The Ramayana has numerous versions in different languages, from Japanese and Urdu to Sanskrit and Awadhi. The Manganiyars, a tribe from Rajasthan, for instance, have passed their songs down the generations without any textual record. Now, a 27-minute-long film, Bheetar Lagi: Ramayana Songs from the Desert, captures the songs and life of Manganiyars.
As a part of the Ramayana Project that archives and documents the retellings of The Ramayana across folk traditions in the country, the documentary was screened last week in Mumbai.
The documentary comes at a time when the tribe is going through its biggest transition in recent years, with their music getting sudden mainstream recognition, both nationally and internationally. This shift nicely comes across in the film; while the older men narrate their history, boys come up with their own renditions of Bollywood songs. The women don’t sing and their faces remain veiled, while their sons qualify for final rounds of Indian Idol, participate in urban-centric music festivals such as NH7, and tour abroad.
“In a way, they are luckier than many others as they have got the mainstream attention,” says Imran Ali Khan of the Ramayana Project. After the screening, there was a discussion along with director Smriti Wadhwa, where several interesting aspects of their songs — particularly those related to The Ramayana — came up. “Since they were the musicians at the royal court, they only sing songs marking happy occasions such as Ram and Sita’s wedding procession from Mithila to Ayodhya, and childbirth. The phases of war and forest exile don’t feature in their songs,” said Khan.