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Rajasthan: Land of Kings, Langas, and Manganiyars

Rhythm of Rajasthan comes to Zankel Hall on November 19. Read about the northwest Indian state from which the group hails and which gives birth to their signature sound.

Rajasthan, the "land of kings," is situated in northwest India and is one of the largest Indian states. It is a region that remained largely independent during the British colonial period and consisted of some 23 princely kingdoms with which the British maintained treaties. After independence, these (often warring) Rajput states were united under the banner of Rajasthan. Bordered in the west by the Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Punjab; in the south and east by the Indian states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh; and in the north by Haryana and Punjab (India), it is divided by a low mountain range known as the Aravalli Hills into two very different areas. While the eastern region is green and fertile, the western consists largely of the Great Thar Desert, an arid and semi-arid area that stretches across the border into Pakistan. It is this region that provides the rich cultural diversity represented by this evening’s music and dance, and from which the Roma (Gypsy) people most probably originated.

Rajasthan has one of the liveliest folk traditions in India. The music is driven by pulsating rhythms created by an array of percussion instruments, the most popular of them being the dholak, a double-headed barrel drum, whose repertoire has influenced other Indian drums, including the tabla. The song lyrics deal with every aspect of life and human expression—including love, separation, heroism, patriotism, respect for nature, marriages, birth, and death—and about the love for God.

The music and dance is richly varied, representing the distinctive styles of the different groups that make up this desert land. The Langas and Manganiyars make up two groups of hereditary professional musicians whose music has been supported by wealthy landlords and aristocrats for generations. Both sing in the same dialect, but their styles and repertoires differ, shaped by the tastes of their patrons. Though both communities are made up of Muslim musicians, many of their songs are in praise of Hindu deities and celebrate Hindu festivals such as Diwali and Holi.

The Manganiyar performers traditionally invoke the Hindu god Krishna and seek his blessings before beginning their recital. At one time, the Manganiyars were musicians of the Rajput courts who accompanied their chiefs to war and provided them with entertainment before and after the battles. One of their instruments is the bowed kamayacha with its big, circular resonator that gives out an impressive deep, booming sound. The Langas (song givers), from the Barmer district of Rajasthan, converted from Hinduism to Islam in the 17th century. Traditionally, Islamic influences prevented them from using percussion instruments. Instead, the Sindhi sarangi and the algoza double flute were used to accompany and echo their formidable voices. The Sindhi sarangi is made up of four main strings, with more than 20 vibrating sympathetic strings that help to create its distinctive haunting tones. The bowing of this instrument is often supported by the sound of the ghungroos (ankle bells) that are tied to the bow to make the beat more prominent. The Saperas (from the word sap, meaning "snake") are a sub-group of the community of Kalbeliyas; they specialize in curing snakebites and in snake-charming. They catch snakes by enchanting them with their pungi, a double clarinet. The Saperas have their own music, but perform professionally with Langas.

Related: November 19, Rhythm of Rajasthan 

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