Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Music in the Bikaner Desert

The Bag Piper in a remote desert village of Bikaner

I am back to writing this part of the story after a very long gap. It was the last evening of our desert journey. We pestered Maharaj and Raju for a dhani. We did not want an isolated dune or a farm. We did not want that uninterrupted silence. We wanted to be surrounded by the sounds of the village, to talk to farmers, women and children. At the same time, we did not want a big village, but just a small cluster of huts. Fortunately for us, it was that time of the year when the fields were being harvested. It was for this purpose that many huts were erected in the middle of the fields, called dhanis. Entire families had moved to these dhanis to water the fields, and protect them from the peacocks and the deer. The men would patrol these fields even in the nights to prevent deer from eating away the grain and destroying the crop. While we found them pretty and elegant, the villagers found them a nuisance, typical of the chasms between the insider and the outsider.

Our guides Maharaj and Babu resolutely led us to a village. On the way we saw peacocks and deer in plenty. Maize, melons, gavarphali and moongphali were being grown in the fields. We would stop on the way, pluck ripe melons from the field and eat it. Not all were sweet but the juicy flesh of the melon was soothing against the heat. It was October; the beginning of winter, but the day temperatures still hovered around 36 to 38 C. S was trying to photograph the peacock hoping that it will open its fantastic tail. They were both dodging each other. Soon we arrived at the village around 5pm, a cluster of four to five huts. I think they all belonged to the same family, cousin brothers farming separate sections of land. The children in the village got very excited on our arrival. I was a little unnerved by their aggressive behavior. Their only conversation with me was to demand either pens or chocolates. Obviously they had encountered tourists earlier and the memory of chocolates and pens lingered.

Soon, Maharaj and company set up camp, getting ready to cook the evening dinner. S and I walked around the place. Again the desert came up with its surprises. As we moved a few paces ahead there was a lake surrounded by old gnarled trees. That entire area was like a small forest, albeit a forest in summer time. There were peacocks and host of beautiful birds fluttering around. Some of the villagers were making their way from one village to another along this lake. It was twilight and a tranquil evening. Reminded me of on of those settings in the comic book Amar Chitra Katha. We were sitting on a rock, absorbing the surroundings. Upon the arrival of darkness we proceeded to our campsite and switched on the radio. It was pitch dark very soon. None of these areas had electricity.

Very soon the news on our radio began to attract the other villagers, many of them going to their fields for their patrolling duty. The radio always succeeded in creating a level playing field between us and them. A few of them, mostly men would squat around the campsite and wonderful conversations would ensue. They enquired about us and we enquired about them. We compared notes on irrigation, education, health care, transportation, weather, food and family, a wide range of topics. In the middle of one such conversation about marriages and celebrations, one of them accidentally dropped a juicy piece of information - in the adjoining huts, there lived a man called Shankar who played the baaja. That immediately piqued our interest. Soon there was an interest in listening to the baaja. Not just us but the villagers, our camp comrades and of course the pesky children. I think one of them sent word requesting the artist to play the baaja tonight. We were told that he just returned from work and that he would definitely oblige us. We also finished our dinner in the meantime. Maharaj, Mangia and Babu were sprawled on their backs, contently chewing their pan masala listening to the radio. We were also similarly sprawled, listening, talking and half sleepy. The full moon was glowing steady in the clear skies dispelling the darkness around us.

In this moonlit darkness pf contentment, we heard a distant sound of someone playing a musical instrument, obviously tuning his instrument. The notes were so strangely lyrical. The sound was coming from half a kilometer away. From then onwards it was a matter of listening to him as he began coming towards us. I cannot describe the magic of the night. I have been postponing writing this piece precisely because of the intimidation I feel about describing the ambience of this night: the music and the moonlight.

We were about ten people sitting in a circle listening to him in rapt attention. He finally arrived at our camp site. A polite, humble, poor bag piper. Apart from tending to his fields he occasionally played his baaja for weddings for a wage. But he said that it has become a rare occasion. People prefer recorded music to the baaja. He told us that it was a long time since he played his baaja. The instrument was rusty and needed quite a bit of cajoling to be tuned.

The music that he played was traditional music played in weddings and feasts. It was a deep, resonating, baritone music played in a halting manner. I am too poor with my words to describe that moment. I want to write a description that is beautiful and not sentimental or syrupy. My writing skills, I admit are too crude to paint that night. Anyway, soon Maharaj was so inspired that he began to dance to the music. There was clapping, fun and a camaraderie which gradually descended on this motley group of strangers. Maharaj then sang a beautiful bhajan, a bhajan in which all of us joined: Maharaj Gajananda aawoge, more sabha mein ranga barasaoge. (Maharaja Gajananda, please come and bring color to my court)

The Morning After

The following morning, we went to that forest like area and spent a lot of time clicking photographs with the children. There were about ten children who were with us, tending to their goats. The goats were their playthings. Some of them went to the nearby school. We also visited Shankar’s home where he lived with his aged parents, lactating wife and three children. We spent many hours chatting with all of them, curious about their lifestyle and their survival stories. We just didn’t know how time flew. Shankar’s wife had just delivered her daughter, less than one month back. She was already back to work, taking care of the elders, the children, making food etc. We were also offered rotis and a curry made of cucumber. Anything that we heard, ate or experienced there felt heavenly. Surely it was the newness of the place, the unfamiliarity, the rural ambience and the simplicity of the living. Nothing in their household economy was wasted. Every item was subject to recycling. The flesh of the water melons was eaten, the skin was fodder for the goats and the seeds were dried and sold in the market.

Shankar’s wife and I became great friends. I slipped in a hundred rupee note into her blouse, well hidden from the prying eyes of her mother-in-law. Again, such bonding is so amazing. It happens within minutes and crosses the barriers of strangeness. And most of it was non-verbal. There was an electric moment when she asked me to keep her baby and take the child away to the city. I was shaken by the gesture, almost wanting to spirit the child away on an impulse. She wanted to connect with me, give me something from her meager possessions. Soon, she pulled out a tiny vessel in which there was dried mehendi. She conjured up beautiful designs on my hands from that little mehendi, and left her presence on my hands.


The desert safari drew to an end. We were dropped at the highway where we could board a bus to Bikaner. We bid our goodbyes to Maharaj, Mangia and Babu and the camels. They were anyway getting ready for the next batch of tourists. We felt lost and disoriented getting back to dusty bustling Bikaner. Thankfully we had booked our accommodation in Bhairon Vilas Palace which was an oasis in the town. It was late afternoon by the time we reached the palace. That evening, we sat in the spacious courtyard of the palace, chewing on the treasure trove of memories alternately feeling sad and happy.

Even after a year as I remember the trip, I feel very nostalgic. There was certain simplicity to the holiday – traveling through the desert with the help of camels. The food was minimal but filling, the accommodation was tented, and that was it. It was almost an aimless wandering in the desert, gazing around, lost in thought and listening to the radio. The holiday became special because it provided such a radical break from the city schedules that we were so used to. It was no doubt a rugged holiday, with very few additional creature comforts.

That evening and the next morning we walked around dusty Bikaner town buying pickles and sweets for our friends. We had heard that camel leather was easily available in Bikaner. So we looked around for this shop and finally found a small shop selling camel leather goods. We bought some shoulder bags which looked rugged and weather beaten adding to the memories of Bikaner. It was also coming to terms with the dust and disorder of Bikaner as the town began to grown on us steadily. There was a small sweet shop (Chotu Motu Hotel) which made mouth watering puris and a pickle of fenugreek seeds. To call is heavenly would be an understatement. We also walked around the vegetable and spice market, the camel hiring market and many of the lanes and by lanes of the town. By 2pm in the afternoon we were ready to board the train for the long journey ahead to our home town.