Mame Khan Is Keeping Up With The Times

For the Indian folk singer, Bollywood was ‘luck by chance’, literally, while everything else was a part of his plan. Mame Khan charts his journey all the way back to where it began, the currency of the kind of songs he sings, and what it takes to be relevant today

When he walked the red carpet of the 75th Cannes Film Festival Mame Khan became the first Indian folk artiste to do so. “My first foreign concert was in that part of the world. Way back in 1999, I was part of a music troupe that was on a six-month Europe tour. I was then a dholak player. We used to perform across Europe, we covered more than 30 cities, with our base in Brussels,” Mame Khan recalls.

 

Hailing from a small nondescript village in Rajasthan, this Manganiyar singer always wanted to go global. “Ours is a village of singers and when I was growing up, most kids dreamt of getting a passport and doing concerts abroad. In those days, Padma Shri Prof. Komal Kothari of Rajasthan Sangeet Natak Academy was working relentlessly to give the Manganiyar voices a platform, and he would organise and coordinate for various concerts both in India and abroad. In fact, my father, Ustad Rana Khan, who was a legendary Manganiyar singer, had done his first international show way back in 1984,” he says.

 

L: Mame Khan

 

Prof Kothari was instrumental in catapulting this little boy from Satto on to the world stage. But first, it was a performance in front of the then Prime Minister of the country, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, at India Gate. That was Khan’s performance outside Jaisalmer.

 

Manganyar is a community of folk musicians who consider themselves descendants of the Rajputs. Their robust melodies have been reverberating through the Thar Desert for centuries. The songs, sung during weddings and other happy occasions, are often written in praise of their patrons, known as jajmans, and are passed on from one generation to another through oral tradition. Although a Muslim community, these singers, like the Sufis, are more into spirituality and mysticism and often sing praises of Hindu deities as well.

 

“We are born into music. Even the toys the kids play with are musical instruments. We learn by listening to our elders and start singing as part of a spontaneous process. Later we begin our formal training under a guru,” explains Khan, who trained under his father and started his music career as a dholak player.

 

“Although I was singing since I was in school, it is much later that I started singing professionally,” he says, recollecting how he had left his dholak in Brussels after his first foreign tour hoping to go back in a few days, which never happened. “After a month when I couldn’t go back to Brussels, my father told me that it was time for me to leave the dholak for good, and take up singing as a career instead. It was a turning point in my life.” Thus began the journey of Mame Khan, the singer.

 

But like all Manganiyar children, he was singing almost since the time he was born. He recalls, “In school, I would be called up to sing the National Anthem or the prayers. My teachers and classmates loved my singing. In fact, children in my school would save the toffees that the school would give out on special occasions and offer me those after the classes are over in exchange of a song (laughs). Those half-melt toffees and those mesmerised faces were the best remunerations I have received till date.”

 

On Sundays, Khan would go to the Jaisalmer fort to sing to the tourists. “We would get some money from the tourists, but it was also a good riyaz. But at that point, I was not sure whether I was doing it for money or riyaz, or just because it was fun,” he laughs.

 

 

A still from Mirziya

 

Bollywood was not part of his dreams, he adds. “When I was growing up, our village didn’t even have electricity, let alone televisions or movie theatres. We were not exposed to movies. The village would have a few radio sets, and we would listen to old Rafi songs. But mostly, it was the classical musicians we grew up listening to. We would buy cassettes of the likes of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, and listen to them on loop,” he says.

 

So, movies happened by chance? I ask. Yes, he retorts. “Iwas called to perform at the wedding of Dhruv Ghanekar and Ishita Arun, the daughter of Ila Arun. The who’s who of Bollywood was present there, and Shankarji noticed me. He asked Ila ji to call us to Mumbai; he wanted to record a song with me. When I got her call I thought it was for some event, and I had no idea what a studio recording was. “I reached the studio in my full traditional getup, armed with my harmonium, and sat down and started singing in front of Zoya Akhtar, Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani, and Loy Mendonsa. They didn’t stop me, they were engrossed. After a while, Shankarji remembered that he had called me to record a song. I followed his instructions, and the song was recorded. However, I still had no idea that it was for a film,” says Khan. “I came back to a village and one day, a friend of mine came to me saying my film is releasing. I had no clue what he was talking about. He showed me a newspaper that had a poster of Luck By Chance with Farhan Akhtar and Hrithik Roshan, and my name was mentioned in it.”

 

The song he sang was Baawre, which went on to become a super hit, and Mame Khan started his journey in Bollywood. Then came movies like I Am, No One Killed Jessica, Mirzya, and Sonchiriya. “Eventually, I decided to relocate to Mumbai in 2015. If you are passionate about your work, and you have a goal, this is the right city for you. But it is important to remember your roots.”

 

 

A still from Sonchiriya

 

His stupendous success of the Coke Studio version of Choudhary made Mame Khan start his tryst with fusion. “I am trying to give our traditional music a Mame Khan twist to make it more accessible to the world audience, especially the younger generation. I am shortening the songs, making the language easier. Also, since ours is an oral tradition, I am trying to document the songs for posterity. The music is the same; I am just trying to customise it according to the times we are living in,” he explains.

 

Mame Khan has a huge following on social media, and he regularly tries to engage with his audiences by doing lives and posts. “Today, it is not enough to just be an artiste. You need to be knowledgeable, and that includes keeping up with the latest technologies. A singer can now become his own production house; one doesn’t need big labels to reach the audiences. Everything can be done on social media. There are so many platforms where you can release your music. If you are not taking advantage of the new things available, then you are setting yourself up to become a relic,” he signs off.

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