Many strings attached

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 12 Mar 2018 10:31:33



Belonging to Manganiars, a community of Muslims known for their classical folk music, Jaisalmer-based Chanan Khan and his preceding generations have been engaged with folk music professionally. They perform at weddings, melas, festivals and other auspicious occasions across the region. In a recently held travel conference in Delhi, Khan performed along with his three sons.

They sang bhajans and folklore from the region and paired them with their traditional instruments Khartal and Dholak besides using a rare instrument called the Surmandal. This is a string instrument that Khan and clan insist is not found anywhere in the country. The 36-string instrument has been in the Khan family for three generations, but continued to remain put-away untilayear ago.

“My grandfather Aarbhe Khan used to play the Surmandal and when he passed away, my uncle brought it home and played it all hislife,” says 65-year-old Khan, who learned the art from his uncle. Chacha said, “No one in the village has a Surmandal. You should learn it, it will be useful someday,” he reminisces. Khan learned to play it, but performed only at his home.

“I realised that nobody valued the instrument and stopped playing it. Add to it the fact that it broke and I couldn’t afford to repair it,” says Khan, who was approached by Sangeetcar, an independent folk music conservatory, when they visited Jaisalmer last year. “Ayesha Ji (Ayesha Vasudev is the founder of the music conservatory) told us to continue playing the Surmandal since I was the last Manganiar playing this instrument.

I had no resourcesto repairthe instrument, so she helped me fix my old Surmandal and also got a new one made. Ever since, I have started teaching my sons,” adds Khan who now lives inamud house on the outskirts of Kanoi, 35-km from Jaisalmer, after a dispute he had with Rajputs of his village. He recalls an interesting incident. “When Indira Gandhi visited Kanoi, everybody went to meet her. We were also part of that group. Suddenly there was a lot of chaos and to save his Surmandal, my uncle raised it above his head. Indira Gandhi thought he was offering it as a gift. He was called forward and the ‘gift’ was taken.

When everybody left, my chacha explained the error to collector, but since it was accepted as a gift, there was no returning it.That’s when he commissioned a carpenter for a new one.” Even today, the carpenter, explains Khan, is given instructions on the design along with the measurements like length, breadth and height. “Once the body is designed, we do the wiring and tune the instrument using a wooden key,” adds Khan.

The instrument is played using a thin cuticle ring called Nakhla, to ensure a clearer sound. Interestingly, the Surmandal looks similar to the Swarmandal, which has been played by the likes of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and is still played by Pandit Jasraj and Ustad Rashid Khan. In fact, it was featured in The Beatles 1967 single ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.

The difference, explainsKhan, isthat the Surmandal is used forfolk music where as the Swarmandal is used in classical music. While the Manganiars have always been engaged in gaana-bajana, as Khan calls it, he and his sons had to start taking up work in the fields in the lean months.

However, now with his instrument getting some attention, Khan plans to teach the younger generation and entertain tourists, which he feels could be a new source of income forthem. He wonders if there will be space to perform and whether there could be a music academy in his village...! For his sake and for the sake of the surmandal, we hope so.