The flute gathers dust

Published: November 5, 2009 - 13:26

Creative expression is not only for pleasure. It must also be a factor while generating livelihood opportunities

Rahul Ghai Bikaner

As the deep sonorous saxophone-like voice of Piran Khan resonates aj kal bhural maand vasa (Oh brown cloud! Bless our region with rain and life), the noble qalam of Khwaja Ghulam Farid, the great desert Sufi mystic, wafts through a star-studded, serene moonscape amid the desert wilderness of Dodha, an interior settlement in Bikaner.

Others enthusiastically join him in a chorus. These self-effacing invocations to the rain gods have been of no avail this year. The lilting Rajasthani folk music traditions always promise ecstasy to mystical heights. They soothe the heart and soul alike. But not this year which faces the threat of a creeping drought, the third worst in 28 years. Again, 26 out of the 28 years were affected by drought.

The food, fodder and water crisis is of an unprecedented magnitude. Most villages of the desert districts of Thar have reported more than 75 to almost 100 per cent crop failure.
Prices of essential commodities like wheat, bajra, edible oil and kerosene have more than doubled. Fodder is scarce even at double the price. And, water has dried out. It is difficult to obtain water in the parched region even after immense effort. This drudgery is impregnated with
signs of a long winter of destitution and misery ahead.

Waris Ali, a singer from Rawala, a remote settlement in Indira Gandhi Nahar Project (IGNP) stage II canal command area in Bikaner, pointed out the water woes here. And, the water scarcity is not only due to failure of rains. "Even in the earlier months we faced drought-like situation. For us, it is a permanent drought. Forget irrigating our fields, we do not even have water to drink," he said.

Lack of opportunities for performance in the canal command area has forced him to go to Punjab to eke out a living through his musical performances.

Abdul Jabbar, another musician from Pugal, pointed out, "For the last 25 years, the state has been pushing the grand IGNP canal as a panacea of all ills. It promises to assuage the misery of drought. But, that has not happened yet. Almost every year we face a drought like situation."

The sagacious Nazre Khan, deft player of been, squatted near a dried water body in his field in a remote chak on the border with Pakistan. "We cannot do anything else but wait for water." Mohammad Sadiq from Ghulamwala breaks into a qalam of Sassi-Punnu, that debates the metaphysics of life and death through the depiction of tribulations of the harsh and blazing hot Thar. Soon, this gives way to ruminations about the apathy of policy planners and their failure to develop these resilient cultural traditions into lasting livelihood solutions.

Thousands of such families of musicians are scattered in the desert. They mostly belong to vulnerable communities and have survived through the ages as fringe groups with a feeble voice. They have been subordinated and discriminated in cases of access to entitlements. Many development schemes haven't touched their lives. These subaltern musicians are a paradox: they are vast repositories of raw creativity and are known for their renditions, enticing overtures and robust dissemination of secular culture. Yet, they are languishing in misery.

As the spectre of scarcity looms large, these musicians have no option but try to access drought relief work - digging earth and uprooting bushes - that does not need their skills. This has been the usual emergency drought relief response and is repeated every year. Their musical talent gets buried in the drought relief works. The fonts of ecstasy get metamorphosed into the wretched of the desert.

This time, however, the state has come up with a new solution. The plan is to combat drought through relief works with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). The new flagship programme of the state for inclusive growth and sustainable development, NREGS is the world's largest employment generation programme.

But, a glance through its official website tells a different story. It seems to reek of a sophistry in marshalling statistical data down to the panchayat level.

The NREGS is surely more than an employment programme. It conveys the stance of the State towards poverty and poor communities. Probing deeper into its conceptual foundations, one discovers that convergence of different development programmes has indeed been envisaged as a salient cornerstone for achieving sustainable development.

But this mostly applies to programmes relating to natural resources, stock land
and watershed treatment projects. Apart from augmenting the natural resource base, it presents the issue of rural employment as essentially one of lack of skills and lack of opportunities to upgrade skills. This aspect of convergence is neglected in the public discourse on NREGS that thrives on providing employment to unskilled labour.

Surely these makers of music in the desert districts of Thar, who have represented India in cultural performances abroad, are prized in the field of cultural diplomacy. They are not unskilled people. They possess veritable skills. It is high time we rid ourselves of the bias and theoretical baggage that makes culture an intangible superstructural variable. Creative expression is not only for transient pleasures but can also be of marginal consequence for generating livelihoods.

Making NREGS perform better by further chiseling the empiricism of statistical jugglery topped with gospels of transparency and accountability is not enough. On its own, it contributes to making lists of numbers and names that get easily manipulated at the village and panchayat levels.

What perhaps is needed is a conceptual innovation in broadening the idea of convergence contained in the NREGS as it relates to sustainable development. NREGS is an opportunity for creating sustainable rural livelihoods through rejuvenation of productive capabilities of rural people. Many of these capabilities lie in the robust folk cultural traditions of the people. These communities need opportunities to graduate from mere wage earners to that of sustainable rural livelihoods. That would help in the realisation of the right to dignified work and reduction of vulnerabilities.

Efforts to engage with these subaltern musicians require a concerted action. But, this has often been found wanting in our stock responses to combat drought that scarcely graduate from emergency relief to long-term reduction of vulnerabilities.

A CEO of a successful NGO once, in his frank moments, admitted that most NGOs do not want to take up the challenge of working with musicians as it is time consuming and calls for compassionate monitoring. Administering muster roll and counting man days during drought relief is obviously less cumbersome. The State and the civil society must engage with these makers of music. In these moments of crisis, they need opportunities to hone their skills and opportunities to perform.

In this context, it would be worthwhile for NREGS planners and civil society members to remember the Jodhpur Consensus, a concerted call to action by the UNESCO and endorsed by the ministry of culture in 2005. It delineates a strategy for rejuvenating creative communities.
A central theme of the Jodhpur Consensus is the recognition that culture includes in its ambit social and economic factors, too. So, supporting these industries is a practical strategy to contribute to socio-economic development and poverty alleviation.

Encouraging people in rural regions to develop traditional forms of livelihood based on cultural resources should be considered an investment in development. Such a development would go a long way in fulfilling the promise of preserving our cultural heritage. It would also provide solace to the arid and parched urban sensibilities.

The writer is a development facilitator and researcher working in western Rajasthan


Creative expression is not only for pleasure. It must also be a factor while generating livelihood opportunities
Rahul Ghai Bikaner

Read more stories by The flute gathers dust

This story is from print issue of HardNews