Mirasis of Mewat

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2020: a vanishing-tradition

Chandrima Banerjee, August 13, 2020: The Times of India

Ghurchari and Mev were brothers. Brave, and perfect marksmen. One day, people challenged them: if you are so good, shoot at each other to make your bullets meet midway. “And they did. Record ki baat hai. Sach hai, afsana nahin (it’s not legend, it really did happen),” says Sirajuddin, a teacher in his 50s, and one closely associated with the small minstrel community of Mirasis, the oral ‘historians’ native to Haryana’s Mewat region.

Essentially storytellers, the ‘history’ they narrate is a concatenation of anecdotes, apocryphal events and mythology, handed from one generation to another and with the inherent fluidity that comes with oral transmission.

Ghurchari and Mev may have been bandits in the late 19th century or poor brothers around the time of Partition. No one knows for sure. But these blurred outlines are not seen as problems. Gaps can be filled with imagination and the changes in each retelling are a testament to the skill of the Mirasi.

“The Raja of Alwar (the adversarial figure in these narratives) invited Mev’s entire pal (clan) to a feast, promising them it was safe. They had just set aside their weapons and sat down to eat, when Mev was arrested. His own clan had betrayed him. To this day, the Baghoria (Mev’s clan) are not allowed to speak at panchayats. We say, tumhara toh koi dharm nahin hai (you have no moral right),” says Sirajuddin.

For residents of the region, barely 50km from Delhi, the Ghurchari-Mev stories are as ancient as time. So, the repertory artistes — though an ever-diminishing group because a good story alone can’t sustain a livelihood here — have remained relevant as bearers of local tradition even as the Mirasi tradition has been slowly fading out.

But five months of the Covid-19 pandemic seem to have broken the resilience of a tradition that goes back centuries. " Dhol nahin bajegi ab. Dhol bajegi toh log aayenge (The drum won’t be beaten now. People turn up when the drum is sounded),” says 50-year-old Liyaqat Ali, a Mirasi singer from Adbar.

The Mirasi tradition has survived on gatherings — weddings, election rallies, community processions. Without gatherings, banned since March because of the pandemic, there is no work. Liyaqat and his troupe have spent the past three months in quiet desperation.

"We are borrowing money from each other, taking up odd jobs. My son runs a salon. That too was shut during the lockdown. If someone called him home for a haircut, he would go. On the best days, he would make Rs 200. Now, the shop is open but no one comes. We are a family of 18,” Liyaqat agonises.

Adapting, folk to Bollywood

The despondence is visible at the Bangla — also called a Kachahri — where performers would converge under the aegis of a patron, usually a Meo zamindar. Its brick walls have giant windows, under a high ceiling with a thatched roof. “You don’t get people to repair the roof these days,” says Arshad Hussain, who owns Adbar House, among the last remaining Banglas in Mewat.

Seated near him is Zakir Hussain, a 46-year-old Mirasi singer, who volunteers to shine a light on the provenance of the community. “Mirasi comes from the word ‘miras’ (legacy). We were the people who shared ‘miras’ among the people, telling them where they came from,” says Zakir.

He also readily shares a song his troupe would perform at weddings, about the ‘tabaq’. “A woman ashamed of serving food to her brother in a tabaq (earthen plate) looks all over for a silver one but can’t find any. Exasperated, she asks her husband to get her one right away: Dilli ja rahe, tabaq le ke aao (Go to Delhi and get me a plate),” narrates Zakir, his voice acquiring a lilt.

The Mirasi tradition has survived through many different eras because its practitioners were smart and quick to adapt. To keep up with what people wanted, Mirasis moved to what they call ‘folk songs’, like the one about the ‘tabaq’. If epic tales of resistance against the powerful and the generosity of clan leaders formed the narrative core of the original songs, the new ones are far more personal. “We speak of the household, what a newlywed tells her husband after a wedding, a woman’s tiff with her friend. We sing of what we observe,” says Nazar Mohammad, Liyaqat’s brother and a member of the Mirasi troupe.

Some of the younger Mirasis, for instance, don’t remember the centuries-old tale of ‘Dada Bahad’ – about a man who rescued a Meo woman Akbar had married and was then hanged by the emperor. “ Ab toh zamaana changing ho gaya (the times have changed). People don’t want to listen to old stories anymore. If we perform a qissa (anecdotal narrative), only one out of 10 people would understand,” says Zakir.

The songs are still in Mewati, the regional dialect with elements of Haryanvi and Rajasthani, but the register has changed. “Even Bollywood has come in. But what can they do? Mirasis perform for a living. If their audience does not enjoy what they sing, they’d be out of a livelihood,” says Saddiq Ahmed Meo, a local historian. The change in songs, he adds, is also tied to the decline of Meo shayari. “In the past, Meo poets would compose the songs and the Mirasis would sing them. There are no poets around anymore. So, the Mirasis write their own songs,” he says.

‘Bandits’ to matchmakers

To reconstruct the history of the Meo community of Mewat, spread across southern Haryana and eastern Rajasthan, means relying solely on official state records. Since the 8th century, the community has seen wave after wave of ruling groups. First came the Arabs who conquered Sindh, then came the Rajputs, who were defeated by the Delhi Sultanate, displaced by the Mughals and, finally, the British. “As armed tribal communities, they posed a threat which made the ruling classes attach the term ‘bandits’ to them. Illiteracy was high. Inevitably, everything went oral,” says Abhay Chawla, professor at Delhi University who has been studying marginalised identities.

The Meos had converted to Islam in the 14th century but with these constant shifts in power, somewhere along the way, the Meo Muslim culture took on a form that did not fit into the kind of religiosity ruling classes were familiar or comfortable with.

The Meo community has 13 clans, with a persisting consciousness of caste. And within this dynamic, Mirasis took on many roles. In their songs, they preached the tenets of Islam and narrated the histories of clans. Because they travelled far and wide as performers at weddings, they also turned matchmakers. “The Mirasis sang of both the Hindu and Muslim way of life. Our Meo culture is a perfect example of the Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb that everyone seems so afraid of these days,” says Saddiq. “Many things are disappearing. This may as well.”

To this day, the fact that the Meos worship the cow — which occupies an important space in the pastoral economy — is seen as an aberration. “The Meos follow Hindu traditions but practise Islam. They used to celebrate Holi and Diwali till about the ‘60s. Now they don’t. We have these fixed words and vocabulary which we use. We are then able to define most of our lives in terms of those fixed words. As soon as I create a binary and say we vs them, things change. If I keep repeating that binary, you will try and hold on to that identity and defend it,” says Prof Chawla.

The last minstrels

Zakir grew up listening to his grandfather perform. The patriarch of the family was a Mirasi singer with a troupe of his own, Zakir says, who could sing all of the Mahabharat in Mewati. When Zakir was 10, he died. Days later, Zakir came home from school one day to see his grandfather’s harmonium lie in the middle of the courtyard — on cattle feed. “I was drawn, maybe by grief. I tried playing it, matching the notes of my voice with those of the harmonium,” he says. Over the next few years, he taught himself how to sing and continued the family occupation. That was 40 years ago.

The younger generations haven’t quite shown the same interest. “Social media and the internet have also changed our lives. Kids are busy on their phones all day,” says Tahir Hussain, a 75-year-old historian from Nuh.

Making a living had been getting increasingly difficult for Mirasi singers for decades. It’s no surprise that only about “50-100” Mirasi singers remain, according to Sirajuddin. “Some are painters, some casual labourers. The Mirasi work alone is not enough to get food on the table,” says Prof Chawla. Kallo and Mehmoona, for instance, were among the few women Mirasis who sang at weddings. They taught themselves how to sing when they were 10, and learnt how to lay bricks when they were 30. Both women are in their 40s, the lines on their faces much older. “After my husband died, I had to take on more work. Slowly, I had to stop singing. I could make some Rs 100 a day in season as a singer. As a labourer, I can make a little more,” says Kallo. For Mehmoona, whose husband works at a medicine store, the concern was the same.

Then there is the complex caste dynamic. The term ‘Mirasi’ is often used as a slur in northern India. A man in his 30s refused to identify himself as a Mirasi and insisted he was a barber until the name ‘Salman Ali’ — a young Mirasi who was a contestant in a music reality show — came up. “He is my nephew! He is from Punhana, right here. Everyone in my family sings. But that does not make us Mirasi. My granduncle used to be Mirasi. But we are not,” he says.

Racing against time, meanwhile, Saddiq has started archiving the older songs. “I have written down 20,000 dohas, 80 songs and 1,000 proverbs. All in Mewati, with annotations wherever a complex phrase comes up. In Pakistan, a lot of work on the Meo and Mirasi culture is being done. On this side of the border, we are trying to preserve our history,” says Saddiq.

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