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New DelhiTen years ago, a 16-year-old Dalit boy from Kumaon left his home because his father refused to buy him a harmonium to sing qawwali. For this fan of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, moving on to folk music was not easy. Today Sarvajit Tamta has his own qawwali band named Rehmat-e-Nusrat and will be performing at Sundar Nursery in Delhi tomorrow.
His journey, which began at the age of 15 when he first heard the song ‘Saanu Ik Pal Chain Na Ave’ sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, has not been an easy one.
Sarvajit’s father had great fears about the fate of his son as a musician. Folk artists don’t get good money or respect in society – a situation that hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years – and so he wanted his son to become an engineer. But Sarvajit had set his mind on music.
A few months after leaving home, Sarvajit got a job teaching music and painting to children at a private school in Pant Nagar, 100 km from his hometown of Almora. But one day when Sarvajit was asked to clean the toilet as he was a Dalit, he left the job. Now penniless, he was somehow keeping himself alive by sleeping on the streets. This self-taught qawwal took refuge in the homes of luminaries like the Wadali brothers from Punjab and Manganiyar singer Fakira Khan from Rajasthan.
‘I didn’t eat anything for a whole day,’ Sarvajit recalled when he first met the Wadali brothers, ‘They (eldest brother Puranchand Wadali) fed me with their own hands. He asked me in Punjabi, ‘Where are you from? From Nainital? Eat cheese too.
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Since then, his musical journey began. Today, Sarvajeet is one of those rare qawwalas who, with their strong social context, often write their own songs. But they did not leave Kumaoni folk music behind either. He can play mountain tunes on his flute.
People and Qawwali
When I met him on Wednesday, he was sitting on a terrace in Gurugram in the light rain, rehearsing for his Saturday show at Sundar Nursery in Delhi. His other band ‘Himalimau’ – a hill folk group – will also perform here.
Sarvajit founded the band Rahmat-e-Nusrat in 2014. “He called me in 2019 and said he sings folk songs,” says Ashutosh Sharma, co-founder of Amras Records. But when we meet, he reveals that he also sings qawwali, ‘Amras Records is the recording company that gave global recognition to the Rajasthani folk music band Barmer Boys.
Sharma said, “Her qawwali has a rooh (soul), which is not usually seen in singers. I encouraged him to pursue folk songs as well.
‘Rahmat-e-Nusrat’ Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has sung qawwali from Sufiana Kalam’s ‘Mera Piya Ghar Aya Ho Lal Ni’ to ‘Nit Khair Manga’. These are original works of poets like Amir Khusro, Mira Bai, Baba Bulleh Shah, Rumi. This group of young musicians transforms them from Qawwalis to melodious Kumaoni tunes in no time.
For Sarvajeet, politics and music are intertwined. He loves folk singing, but the art form confines him to his Dalit identity.
He said, ‘I started folk singing, but once I felt the ‘burden’ associated with it, I couldn’t go back to that path. If I sing Qawwali, I am a respectable singer. But if I go back to singing Kumaoni folk songs, I come back to my identity as a Dalit.
Sarvajit’s guru and author Deepak Thiruva said, ‘People from the Dalit community used to sing folk songs and play musical instruments in the hills. Kumaoni people use a percussion instrument called Hudak. One who plays is called Hudkia. But hudakia is not a respectful term, it is used only for Dalits. People from other castes who sing folk songs are not called hoodkia’ Sarvajeet’s group gives a live performance composed by Deepak Thiruva.
Sarvajit said, ‘If the government wants to preserve folk arts and remove caste elements from it, they should make Hudak a subject in universities or colleges.’ He adds, ‘It is not the responsibility of any caste group to preserve traditional arts. I love folk music as music and I will continue to sing it. But it is not expected that only Dalits will protect it.
Sharma says the solution is to popularize folk songs. He said, ‘When music becomes popular, then one can talk about the issues related to it. First let as many people as possible hear it, be mesmerized. We do not want to present folk music as a dying art form. We just want to present good music and great musicians.
Also Read: Don’t Limit Caste Census to Hindus – Include Dalits from Tribals, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians
Making time for art
Sarvajeet’s co-stars in Rahmat-e-Nusrat and Himalimaau come from different backgrounds and keep changing.
Jayant, the band’s singer and harmonium player, has been pursuing his passion for music for the past five years while preparing for UPSC exams. He said, ‘I love to study and it is never a hindrance. It helps me understand the meaning of qawwali and ghazal quickly.’ M. The book ‘Indian Polity’ written by Laxmikant stays with him in rehearsals.
While Abhishek owns a pet shop, Kamlesh sings in Jagran. Deepak has just graduated and is looking for a job. Hudak player Chandrasekhar is the only member of Himalimau and is taking the government exam to get a permanent job.
The group debuted in 2020 and performed at the Jaipur Literature Festival and various venues in Delhi-NCR. He has literally performed at Sacred Music Seattle, In2 Wild Festival UK, Hothouse Chicago, Fabindia, Surajkund Crafts Mela and Depot 48.
He will be performing at the Zero Music Festival in Arunachal Pradesh next week.
Sarvajit’s band consists mostly of artists who are daily wage earners and have a passion for music. So old actors leave and new ones keep joining.
‘The real challenge is keeping the band intact,’ he says. Most of us are from lower middle class families, trying to feed ourselves. People keep leaving the band because we don’t get enough money for our concerts. This is different from traditional Qawwal group where you also get work in your family name.
Another reason why Rahmat-e-Nusrat Band is different from other Qawwali groups is that the artists of the band compose songs and also perform on social issues. Deepak said, ‘(But) we don’t want to suggest that everything is wrong or that it should be burnt to ashes.’ He adds, ‘Our songs make you aware of a problem, but also hope. We are saying that this world is beautiful and worth saving.
(Click here to read this feature in English)
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