This photo story focuses on Nihal Khan, a Merasi musician, who has been working to find ways to help his community gain self-respect and economic independence. The journey started at his home with his son Thanu Khan who recently became a household name after Sony Entertainment signed him up for Superstar Singers, a popular music reality show. This was Thanu’s second attempt for a television appearance where he succeeded – at the ripe age of 7.
The Day Starts At Shiv; A Typical Marwari Village In Western Rajasthan (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
Fifty kilometres north of Barmer lies a modest village called Shiv. Named after a Hindu god, this village has a high Muslim population, whose ancestors, originally lower caste Hindus, converted to Islam generations ago. The community is collectively called the Merasi tribe, and for generations they served entertainment to their upper-caste land-owning Hindu patrons (jajmaans).
Spread over a stretch of barely 3 kilometres on National Highway 68, Shiv is a lacklustre village with a chaotic bazaar. Before the day begins, the highway stretches without interruption, herds of cows are marched to neighbouring pastures, vegetable vendors stock up, and tea and pakora stalls gear up for the day's business.
Walk A Mile; Maybe Two (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
A village of limited connectivity and poor public transport, residents of Shiv and its many neighbouring villages are dependent on the daily 9 AM government bus.
Once it's gone, locals must either walk long distances or rely on relatives and neighbours with vehicles to drop them to their destinations.
The Name Is Khan. Nihal Khan (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
In Shiv lives a remarkable man named Nihal Khan. He belongs to the Merasi Tribe and is the custodian of some of Rajasthan's most iconic folk music culture, as is common for all members of the Merasi tribe. However, what is uncommon about Nihal Khan is his dedication to empowering his community, through thick and thin.
Their primary source of income comes from singing and playing traditional Rajasthani folk instruments during weddings, birth ceremonies, and various popular Hindu festivals like Holi, Diwali, Gangaur, Teej, and others. However, these performances are often trivialised and the musicians referred to as Manganiyars (beggars).
Hiran Ki Tris (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
Nihal Khan drives his second-hand Hyundai with a cracked windshield to Hadoa village each day to pick up his students for their music class. After their training, he drives them back home.
In total, it is a 40-kilometer ride for which he spends INR 500 on fuel daily. Spotting a mirage on the highway is fairly common, and Khan refers to it as Hiran Ki Tris in his local language.
At Hadoa, Nihal Khan's Students Run To Greet Him (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
As Nihal Khan's Hyundai wobbles over the unfinished alleys of Hadoa and comes to a stop, the group is already huddled and waiting. Soon the car is surrounded by grinning faces even as some join in running from their homes.
For a while, everyone is busy piling into the vehicle and getting the best spot in the car.
At Rahoni Market With Modi Tea Stall (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
Returning to Shiv's Rahoni market at Gadra Chauraha. Nihal Khan has two shops. One shop is in the alley that goes in right beside Modi tea stall where he mends and builds instruments like the harmonium, the dholak, and more.
The other shop is two lanes to the left where he teaches music to his students in a basement.
The Shutter Goes Up At Majisa Music School (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
Nihal Khan's music school is named after Majisa, a popular Hindu goddess of Western Rajasthan; she is also referred to as Rani Bhatiyani Sa.
It is common for Merasi singers to sing songs in praise of Hindu gods and goddesses to please their patrons. Over the years it has become part of their identity to venerate Hindu deities and celebrate Hindu festivals.
Swaroop, The Youngest Musician In Khan's Class Takes His Time At Majisa Seriously (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
It is common for Merasi children as young as 3 or 4 to start singing and keep a precise rhythm. Almost every Merasi will try to explain to outsiders how music runs in their blood and singing is like an everyday affair just as drinking chai is. Interestingly, Swaroop Khan's name was Swarup.
Nihal Khan Stops Some Curious Visitors Before They Interrupt The Class (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
Nihal Khan's music school shut during the initial months of the lockdown and reopened on August 5th. The decorations on the walls, including the swastika, are a carryover from that day. While the basement can house as many as 50 to 60 students, keeping social distancing in mind, Nihal Khan limits batches to 9 or 10 only.
Hitting The Right Notes (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
Bada Khan practices his skill on the Dholak as Mohanlal renders a Shah Latif bhajan.
Interestingly, Mohanlal is the only singer in Nihal Khan's class whose name does not end in Khan. Neither does he belong to the Manganiyar tribe. He is simply passionate about music and is here singing a Sufi song penned by the great Pakistani Sindhi saint Shah Abdul Latif, Bulle Shah's contemporary.
A Little Help Goes A Long Way (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
The youngest of the batch, Swaroop, is old enough to hit the right notes in complicated compositions but needs help when it comes to tying his laces after class. His fellow learners are close neighbours and some are even relatives.
Nihal Khan's Dream Project (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
At the end of the day, Nihal Khan packs up his music school and store in Shiv and drives for 25 kilometers to go to his home in Suwala.
He lives with his mother, wife, and four children. 9 years old Thanu, engrossed here in an animated TV show, is Nihal Khan's dream project and favourite student.
Ladla (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
At just seven years of age, Thanu was selected for Superstar Singers, a popular reality TV show that premiered on Sony Entertainment. The show made Thanu a household name across India.
Skip 10 secs to listen to Thanu's beautiful voice.
His grandmother, Sayathi, says "Thanu is the 'ladla' (apple of the eye) of the home, of the village and of the nation."
As Thanu became a household name across India, Nihal Khan went on to dream for other children of his tribe and started the Shree Majisa Music School in a rented basement in Rahoni Market, Shiv. Thanu’s success gave the Merasi community hope to pursue their music for patrons beyond their local landscape.
The Woman Of The Household (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
Roshni, Nihal Khan's wife and Thanu's mother, makes tea in the kitchen.
The swing dangling from the ceiling was installed a few months ago. It is for Thanu, who loves to spend his free time in the kitchen when his mother cooks.
The cylinder is a new addition to the kitchen and has to be refilled from the nearest village Shiv. For all major preparations, the household still relies on the chulha (clay stove) in the yard.
The Day Has Just Begun (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
Thanu is still in bed, groggily sipping on a cup of tea early in the morning. The wall behind him displays photographs of legendary musicians his father has performed with - Padma Bhushan Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Padma Vibhushan Birju Maharaj and Papon, among others. The wall also supports a painted-over frame of Mecca.
Textures Of Nihal Khan's Home In Suwala (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
At around 11 AM, Nihal Khan pulls out the harmonium, its top showing the remains of a sticker of the Sony Entertainment reality TV show that Thanu participated in a year ago. Nihal Khan corrects Thanu, mid-song.
The mud floor of the yard still holds the colours of the rangoli that Roshni made for Diwali in 2020.
The Sweat And Blood Of A Young Singer (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
Thanu Khan renders popular Rajasthani folk songs in his yard. His father accompanies him on the harmonium.
Thanu keeps beating on a pair of Khartals. Khartal translates to hand-rhythm (Kar: hand; tal: rhythm) and is made of Sheesham wood.
Thanu's mother looks on from beneath her red odni, a traditional Rajasthani headscarf.
Patangbaaz (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
Done with the day's riyaz (rehearsals) Thanu runs off with a plastic kite adorned with a long tail crafted by piecing together many plastic bags.
He's an expert at kite-flying and spends some time playing with the wind.
Dharohar: Upcoming Heritage Music Village In Shiv (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
Just two kilometers from Nihal Khan's music school in Shiv, something new and promising is coming up for the folk artists of Barmer.
Started by two acclaimed Merasi musicians, Bhungar Khan and Bhutte Khan, Dharohar is all set to be a state-of-the-art facility center for performers, complete with a recording studio, instrument workshop, training classrooms, community kitchen, and residence.
Bhungar Khan In The Under-Construction Recording Studio At Dharohar (2020) by Neetole Mitra#COVIDHeroes
Bhungar Khan, a Guinness World Record holder for his Khartal playing prowess, is excited about this upcoming site and feels it will bring patrons from all over the world to Shiv.
A while ago, Bhungar and his brother Bhutte Khan received two bigha land from the government to promote and improve the status of Rajasthan’s folk music culture. Since then the brothers have been working on creating a state-of-the-art heritage music village called Dharohar, barely two kilometers from Nihal Khan’s music school. He is hopeful that Dharohar will open new doors of opportunities for Merasi musicians in and around Barmer.
Artist: Neetole Mitra
Neetole Mitra is a storyteller. She loves to bring together words, photos and videos to document different cultures, and ways of living. She enjoys working with far-flung communities and tribes and documenting stories of alternative cultures. Her work has been published in Travel and Leisure, Tehelka, Indiatimes, Goya Journal, and more.
Project location: Barmer, Rajasthan
#my2020hero is an initiative by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation (CPB) to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of real-life heroes by sharing their stories.