Photo Feature: India’s Little Known Musical Traditions

London-based musician, Souvid Datta, returns to his homeland in search of music that can make him feel whole again.

Updated21 Jun 2019, 07:12 AM IST
Photos
6 min read

(This story was originally published on 21 June 2016 and has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark World Music Day.)

India is famous for its diversity; climatic, linguistic, traditional and cultural. Across the country’s 29 states, over 500 dialects are spoken. Over 800 million people reside in booming mega-cities, and rural enclaves are home to over 2000 tribes. However, this reality is fast changing.

Economic growth and technological advancement now threaten older, more traditional ways of life. As the rural youth begin pouring into urban areas, village economies and lifestyles become obsolete and many of India’s rarer traditions and occupations are at risk of getting lost in the shuffle.

The dancing Veerghase troops of Karnataka, the formidable hunting tribes of Nagaland, the revered qawwali singers of Rajasthan: these groups, once essential symbols of their regions, may no longer exist in 15-20 years.

On World Music Day, Quint Lens curates ‘Lost Musicians of India’: a project (supported by The Bagri Foundation, Soumik Datta Arts and Tuning 2 You) that documents the rarer fading tribes and artists across the sub-continent. The project hopes to serve as a fitting testament to their spirit and skill and as a document of an unseen, unknown India, which many may not experience. This photo project came into being when Souvid Datta, the photographer, was shooting for a documentary of the same name.

Fishermen wash their clothes and sing  trade songs by the banks of Ganges in Kolkata. (Photo: Souvid Datta)
Fishermen wash their clothes and sing trade songs by the banks of Ganges in Kolkata. (Photo: Souvid Datta)

Faced with globalisation, increasingly cheap technology and rapid rural to urban migration, many vibrant cultural practices and musical traditions inherent to India’s villages are beginning to fade.

<i>Qawwali</i> singers gather in their home in a small Muslim quarter of Varanasi. (Photo: Souvid Datta)
Qawwali singers gather in their home in a small Muslim quarter of Varanasi. (Photo: Souvid Datta)

Marginalised in an increasingly polarised city where Hindu nationalism is on the rise, this family struggles to make ends meet by performing devotional sufi music. “Most Qawwali singers of Benares have disappeared now... There are so few of us left here.”

Every Monday in the village of Joni, Sasarem, Bihar, female devotees who have dedicated themselves to the God Shiva perform songs at a local temple.  (Photo: Souvid Datta)
Every Monday in the village of Joni, Sasarem, Bihar, female devotees who have dedicated themselves to the God Shiva perform songs at a local temple. (Photo: Souvid Datta)

These devotees hail from the lowest Hindu caste and are facing societal exclusion and suspicion. “Shiva is our father, our teacher... our only purpose in life is to serve Shiva now”, says their group leader (centre).

A lot of research went into the project before it took off. India has over 2000 tribes and countless colourful sub-cultures, but we wanted to hone in specifically on musicians and artists whose practices really inspired us. Often, it happened to be the case that these groups were the hardest to access and least known in India’s increasingly commercial mainstream. 
Souvid Datta
The people we met often dedicated their entire lifetimes to their traditional crafts - from music to dance to poetry. These crafts have been shaped over centuries by India’s physical environments and social factors such as religion and caste. So the project became much deeper than just an ethnographic document on India’s musicians; it set out instead to question and highlight the relevance of ancient customs and cultures within a rapidly changing world. 
Souvid Datta
A singer performs traditional Baul songs in a village in Uttar Pradesh.  (Photo: Souvid Datta)
A singer performs traditional Baul songs in a village in Uttar Pradesh. (Photo: Souvid Datta)

Bauls constitute both a syncretic religious sect and a musical tradition, made of mystic singers and musicians. Though theirs is a dying art, they are still immensely popular in Eastern India. They perform with basic, indigenous instruments such as the harmonium, khamak, ektara and dotara.

Dancers of the Dollu Kunitha tradition jump in a final climax to their performance.  (Photo: Souvid Datta)
Dancers of the Dollu Kunitha tradition jump in a final climax to their performance. (Photo: Souvid Datta)

Karnataka is famous for its dancing tribes who perform in the Kunitha (or ritual dancing) tradition, where performers enact religious stories, often dressed in colourful costumes as gods, animals and demons.

Members of the Rengma tribe sing a traditional song sung by mothers when her sons leave for battle, in their ‘Morong’ at the annual Hornbill Festival.  (Photo: Souvid Datta)
Members of the Rengma tribe sing a traditional song sung by mothers when her sons leave for battle, in their ‘Morong’ at the annual Hornbill Festival. (Photo: Souvid Datta)

Nagaland’s rich musical and dance traditions are particularly influenced by Eastern and Xino themes, with graphic references to a recent tribal hunting and farming history.

Goravara Kunitha dancers ready themselves for a public performance in Karnataka.  (Photo: Souvid Datta)
Goravara Kunitha dancers ready themselves for a public performance in Karnataka. (Photo: Souvid Datta)

Goravas wear black-and-white woollen garments and a black-bear-fur cap (of black bear), and play the damaru and the pillangoovi (flute). Dancers move in a clockwise zigzag, with no fixed choreography, attempting to illustrate the ferocity and power of the black bears in the region.

A dancer from the Gaarudi Gombe Kunitha tradition playing the evil demon Ravan, poses for a portrait in Karnataka. (Photo: Souvid Datta)
A dancer from the Gaarudi Gombe Kunitha tradition playing the evil demon Ravan, poses for a portrait in Karnataka. (Photo: Souvid Datta)
Women sing traditional marital songs at a village wedding in Jaswantpura, Rajasthan. Musical traditions often centre around community events such as births, festivals, marriages and deaths. &nbsp;(Photo: Souvid Datta)&nbsp;
Women sing traditional marital songs at a village wedding in Jaswantpura, Rajasthan. Musical traditions often centre around community events such as births, festivals, marriages and deaths.  (Photo: Souvid Datta) 
Growing up in a very artistic household– our friends jokingly called us the Indian Von Trapps. We lived and breathed Indian classical and folk music as children, and that certainly made me believe in the transcendental power of music and arts– a gut feeling which has driven most of my work to date. That’s exactly what I’m hoping this project will reaffirm to viewers around the globe. 
Souvid Datta
Tribes from Nagaland gather before their annual performance at the Hornbill Festival. (Photo: Souvid Datta)
Tribes from Nagaland gather before their annual performance at the Hornbill Festival. (Photo: Souvid Datta)

With globalisation, technology and the ability to travel cheap to India and beyond, Nagaland is facing an identity crisis. High rates of youth unemployment often go hand in hand with the fading of traditional tribal lifestyles and their colourful musical practices and histories.

A group of teenagers from the Rengma tribe dance in Nagaland.  (Photo: Souvid Datta)
A group of teenagers from the Rengma tribe dance in Nagaland. (Photo: Souvid Datta)
We all neglect our own culture... No-one will come and teach us our ways, but we have to learn from our parents so that we can preserve our identity... We may learn everything. But if I forget my own culture, no-one can teach this to me.
Members of the Troupe
Tarak Das Baul, performs near Santiniketan, West Bengal.  (Photo: Souvid Datta)
Tarak Das Baul, performs near Santiniketan, West Bengal. (Photo: Souvid Datta)

One of the most profound conversations Dutta has had on his journey of documentation was with Tarak Das Baul, on the subject of God.

Have you seen God? To see God in a wooden instrument is no small matter... No-one has seen God. You say Krishna plays the flute in the woods? But there is no Krishna, no flute, no woods. There is only a power, within these instruments and within ourselves, that drives us...
Tarak Das Baul
A rural musician holds up traditional Nagarra drums in Savatri village, Rajasthan. (Photo: Souvid Datta)
A rural musician holds up traditional Nagarra drums in Savatri village, Rajasthan. (Photo: Souvid Datta)

Known for strong percussive sounds, haunting string melodies and the powerful Qawwali tradition, the desert state of Rajasthan has one of the richest folk musical repertoires of India.

The documentary, TUNING 2 YOU - Lost Musicians of India is a journey through the country, like you’ve never seen before. Its soundtrack throbs with gypsy songs, qawwalis, performances by bauls, thundering instruments and singers in collaboration.

And what is his favourite music while he is behind the lens, capturing all of this local, regional musical goodness?

I’ll listen to anything which appeals to my emotions at the time. This could hardcore Compton hip-hop, to an old record of Zakir Hussain and Shiv Kumar Sharma, new-age house and electonrica to Spanish folk music. I think all good music communicates on a deeper level, whether we know it or not, so it’s really just about how it makes me feel! 
Souvid Datta 

To follow this project, find Tuning 2 You on Facebook and Instagram, and support their new Kickstarter campaign.

Quint Lens is a selection of the most vivid images created by our in-house pool of talent, and from across the web, created and curated with an eye on for that Quintessential twist. In this section, you can find some of the most refreshing camera and mobile photography documenting current news events, the history and everyday culture of India and the world, heartbreaking stories that can only be conveyed through pictures, celebrations and revolutions; basically, anything that simply needs to be CliQed!

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Published: 21 Jun 2016, 12:13 PM IST

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