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Dapu Khan, the fort singer


Dapu Khan, who performed at Sonar Qila in Jaisalmer for 25 years, passed away recently

In 2018, a heritage walk saw me leading three friends on a warm winter morning to the majestic Jaisalmer Fort. From behind the imposing sandstone walls of the Sonar Qila came the haunting sound of the kamaicha (one of the oldest bowed instruments in the world). We followed the sound, made our way through the winding path, and came across an old man with red turban, hollowed face, high cheekbones and penetrating eyes. He greeted us with a broad, toothless smile and spoke in English. “I am Deepu Khan Mirasi Manganiyar, but locally I am called Dapu,” he said. “The Manganiyars and the Langas are itinerant folk singers of the desert, both here and in Sindh. I have travelled the desert, but for the past two decades I have been performing at the fort. I can sing songs of birth, marriage, love, and death in various raags.”

Dapu Khan, who passed away recently, was an exponent of the kamaicha, the soul of the desert, which featured in the postal stamp series on musical instruments released in September 2020.

Says Gazi Khan Manganiyar, an accomplished folk performer, “Dapu ji belonged to village Khinkali in Jaisalmer. Having studied up to class eight, he was one of the earliest Manganiyars who could speak English. He began performing at famous heritage sites in the city to earn a living from the tourists. He could be spotted sitting on the steps of the Gadisar Lake, in the courtyard opposite Patwa Haveli, and in Jaisalmer Fort.

His fame grew when the NGO, Anahad Foundation, recorded his music. “Dapu ji sang our popular love song ‘Moomal – Mahendra,” says Gazi. The foundation has recorded the music of several desert singers and folk musicians.

Like several desert musicians, Dapu Khan succeeded in recreating old songs while keeping their inherent raw musical appeal and structure intact. For instance, he brought innovations in the rendition of Moomal. “The original composition is sung in the six-beat cycle (Dadra taal) in slow tempo; Dapu ji sang in the eight-beat cycle (Keharva) in fast tempo, making the presentation livelier and more appealing. While many singers began using the harmonium for performances, Dapu ji continued to use the kamaicha,” says Gazi.

Dapu Khan belongs to an era in the 70s and 80s when the lives of folk artistes began changing as they left the desert to come to the urban stage. “Later, these musicians became popular at events organised for tourists. Hotels also began recruiting them for curated cultural evenings,” says Shubha Chaudhuri, associate director general at the Archives and Research Centre (American Institute for Indian Studies).

It was at this time that manganiyars such as Chugge Khan, Saker Khan, Pepe Khan, Lune and Akbar got together to promote their music. “Much of the credit goes to folk music activist and scholar Komal Kothari,” says Gazi. “He worked relentlessly to raise our presence internationally.”

With tourists recording and uploading Dapu Khan’s singing and playing of the kamaicha on YouTube, the desert singer now reigns online too, with more than 10 million followers on social media and guaranteed an evergreen afterlife.

The writer is a Kathak exponent

and cultural critic.

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