Sanjit Das for The New York Times
Lakha Khan, right, playing the sarangi, and his son Dane, left, on the dholak. Two entrepreneurs are trying to bring the music of the Khansâ caste, the Manganiyars, to a wider audience. More Photos »
RANERI, India — In this tiny village almost 400 miles southwest of New Delhi, where women wash dishes in the sand to conserve water, and electricity is scarce, Lakha Khan sat on the floor of a stone hut, legs crossed and white turban in place. There he coaxed a bright, high-pitched, dizzyingly fast melody from his violinlike sarangi.
Mr. Khan, 66, who is known as Lakha or Lakhaji (ji at the end of a name is a sign of respect in India), is one of the few remaining Sindhi sarangi players among the Manganiyars, a caste of hereditary Muslim musicians who live in this desert state of Rajasthan. He plays for hours — until black beetles falling from the ceiling indicate nighttime — usually with no more company than a couple of passing goats. But on a recent afternoon he had an audience of two: Ashutosh Sharma and Ankur Malhotra, who were crouching over their gear, including a five-channel mixer and two analog recorders. They placed some of their seven microphones on towels to absorb the noise of the flour mill across the street.
“There’s an exuberance or just kind of a lack of inhibition when they’re performing at home,” Mr. Malhotra said of the Manganiyars, whose music is a mix of traditional melodies and arresting vocals. “Here these performances are genuine and real and filled with emotion.”
Mr. Sharma and Mr. Malhotra, both 37, said they want to preserve the music of the Manganiyars, whose songs — devotionals as well as stories of births, deaths and love, often about the Hindu families that are their patrons — have no written record. The two men said they were inspired by Alan Lomax, the musicologist who more than half a century ago traveled the American South recording previously unknown blues musicians.
And like Lomax they hope to preserve the music and to bring it to a wider audience through a small, independent record label they began with two friends, called Amarrass Records. Yet they realize that trying to popularize Manganiyar music is a daunting task in India, where most young people would rather download Bollywood ringtones than listen to an ancient folk music.
Several authorities on the Manganiyars, like Shubha Chaudhuri, an ethnomusicologist at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Gurgaon, India, are skeptical about the goal of making the musicians more widely known because their indigenous music is not meant to be commercial. “It’s a niche audience for this kind of thing,” Dr. Chaudhuri said.
Mr. Malhotra and Mr. Sharma are undeterred. They grew up in New Delhi, listening to Sufi and Hindi music. As they got older they turned to Western rock, though the music was difficult to get in India, which was just liberalized. Mr. Sharma’s father, a British Airways pilot, brought him Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones records that he picked up during trips to the United States and Britain. As Mr. Sharma began to explore the music that had influenced such rock acts, his interest eventually lead him to Lomax.
Mr. Sharma had begun a travel agency in New Delhi (it handles many foreign journalists in India, including some who work for The New York Times). Mr. Malhotra moved to the United States, earned an M.B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and created an education technology start-up. But the two men became “fed up,” as Mr. Sharma put it, by the lack of music in their lives, and they began talking about starting a label. Not long afterward Mr. Sharma showed up at a rehearsal in New Delhi of the “Manganiyar Seduction,” a theater show with roughly 40 Manganiyars that was about to go on tour outside India. His agency had been handling travel for the show, and when he went to drop off plane tickets, he recalls being blown away by the music. He called Mr. Malhotra in Wisconsin and had him listen to the performance over the phone.
“The 40 of them singing and performing in a room, there’s no way you can’t feel that,” Mr. Malhotra said. After finding limited recordings of Manganiyar music, they decided to make their own and approached the theater director about recording the show on vinyl. He agreed. The show led the two to thinking about making field recordings.
“There was this curiosity about these rock stars,” Mr. Sharma said. “Their two-minute piece is so good, what do they practice in their lives, what do they play?”
Several months later they traveled to Rajasthan, where they auditioned Manganiyars in the town of Pokharan. They then drove down desert roads for hours to get to Raneri, where they met Lakhaji. They arrived at his home around 8 at night, exhausted.
“Then he picks up the sarangi and starts playing, and it just changes the mood,” Mr. Malhotra said. “We were there for an hour, and it was a beautiful session, just the three of us. It was such a moving experience.”
This spring they returned to Raneri hoping to record an album with several Manganiyar families. They stayed at Lakhaji’s house for three days, forgoing showers because Raneri has no running water. At night they slept on cots under the stars.
“It was important for us to be with him,” Mr. Malhotra said. “When he gets up in the morning and feels like singing a certain song a certain way, we’re there. That doesn’t happen in a studio.”
Later they drove 200 miles to the village of Hamira, the home of Sakar Khan, 76. Sakarji is a master of the kamancha, an ancient stringed instrument played with a bow that is a signature of the Manganiyars. One of the best-known Manganiyars in the country, he has toured the world with his instrument, passed down from his father.
“Sakar Khan is to the kamancha what Yehudi Menuhin is to the violin,” Mr. Malhotra said.