Folk musicians of Rajasthan forced to work as daily wage labourers to make both ends meet in the COVID19 pandemic

Broadly, seven communities in Rajasthan are categorised as traditional folk musicians. Dholi community is associated with nagara, the traditional drums, whereas the Bhand community members sing to entertain. All these musicians have lost their traditional source of income and now looking for other daily wage works.

Sanskriti Talwar
| Updated: August 17th, 2020

Folk musicians of Rajasthan. Photo: flickr

For 60-year-old Nathu Lal Solanki, a folk musician from the holy city of Pushkar in Ajmer district of Rajasthan, this year has been an endless wait. A wait for an invitation to perform at a festival or a social gathering on which depends his family’s livelihood.

“I am not sure how we will survive this year with all advanced bookings for folk performances cancelled. One season [March to April] to earn is already gone. We might have to turn to other jobs,” Solanki told Gaon Connection.

The next season is expected to kick in from November when the wedding period starts. “But I am not sure if folk artists like me will be invited to perform at the weddings, as due to coronavirus, the government has limited the number of guests to a maximum of 50 people,” he wondered.

Solanki and his family belong to the Dholi (drum beater) community of schedule castes in Rajasthan. It is one of the seven communities grouped under Minstrels and Instrument Players in the state. Among these communities is the Bhand community, which is also known as ‘entertainers, jokers and festers’.

Nathu Lal Solanki practicing at his home in Pushkar, Rajasthan.

The livelihood of all these communities of artists in Rajasthan is affected due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic as social functions are curtailed or cancelled. The first event to get cancelled was Holi celebrations in March followed by the announcement of nationwide lockdown on March 24.

Solanki belongs to a family of musicians with lustrous past. His forefathers played nagaras (percussion) at the famous Brahma Temple in Pushkar for thirteen generations, before moving to play it at the Gangaur Ghat of Pushkar Lake every evening. He was born in the temple and learned to play nagaras from his late elder brother Rama Kishan Solanki. Latter was awarded Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his contribution to the folk music of Rajasthan — the highest Indian recognition given to practicing artists. Solanki has now passed on the family’s traditional knowledge of music and instruments to his three sons and a grandson.

“It was my late brother who took the nagaras from the temple to the ghat, and later across the country and abroad by performing at festivals and fairs and providing a platform for the family to earn a better livelihood,” he narrated.

Survival in the lockdown, with no income and a large family to feed, has been tough. “We are a family of 12 members with a joint kitchen. Even though the government announced some foodgrain support during the lockdown, it wasn’t sufficient to feed my family,” Solanki lamented.

According to the recent Gaon Connection Survey, a first-of-its-kind national rural survey conducted across 23 states to understand the impact of COVID-19 lockdown on rural India, 63 per cent of rural households confirmed receiving wheat rice as ration during the lockdown. However, households that received ration from government were more likely to have faced difficulty in accessing food during the lockdown indicating that the ration received was perhaps inadequate. As per the survey, 32 per cent of those who received ration from the government faced “very high” difficulty in accessing food during the lockdown.

Folk singer turned daily wager

Somewhat similar is the plight of 30-year-old Lakshman Dwarika, a folk singer, belonging to the Bhand community of the state. He lives in the Merta Road village of Merta tehsil in Nagaur district of Rajasthan. With cultural events cancelled, since April this year he is working as a daily-wage construction labourer to feed his family.

“There is no event to perform at. So, I take up labour work when there is a house construction activity in the village. This way I earn Rs 200-300 a day,” Dwarika told Gaon Connection. “What else can I do? I have to take care of my seven children – five girls and two sons.”

Lakshman Dwarika is a folk artist in Rajasthan who belongs to the Bhand community, which is also known as ‘entertainers, jokers and festers’.

Dwarika was around 14-year-old when he had to quit his studies. He often regrets that decision, especially in the ongoing pandemic, but, he had no other option. Following his father’s ailing health, Dwarika had to start performing as a folk singer at weddings and other events to support his family. 

Between November and February, Dwarika used to earn Rs 30,000 per month in these four months by singing folk songs at wedding functions. During other months of the year, he managed to earn up to Rs 20,000 a month, which was sufficient for his family of nine to pull through a year. 

However, this year, the COVID19 lockdown has hit his family hard. “Lockdown se gambhir chot aae hai,” he lamented.

Lakshman Dwarika and others performing at a festival in Rajasthan.

Eating two meals a day has become a challenge. “We only eat one proper meal a day. During the day, we often crush chillies and make its paste to eat with dry chapattis,” he told Gaon Connection. “It is only during dinner we prepare dal or any vegetable to go with the chapatti. Many times, I ask my wife to add more water in the dal so that we could also eat it in the morning. We mostly eat leftover dinner the next morning.”

Increased debt

With no income in the last five months, folk artists are being forced to borrow money from private sources. For instance, some peers of Solanki sent him Rs 15,000 in April month to help manage his household expenses.

According to the Gaon Connection Survey, 23 per cent rural households borrowed money during the lockdown, of which 71 per cent borrowed money to meet household expenses.

“We were hopeful the lockdown would be lifted after April. But, it got extended. For the last five months, we are sitting idle at home with no income,” he said worriedly. “We wake up every morning only to comfort ourselves that another day has passed. We are artists. We have only learned to perform for others to fill our stomachs.”

Dwarika also had to borrow money during the lockdown and now owes over Rs 50,000 to his lenders.  

“Everyone is scared of coronavirus (Sabke dilo mey dar baitha hua hai),” he said. “Artists like us pull crowds… who wants to crowd people in a pandemic? Even if the situation gets stable in the coming months, it will not be the same (Vaisa mahaul nahi ban payega),” he added.

Folk artists turning into drivers

As the future looks bleak, Dwarika is considering buying a second-hand car and working as a driver. He also plans to continue singing Rajasthani folk music at events, as and when he receives an invitation. “Mere sar par toh bahut vazan hai (I have seven children to educate and five daughters to marry),” he said.

Like him, 35-year-old Vijay Rana, another folk artist from the Bhand community in Jaipur, is mulling over setting up a shop, or working as a driver. But, is afraid of taking the risk at this stage in his life.

A native of Watika village in Sanganer tehsil of Jaipur district, Rana started performing as a folk artist in his childhood. “Those who have only learned to sign and play music, how will they know anything else? (Yahi taleem di jaati hai humey bachban se aur kuch kaise kare?) Sometimes I feel I should have known more than just being a musician (Ye ab mehsoos hota hai),” a remorseful Rana told Gaon Connection

‘If the lockdown had been imposed in July, the situation would not have been this worse for the folk artists,’ said Vijay Rana.

His family of musicians have come a long way. From singing in the lanes of villages during fests or in jhansis, his family has turned to performing at shows in hotels in Jaipur, the state capital.  

According to Dwarika, the Bhand community has always been of entertainers. “Earlier we used to perform to entertain the kings in their palaces (Hum toh naukar they, unko rijhana humara kaam tha). Those palaces have now been converted into hotels,” he said.

“And with little or no guests at the hotels due to coronavirus, there is no one to perform for,” said Rana, who used to earn up to Rs 25,000 a month by performing at the hotels. Tips from generous audience sometimes increased his earning to Rs 30,000 a month. 

“It is now a struggle to even feed my three children – two daughters and a son,” he said. 

Musicians and artists are badly impacted by the COVID19 lockdown, but they are always aware of the threats. “The norms of physical distancing have to be followed (Jeena chahte ho toh mahamari se dur rehna hi padega. Zinda rahoge toh hi kala dikha paoge),” he added.

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