AMARRASS SOCIETY FOR PERFORMING ARTS (ASPA), established in 2010, is a music foundation (registered under the Indian Societies Act) working to create sustaining avenues for the livelihood and well-being of musicians and artisans in rural communities. We travel into the interior and remote regions of the country to carry out research, scout for new talent, archive and record folk/regional music and poetry, and to develop contact with folk/traditional instrument makers. The goal is to develop a database of musicians, instrument makers and other indigenous craftspeople, organized into a fair trade model to archive, promote, and create market/trade opportnities.
The database will ultimately enable music seeking audiences to search for and connect with musicians and instrument makers directly. Amarrass will also showcase artists and instrument makers through its website to create awareness, conduct promotional activities, and establish a direct sales channel for products. The database will enable bookings of folk artists from anywhere in the country and will incorporate fair trade policies regarding payment for services, and support mechanisms to support artists/their families.
A key aim of ASPA is to create and promote avenues for the education and teaching of music to children (especially those living in folk/rural communities, the underprivileged). The goal is to help nurture talent from an early age, develop avenues for presenting and showcasing exceptionally talented youth, to ultimately result in sustaining livelihoods through music, and keep the heritage music legacy alive and thriving to be passed on to the next generation.
Initial efforts of ASPA have focused on Manganiyar communities in Jaisalmer and Jodhpur districts in Rajasthan, and in Kutch in Gujarat. We have been encouraged by some of our initial successes:
- Reviving the art of folk instrument making with Shankara Ram Suthar and Mohan Lal Lohar
- Recording and releasing music performed by children on the album Banko Ghodo
- Developing sales channels for folk instruments - over 50 instruments sold including the Sindhi sarangi, kamaicha, morchangs, khartaals and algozas
Shankara Ram Suthar, Kamancha maker
There is a reason why the kamanchas on view at Manganiyar performances have a charming antiquity about them. They often come stained, patched up, with bits of inlay work missing—all signs that they are in regular use. But they are, almost without exception, also very old.
This is where Shankara Ram Suthar’s story as master kamancha-maker begins. In the early eighties, academics—and musicians—found that no one was making kamanchas any more. They imported a batch of about 16 from Pakistan, where artisans evidently had a bit if stock, and these made their way to collectors and musicians. But with no local craftsmen, there was a problem.
Like the one Sakar Khan had. Sakarji, the greatest living exponent of the instrument (Amarrass will release an album of sessions with him soon), discovered that the mango wood belly of his kamancha had developed a crack. But with no artisans making the instrument, there was no one competent to carry out repairs either. Shankara Ram Suthar, the carpenter by trade and caste, lived near Sakarji in the little village of Hamira, Jaisalmer. The instrument was taken to Suthar, who, knowing it belonged to a master, carried out the repairs meticulously. Sakarji’s kamancha was good to play again.
The fact that the carpenter’s work had passed muster with the redoubtable Sakar Khan drew other musicians to Suthar. He carried out repairs for them, but there seemed to be few fresh orders. This, despite the efforts of government officials sensitive to the fact that the art of making kamanchas was dying: Suthar produced some excellent prototypes for them, but that was about it. If you were just making kamanchas, you were not making a living.
Suthar fell back on carpentry. He would travel to Pune to make furniture for a contractor, as half-made instruments languished in his little workshop in Hamira. He still does what he has to to earn a living, but we are happy to report that he has received fresh orders through the Amarrass Society for Performing Arts. A discerning British collector of stringed instruments (and pensioner), received his kamancha last month and said he was delighted. A second piece will shortly be on its way to the United States. And a third one makes its way to Germany this summer. We are, we hope, seeing the beginnings of a renewal of interest in this unique instrument. (below: our first kamancha sold!)
The kamanchas that are produced in Hamira are special not just because of the high level of craftsmanship that goes into making them. They are also the product of a secular collaboration. The Suthar crafts the wooden portions of the instrument - the sound box, the bow, the neck and so on, but his Hindu religious beliefs forbid him from working with animal hide or gut. Once the skeleton is finished, the Muslim Manganiyars take over, attaching the hide, adding the gut strings and, of course, tuning the instrument to ensure it is perfect. When Sakar Khan is within earshot, nothing less will do.
Shankara Ram Suthar's speciality: Kamancha. This is the instrument that is at the heart of the Manganiyars's music. And the Suthar is the finest maker of it. All he needs is a block of wood of his choosing. To order this unique instrument, write to us or order online:
Mohan Lal Lohar, blacksmith and woodworker
Mohan Lal Lohar is folk music’s equivalent of a polyglot---but with an added dimension. Not only can he play every wind, string, bow and percussion instrument native to his Rajasthan, he also makes them. His surname, ‘lohar’ (one who works with iron) denotes his caste and occupation: he is a blacksmith, from a family that has traditionally plied the trade.
But Mohan Lal is different. He combines a talent for music with his craftsmanship. At his workshop in Jaisalmer, the rhythmic beating of a piece of metal gives way within hours to the refined percussion of a freshly made morchang — just cool enough to play. The workshop itself belies what is produced in it. In one of the town’s many open-sewered lanes, it is just a portion of a small courtyard, under a shed that leaks; as much a play area for his goats as it is a place of work.