The Magnificent Bards of the Thar Desert

In 2012 I spent several months in India and ended the trip in fairy-tale Jaisalmer in the Thar desert near the border with Pakistan in Rajasthan. I have always loved world music. Since the age of three I listened to all the foreign music stations on the radio that Germany had to offer in those days. When living in the UK I went to practically all the concerts of the Oriental Music Festival in Durham and still revel in the memories of it. When I started to create tours in South America I made sure all of the programs had their fair share of indigenous music…

That time in Jaisalmer I went to a fairly posh restaurant in the hope of finding some good live music. I found the music indeed, but was astonished to see how badly the musicians were treated and complained to the management about it. I followed the musicians to their next venue and after that they put a piece of paper with a mobile phone number into my hand and asked me in broken English to come to Kalakar Colony the next day at four in the afternoon and then ring that number.

Having arrived at the agreed place the following day I was met by teenage Salim Khan and led into a one-room mud dwelling at the edge of the colony. Suddenly I found myself alone there with a group of men and young boys. They offered me ‘chai’, unpacked their instruments and started playing the most incredible music with a joy and passion that I had rarely experienced. Using the harmonium, dholak (a kind of drum), khartals (a type of castanettas made of the wood of the mango tree) and voices, they were playing Rajasthani folk tunes, and I also recognized some gypsy tunes. Then Salim started to play Qawwalis (devotional Sufi songs) that I knew from my Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan music collection. I stared at Salim’s hands dancing on the keyboard of the harmonium in fascination and immediately understood that I was in front of a rare musical talent, a prodigy…

Three years later I saw my young friend again. He had grown into a man and now had a family of his own. I was invited to his house and introduced to his parents and his brothers and sisters. I was thrilled at observing the great talent of the whole family and was privileged to assist music practice of Salim and his brother Khete. I also witnessed them teaching the children to chant, and a very special momento was when their father Hamir Khan sang lovingly for one of his grandchildren.

I had a reunion with Salim at the Bunkyard Hostel in Pushkar this year where he gave outstanding performances of Qawwalis (Sufi devotional music) together with his talented friends from Jaisalmer Didar Khan and Kutle Khan. I had great fun going on outings to the desert with them and interacting with them and their beautiful music whilst in Pushkar.

Back in Jaisalmer, Salim took me to Devikot, a settlement some 30 km from Jaisalmer where we visited Berbal Khan, the Dholak (a kind of drum) player of Rajasthan Josh. It was another memorable afternoon, full of magical music joined by the children and the whole family.

Salim and his family belong to the Manganiyar caste of Muslim hereditary musicians that used to be the bards of the Rajput kings (Salim’s family have been musicians for at least 17 generations and  it is safe to say that music runs in their DNA). Some of the songs they play are so old that they remember the invasion of the Northwest of India by Alexander the Great. The Manganiyars are still contracted for weddings, births, temple Pujas and other special occasions by the Hindu patrons.

Unfortunately, in spite of Gandhis efforts to abolish it, the caste system is still very much alive in India and the Manganiyars are classed as ‘low caste’ by the Hindu society that surrounds them. In fact as Muslims they are treated almost as ‘casteless’ which is even worse. The murder of a Manganiyar musician by his Hindu patron a couple of years back, ‘because he did not play well enough’ created an outcry from the community and led to the migration of almost a whole village to Jaisalmer in order to seek shelter from further aggression.

Not all members of the Manganiyar caste are as fortunate as Salim and his family who are recognized as highly talented and acomplished artists and who have traveled a good many countries with their musical performances.

Salim’s elder brother Chugge heard Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan perform when he was only a young boy and it started him on his search for Qawwalis and Sufi music, a passion that he also shares with Salim and Khete. Chugge performed for a number of years with Musafir, a Rajasthani group known for its interpretation of gypsy music, before he formed his own band ‘Rajasthan Josh’, a collective of Manganiyar musicians with members from his family and neighbourhood that boasts an outstanding repertoire of different genres of music that can all be heard in Rajasthan.

Chugge is not only a top musician and singer, but also a composer, and he is famous for his great charisma with which he has mesmerized and conquered audiences in festivals and concerts all over the globe. His younger brothers Khete and Salim who often perform with him are equally accomplished artists. Khete directs and teaches the ‘Jaisalmer Boys’, the next generation of musicians whilst Salim is the director of ‘Jaisalmer Beats’.

I was fortunate and privileged to experience outstanding performances of the Khan brothers and their family and friends in Pushkar, Jaisalmer and Delhi, as well as some informal practice sessions on my most recent trip to Rajasthan. Their wonderful music, contagious joy and open hearts have made a deep impact on me. I am very moved by the generous friendship that I experienced from my old and new friends of the Manganiyar community, and I treasure the moments spent with them in conversation, outings and sharing food, music and laughter.

You may contact Chugge Khan and his family for musical events or music classes at:

Our new community-based Rajasthan Tour will spend some time with my wonderful friends from the Manganiyar community:

Rajasthan from the Inside


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