people in and around Jaisalmer, the Merasi have traditionally, and insultingly, been called “manganiyars”, or beggars, by upper caste officials, landlords, and businessmen. (Most people outside Jaisalmer know them by this name alone, in part due to the popularity of travelling troupes of musicians from the community who call themselves Manganiyars.) For about 40 generations, the Merasi have made a living by singing paeans at the temple of a local Hindu goddess named Bhatiyani, and by performing at weddings, child-naming ceremonies and other events. Their music is a particular kind of Rajasthani folk—lyrical and melodic, full-bodied and vigorous. Originally Hindu, they were converted to Islam in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. But the Merasis’ loyalty to the goddess—along with the economic logic of servicing a constituency that was predominantly Hindu—kept them anchored to their Hindu roots, making them one of India’s many contradictions and an anthropological curiosity: Muslim by name, and Hindu by custom and occupation.

This ambiguous religious identity—added to their caste status—has pushed the Merasi even further to the margins of society, into a no-man’s land that neither Hindu nor Muslim politicians care about. “We don’t have the numbers to even blockade the Jaisalmer railway station,” Khan told me. “One bullet fired into the air would be enough to scatter us.” So, as in centuries past, the community faces daily abuse and discrimination. Merasi children are often doomed to a life without education; men have a difficult time getting even low-paid jobs, and Merasi women find it pointless to go to the police when they are raped by upper-caste men. Just days before my visit, Khan told me, three Merasi families in a nearby village had been driven out of their homes by Rajput landlords. But when the families contacted the local police, they were asked to withdraw their complaint against the aggressors.

Khan has waged a fight, often a lonely one, against this sort of discrimination for much of his life; he described the incident to me with a casual tone that reflected just how routine such abuse was. A 44-year-old man with intense, gray eyes and a clean-shaven face that can sometimes look boyish, Khan seems to have an ample reserve of irony, an antidote to his anger against Jaisalmer’s social order. Growing up, he could easily have resigned himself to a life of subjugation but Khan rebelled from an early age. Working as a guide for Western tourists through his teenage years, he taught himself English and French, connecting with the world beyond Jaisalmer. In the mid-1990s, after a chance meeting with an American artist named Karen Lukas, Khan launched a movement to empower the Merasis by promoting their rich musical tradition.

Over the last decade, a troupe led by Khan has performed at dozens of concerts around the world, including at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, where I met him a few years ago. The music the group played was a unique variety of Rajasthani folk that I hadn’t heard before, even though I grew up in Jaipur. The songs were melodic and robust, and the accompaniment on percussion and stringed instruments was so lively that the largely American audience instantly began swaying and tapping their feet. Though Khan wasn’t the lead performer—he plays the dholak—the confidence he exuded and the respect he seemed to command from his fellow musicians left no doubt that he was the leader. When I introduced myself after the performance, he clasped my hand in greeting and gave me a broad smile. Later, as we chatted, he chuckled periodically while recounting his struggles back home in Jaisalmer, with the air of somebody who has relished being a warrior all his life.

A considerable part of the earnings from the troupe’s performances have flowed back to Lok Kala Sagar Sansthan, a non-profit Khan runs in Jaisalmer. In partnership with Folk Arts Rajasthan, a non-profit that Lukas started in the United States, the LKSS runs a school in a portion of Khan’s house where Merasi children learn about their musical heritage in addition to reading, writing and math.

Khan’s activism has made him a target of harassment. For almost a decade, he has been fighting a legal battle to reclaim a plot of land he purchased from a neighbour, which the Jaisalmer municipality has turned into a makeshift parking lot. Despite a court ruling in his favor, local officials still refuse to grant him a license to officially work as a tourist guide. When I asked him if he would take me on a tour of the fort, Khan declined. Under a law enacted a few years ago to ensure the safety of tourists, he explained, escorting an out-of-town visitor without a guide license was a punishable offense. Given his antagonistic relationship with local authorities, there was a high likelihood that that he would be arrested if he gave them the slightest excuse. “I’ve got enough troubles already,” he said. “I don’t want to go to jail.”

ONCE A GATEWAY along a trading route linking India to Persia, Jaisalmer is now a tourist destination that thrives on its image as a medieval kingdom. The current Maharawal, Brijraj Singh, though divested of any official authority, remains a powerful figure, casting a familiar patriarchal shadow from his palace inside the fort. Tourism is the only industry, controlled by those with wealth and social status. At the top of the ecosystem are Rajputs and Brahmins who own hotels, restaurants and tour companies; at the bottom, people like those from the Meghwal caste sell camel rides to make a living. There has been little development, besides the conversion of old mansions and palaces into hotels where guests are showered with rose petals and treated like royalty. At the hotel where I stayed, I spent a morning lounging in a lobby decorated with marble elephants and ornate rugs, watching turbaned attendants greet foreign visitors with an uninterrupted string of welcome phrases in a dozen European and Asian languages.

Beyond these plush interiors, Jaisalmer is dusty and squalid, with potholed streets and dilapidated storefronts. Like much of small town India, it hasn’t seen anything like the kinds of transformation that have made Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore symbols of India’s ascent in the global economic caste system. On my way to Khan’s house, I drove past pigs nosing in large tracts of garbage dumped alongside the city’s main thoroughfare. In the background, painted in bright colours on walls along the street were advertisements for bidis, clinics to treat sexually transmitted diseases and a slogan exhorting people to fight systemic corruption by becoming more ethical individuals.

Wending through narrow lanes littered with cow dung, I came to the neighbourhood of the Merasis, marked by a sign that reads: “Mangniyar no more, we are Merasi.” Khan, who installed that sign a few years ago, lives not far from it, in a three-storey house that is part residence, part museum and part school. Khan views “Manganiyar” as derogatory because it implies that the Merasis’ occupation is begging, not playing music. When I stepped inside the house, I saw a cluster of children sitting cross-legged on a rug on the floor, singing in chorus. Khan sent them off to play and dialled up the speed of the ceiling fan overhead.

The Merasis were Brahmins who fell from grace, Khan told me. Nearly a thousand years ago, in a moment of ruinous indiscretion, one of the community’s ancestors played a nagada—a large drum—at the temple. Since Brahmins were not supposed to touch leather, the community was told that they were no longer part of the Brahminical order. The only occupation allowed to them was playing nagadas at the temple, and performing at ceremonies. The Merasis became full-time musicians and storytellers, narrating the fables of the region through their songs. In the 17th century, in another change of identity, they were converted to Islam by emissaries of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. When Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947, a number of Merasi families migrated across the border but many chose to remain in Jaisalmer.

Khan’s family was among those who stayed. His father, Lune Khan, played the nagada at the king’s palace, and also worked in the army band. The family lived in a hovel, at the same spot where Khan’s house now stands. Like other Merasi children, Khan never went to school. “There were times when I had to beg,” he told me. His father was forced to sell some of his instruments so that the family could eat.

When he was eight, Khan began wandering out to the edge of the city to hunt for fossils. More than 100 million years ago, what is now northwest India was covered by an ocean, and molluscs and other marine organisms from that era lie fossilised upon the mountains that rise from the desert. “People went there to look for gold and silver, but that didn’t interest me,” Khan said.

There, Khan saw Western tourists taking camel rides out to the sand dunes. “I thought, these guys must be so thirsty when they return from the rides,” he said. “I can sell them drinks for any price.” A deaf shopkeeper in the city agreed to loan Khan money. He would buy drinks wholesale and cart them to the desert every day. “When the tourists came back from the dunes, I would stick the cold bottles on their body,” Khan told me. A soft drink costing Rs 2 at the market sold easily for ten times the price. After the tourists had had a drink, Khan would offer his services as a guide. “For Rs 40 a day, I would take them around the city,” he said.

Khan grew into a rebellious teenager, reacting angrily in situations that reminded him of his low status. Playing marbles with boys from upper caste families, he quickly realised that the rules were weighted against him. “If they won the game, it was a victory and they got to keep the marbles,” he said. “But if we won, it still amounted to a defeat. They still got to keep the marbles.” Khan’s brothers accepted this inequality as fate, but Khan did not. “I once threatened a kid with a knife,” he told me. “Then I had to leave town for a couple of months.”

In 1992, a New York-based artist, Karen Lukas, came to Jaisalmer with a friend to do some photography. She was wandering through the city streets when Khan walked up to her. “I turned around and snapped that I didn’t want to buy anything,” Lukas recounted to me. “I don’t want to sell you anything,” Khan told her. “I’d like to practice my English with you.”

The next day, Lukas and her friend discovered that they had broken a piece of their camera equipment. They were using an old black and white camera, and it seemed impossible that they would be able to fix it. Khan offered to help. He disappeared for a number of hours and returned with an exact replacement for the broken part. “It was nothing short of miraculous,” Lukas recalled. Khan had gone to the family of the royal photographers of Jaisalmer to ask for help. “It turned out that the current photographer’s grandfather had gone to Karachi in Pakistan to study photography decades ago, and they still had all of his equipment,” she told me.

In 1993, Lukas arranged for Khan to visit New York to play the dholak at her brother’s wedding. “Everybody, even cops, treated me with respect,” Khan told me. “Sometimes when I rode the subway, if I saw a man in a suit, I had to curb the impulse to stand up to offer my seat.”

One day after returning to Jaisalmer, Khan went to the king’s palace to visit his father, who was still going there after all these years to play the nagada morning and evening for Rs 150 a month. For years, he had asked his father whether it was worth it, to which his father had always replied that he couldn’t abandon the family occupation. On this day, Khan found his father sweeping the courtyard. “I said—what are you doing, this isn’t your job,” Khan told me. “My father said the palace secretary had asked him to do it. I said you tell the secretary to sweep the floor.” Shortly thereafter, he stopped his father from working at the palace.

KHAN FOUNDED THE LOK KALA SAGAR SANSTHAN in 1996. Just getting it registered was a challenge. The department responsible for the paperwork gave him the runaround for months before a low-caste officer—himself a target of discrimination—offered to help.

At the Lok Kala Sagar Sansthan-run school, Merasi children learn about their musical heritage. SANJAY AUSTA FOR THE CARAVAN

In partnership with Lukas, who founded Folk Arts Rajasthan in New York in 2004, the Lok Kala Sagar Sansthan began working to preserve the Merasis’ cultural heritage and improve their economic status. Together, the organisations gave out micro-loans to help Merasis start small businesses. Women and children made dolls, bags, embroidered textiles and other handicrafts for sale. Khan converted a floor of his house into a museum displaying Merasi instruments, some of them going back three generations, and some of the earliest photographs of Merasis, taken in the early 1900s.

The building also became a venue for concerts performed by Khan’s troupe. Priced at under Rs 100 a ticket, the shows were considerably cheaper than folk music performances hosted by luxury hotels, and Khan’s organisation thrived. Then, in 1999, after the tourism ministry required guides to have a government license, Khan ran into trouble with local officials. Citing the new rule, they banned Khan and his fellow musicians from going out to hotels and other sites in Jaisalmer to sell concert tickets to tourists.

Khan had worked as a guide all his life, but he couldn’t apply for a license because one of the requirements for it was a high-school education. In 2001, he filed a lawsuit in the state court along with 12 other guides asking that the government grant them licenses on the basis of prior experience and knowledge of foreign languages. He was the only Merasi among the plaintiffs; nearly all of the others were Brahmins or Rajputs.

After the lawsuit was filed, local officials responded to it by creating a special category of licenses that would be awarded to guides with foreign language experience, regardless of whether they fulfilled the education requirement. Assured of getting a license, the plaintiffs withdrew the suit in 2003. All of Khan’s co-petitioners were issued licenses soon after. Khan was left out.

He began a relentless pursuit to right the wrong. The office responsible for licenses was the Tourism Reception Centre, and the person processing license applications there was an official named Bhanwar Lal Ballani. Khan told me that when he went to the office in 2003 to press his case, Ballani was rude and dismissive. When Khan responded with angry words of his own, Ballani, who is a Brahmin, was furious and told him to get out. “He called me a mangnar,” Khan told me, “a dholi [meaning drummer]. He said you will never get a license.”

Khan filed a discrimination complaint against Ballani, but nothing came of it. Ballani himself worked as a part-time guide, giving tours to tourists who arrived on the Palace on Wheels, a luxury train that starts out in Delhi and makes a stop in Jaisalmer. Khan wanted to settle scores somehow, and he took to tailing Ballani on his motorcycle as Ballani guided tourists through the city, heckling the man and warning the tourists that Ballani would take them to high-priced shops that paid Ballani a commission.

The harassment did not help Khan’s case, and his license application never moved forward. In 2007, he obtained a letter from the district collector giving him permission to work as a guide, but the tourism department quickly issued a memo to the collector and other government officials pointing out that the collector had no authority to issue licenses. In 2008, the Maine College of Art gave Khan an honorary doctorate in recognition of his artwork, music and leadership. He returned to Jaisalmer after the ceremony, hoping that tourism officials would accept the degree in lieu of a high school diploma, and grant him a licence. He had no such luck, and Ballani’s retirement in 2009 didn’t change things either.

Sitting cross-legged in a room that contains many of the fossils he used to collect, Khan opened a rusty iron trunk to show me documents that backed his narrative. The latest of them was an order issued by the Jodhpur High Court as recently as July 2011, once again directing the tourism department to put Khan through guide training and grant him a license. It had been ignored.

I asked Khan why he wasn’t dropping the matter when he had in fact stopped working as a guide a long time ago. The fight wasn’t about the license, he answered. “My ancestors did not even look the higher castes in the eye, leave alone filing a lawsuit against them,” he said. “I have become an example for the Merasis. I want to show that we can fight back.”  He put the documents back in the trunk. “It doesn’t matter that I’ve lost today,” he said. “One day, I will win.”

ONE AFTERNOON, I took a bumpy auto-rickshaw ride to a neighbourhood near the fort where Ballani lives. The sun was so intense that it had softened the asphalt on the street, and my shoes were nearly gummed to the tar when I stepped out of the vehicle in front of Ballani’s house. A tall, bespectacled man with bushy eyebrows, Ballani listened with a stoic expression as I explained why I had come. He finally asked me to come in, and I followed him down a flight of stairs to a room in the basement that was so much cooler than the street that I felt instantly grateful.

Ballani projected gravitas. His air of distinction left me with the impression that he rarely had occasion to fret about anything. Unfazed by my questions, he acknowledged that he had had an angry exchange of words with Khan many years ago, though he couldn’t remember any details. But he denied blocking Khan’s application or acting out of prejudice. “He has somehow got the impression that he was discriminated against,” Ballani said, adding that a departmental inquiry had found he did nothing wrong in Khan’s case. The reason Khan did not get his license, Ballani explained, was that he never re-submitted his forms back in 2002 after the government cancelled its first call for applications and issued a new solicitation a few months later. When I asked him about the court orders, including the one from 2011, Ballani brushed them off with a look of irritation. “It’s not possible that the court would direct us to do something, and we wouldn’t act upon it,” he said.

As we spoke, a woman descended silently down the stairs to serve us a plate of snacks, including a couple of besan laddoos, made of chickpea flour, that Ballani introduced to me as a Jaisalmer specialty. As the first bite melted into my mouth, I wondered if it might be rude to press on with more irksome questions about caste. After I had washed the sweet down with a drink of water, I asked whether Ballani didn’t think that Merasis and other low castes in Jaisalmer were victims of abuse and exploitation.

“There’s very little truth to these claims,” he said, furrowing his eyebrows. “The thakurs [Rajput landlords] have actually provided protection to the lower castes.” Ballani proceeded to paint a benign picture of the caste system. The system wasn’t intended to be a hierarchy, he said; every caste was supposed to have its own importance within the system. “The thakurs are important in their place, and the darji [tailor], the nai [barber], the maali [gardener]—they are all important in their place,” he said. “In the old days, we had what I call the paid family system. The thakur had a moral duty to support these people from generation to generation. It was a bond of affection and service.”

I also visited the Tourism Reception Centre, a forlorn building that looked abandoned from the outside. When I entered, a peon who was resting on a bench in the reception area put on his slippers to go get someone who could answer my questions. The only official available to talk was a prim, mustachioed man named Kumbha Ram Choudhury, who nervously emerged from an office down the hall to tell me that the head of the centre was away on travel. A longtime employee of the centre, Choudhury was familiar with Khan’s case but he declined to delve into details about why Khan had not been given a license.

However, Choudhury, a Rajput, denied that the department had discriminated against Khan or anybody else. He told me that the most recent list of applicants who had been selected for guide training and would be subsequently given a license included a Merasi whom Khan had himself recommended. Khan told me later that it had taken considerable lobbying to get that applicant in, and that he would be the first officially licensed Merasi guide. The peon, who was listening to our conversation, helpfully added that the department had recently hired two Merasi widows as janitors.

When I asked Choudhury why the Merasis were not doing better, he said the community was itself to blame. “They don’t send their kids to school,” he told me. “You’ll find Merasi children walking around the city, following tourists, singing, dancing and begging for money.” In Choudhury’s view, the government was already doing a lot for Merasis and other low castes, reserving jobs and providing incentives for them to attend school. “Maybe they were discriminated against 50 years ago, but now, we give their kids free midday meals, free fruit to eat,” he said. “Yet, nothing seems to be enough.”

When I returned to Khan’s house and narrated Ballani’s explanation for Khan’s not getting a license, he went back to his trunk and dug out copies of bank drafts for the application fees showing that he had applied and re-applied for the license a number of times, contrary to Ballani’s assertions. Khan’s friend, a guide named Kanti Lal Sharma, told me that they had submitted their applications together. “We went to the bank together; our bank drafts were probably just a number apart,” he told me. “I got my license.” Sharma is a Brahmin.

We sat in Khan’s office, sipping tea from plastic cups. Rasool, a singer in Khan’s troupe, joined us on the mat. I asked him if he had ever gone to school. He said he had dropped out in fourth grade after being repeatedly asked by his teacher why he wanted to study instead of pursuing the Merasi occupation.

In the room next to us, Khan’s daughter Asha and his niece Kashmira were doing their homework. Both are in middle school, already the most educated girls in the history of their community. I asked them if they felt burdened in any way by Merasi history, by the weight of oppression that their ancestors had suffered. They looked at each other and shrugged, as if to say that the future mattered far more to them than the past. “My father tells me—don’t listen to what others say,” Asha said. “Let the others say what they think. We should do what we have to do.”