For Troubadours Trapped in Servitude, a Murder Breaks the Bond

Posted on: The New York Times | November 4th, 2017


DANTAL, India — For generations, folk musicians have camped out on a dusty cattle range in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan. Mostly Muslims, they earn their keep by performing for Hindus who live in sturdy huts built of stone.
So it came as no surprise when Aamad Khan, a poor singer with deep-set eyes, was summoned to a nearby temple one night to play his harmonium, an air-driven organ. He was told to use his music to inspire the Hindu goddess Durga to enter the body of a local faith healer who happened to smell of alcohol that September evening.
The song would be Mr. Khan’s last.
Around 10:30 p.m., Mr. Khan’s limp body was taken to a hospital, a stripe of blood congealing below one ear. Eventually, the faith healer, Ramesh Suthar, confessed to killing him, saying he had murdered Mr. Khan in a drunken rage, smashing his head against a cement floor.
A week or so later, the folk musicians living here, who number about 200 with their families, did something they had never dared to try: They picked up and left.
For hundreds of years, the folk musicians, known as Manganiyars, have been bound to perform for high-caste Hindus, absorbing discrimination and abuse and getting paid little for it. But the thoughtless killing of one of their own seems to have been the last straw.
The Manganiyars who live around the village of Dantal say they are now finished with their feudal-style bondage — another sign that India’s centuries-old caste system may not be completely disintegrating but is definitely fraying.
“The country is free, but we are still slaves,” said Chugge Khan, 39, Mr. Khan’s brother. “This is the tipping point.”
Bound at birth to the Rajputs, a princely Hindu warrior caste, the Manganiyars, whose total number is in the thousands, are scattered across small pockets of India and Pakistan. For centuries, this caste arrangement, knitted together with music, has persisted across the cracked plains of the Thar Desert.
But as patronage systems have been dismantled in many parts of India, many Manganiyars have searched for a way out, looking for better jobs and pushing to change their name, which derives from the local word for “beggar.” Emboldened by increasing literacy, they have also migrated to cities, enticed by the prospect of performing for higher wages in hotels, for tourists and alongside Grammy winners.
Daniel Neuman, an ethnomusicologist who did field research on the Manganiyars a few decades ago, still remembers surprising conversations he had with singers, some of whom lived in places accessible only by camel.
The musicians lived in India without access to electricity or consistent access to water, so “the contrast was difficult to imagine,” he said, when they talked about the five-star hotels where they had stayed — in London, Paris and New York when commissioned to perform.
Manganiyars, who are traditionally Muslim but are often nonpracticing, are classified as a seminomadic tribe by the Indian government. They qualify for many of the same constitutional protections and benefits aimed at low-caste Hindus like Dalits, or untouchables, and those from what are officially called Other Backward Classes, according to Surinder Singh Gajraj, an official with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.
These protections and benefits have not always been realized in rural India, but they include school scholarships, land entitlements and housing for families living below the poverty line.
Generations ago, the patrons of the Manganiyars were the Rajputs. But the distinction has been relaxed to include other Hindus in Dantal, a village in Western Rajasthan of a few thousand people clustered near a lone cellular tower, one of the few signs of modernity.
With high-pitched voices that wiggle and shake, Manganiyars sing at weddings and religious gatherings. Their mandolin-like kamaichas are made from mango wood and goat hides. They perform sobering songs about abuse, love, loss and the casualties of past battles, evokinghistorical figures like Alexander the Great.
They also help faith healers reach a trance state.
That was the case the night of Sept. 27, when Mr. Khan, who was around 50, was asked to perform for the Suthars, a group of carpenters from a lower caste than the Rajputs. In the village’s social stratification, the Suthars are considered rough equals to the Manganiyars.
According to the criminal complaint, Mr. Suthar, the faith healer, and his brothers surrounded the musician, mocking his singing and tearing his clothing.
Later that evening, when Mr. Khan’s cousin came looking for him, Mr. Suthar uttered that Mr. Khan had been “sacrificed at the altar of the goddess.”
Under police interrogation, Mr. Suthar eventually admitted to killing the singer by slamming his head on the floor of a water tank near the temple. The Rajputs, who more or less run Dantal, tried to handle this the old-fashioned way: with silence.
Mr. Khan’s family said the Rajputs pressured them to accept some money and not report the crime to the authorities. But talks over exactly how much money should be paid soon broke down, and Mr. Khan’s family then jettisoned tradition and went to the police.
“We wanted justice,” said Kaiku Begum, Mr. Khan’s widow, between sobs.
Khet Singh, the acting village head, denied that the Rajputs had offered any money to halt the investigation, saying it was the Manganiyars who had demanded an exorbitant sum from village leaders.
“We keep them like our children,” Mr. Singh said, referring to the Manganiyars. “When we make chapatis, we set one aside for them. They don’t even have to cook. They come asking for food toward the evening and we give them whatever we wish.”
Mr. Singh said he believed Mr. Khan’s death was a convenient excuse to hatch an escape plan, characterizing the Manganiyar exodus as a kind of betrayal fueled by greed for worldly comforts.
“These people have tasted blood,” he said. “So many of their community are going abroad and becoming famous. They do not want to live on our handouts.”
A few days after the criminal complaint was filed, all the Manganiyars living in Dantal left. They are now in Jaisalmer, two hours away, where life rotates around a giant sandstone fort. They have initially set up camp in a blocky government shelter typically used by people seeking refuge from the scorching desert heat.
On a recent evening, a group of musicians gathered in a circle outside the shelter, plotting their next moves. Among them was Chugge Khan, Mr. Khan’s brother, who said the relationship between the Rajputs and Manganiyars had always been corrosive. The decision to leave was partly about fear, he said, but also an act of protest.
“If a child does not bow down before a Rajput with folded hands, even if it is a small child, he will be chided and, at times, slapped,” he said.
Some singers wonder how long they can hold out. Mr. Khan preferred taking the long view. The time had finally come to leave behind hundreds of years of slavery, he said.
Some singers wonder how long they can hold out. Mr. Khan preferred taking the long view. The time had finally come to leave behind hundreds of years of slavery, he said.
“All that we have are our mouths,” he said. “Now, we are trying to hold onto our dignity. We have decided not to live the life of insects anymore.”

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