Dry and barren most of the year — with winds blowing the loose desert soil into dunes — Thar comes to life when it rains. The thirsty soil drinks in the drops and blooms, and as life returns to the land, a rebirth takes place. Such times are awaited eagerly by the Manganhars — a native tribe of musicians, who eke out their livelihood through singing. Whether it is Bhodesar mosque, an ancient Jain worship place or a Hindu temple, one can find these artistes sitting under a tree or inside makeshift huts with their instruments. They start singing folk songs as soon as any visitor steps in any of these historical sites. One wonders, how there still exists such an area of exemplary inter-faith harmony in a country which is experiencing such radicalisation.
Mohammad Yousif Faqir is one of these Manganhars. Sitting with a broken harmonium under a tree at the entrance of a Hindu temple in Kasbo village near Nagarparkar, he is widely considered a symbol of the rainy season in Thar. Blind since birth, such is the passion and pathos of his voice that his melodies bring tears to the listener’s eyes. A fitting tribute, perhaps, to one who sings about the beauty of the rains. Throughout the dry period his sombre voice yearning for rain juxtaposes with the cry of thirsty peacocks’. And rain — being a metaphor of life — brings happiness for both, though for a brief period.
Meeting Yousif Faqir is an essential part of the itinerary of everyone who visits Thar. His son plays tabla sitting beside him and they both eke out a livelihood from the offerings of listeners. “I have a huge family to feed. People come here only in Sawan (rainy season). The rest of the year is very hard for my family as I can’t roam around easily like other Manganhars who sing in the weddings and earn their livelihood,” says Yousif Faqir. He has been singing at this temple for decades and has become frail with the passage of time. “Now, I sing and play the keyboard while my cousin pushes air into the instrument.” He narrates the story of his suffering with a sad voice.
“Manganhars are symbol of happiness and joy,” says Professor Noor Ahmed Janjhi of Mithi. “Whether it is rain, a wedding, a child’s birth or any festivity, these people are there to add charm and colour with their music.” Apart from preaching love and harmony, irrespective of caste and creed, Manganhars are preserving the ancient music and folklore on both sides of the border. “There are few people like Yousif Faqir who still sing in Gujrati and Marwari languages, preserving the traditional folk music.” says Piyaro Shivani, a social activist of Tharparkar.
Unfortunately these living repositories of culture are being forced to abandon their art due to a lack of patronage and changing tastes. “Now people do not even call us at weddings. Given this situation many of our relatives have switched professions to meet their needs,” says Irfan Faqir of Kaloi.
With the changing times Manganhars and their art are on the verge of extinction. It is feared that though the rain may make Thar bloom, its cultural landscape might become a permanent desert.