January 2016 | Gayatri Kamath

Rhythm reloaded

A project in Kutch in Gujarat is, with a push from the Tata Trusts, working to revitalise the folk music tradition of the region by creating new opportunities for musicians practicing the craft

Ismailbhai Para, one of Kutch’s most knowledgeable Sufi singers, has been singing for 25 years. A native of Chubhadak village in Gujarat’s Bhuj district, Ismailbhai is today part of the Soorvani Sangathana, a project that brings together folk musicians in order to preserve the music of Kutch.

Performances by folk musicians of the Soorvani Sangathana; the Sangathana has revitalised the musical traditions of the Kutch region of Gujarat and helped local artists earn more through their art

A Tata Trusts project, Soorvani is hosted by the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS), a women’s organisation based in Bhuj, around 350km west of Gujarat’s capital Gandhinagar. The KMVS was founded in 1989 with the objective of organising and empowering rural women of the Kutch area by forming collectives.

Since 2012, the Tata Trusts has partnered with KMVS to explore ways to preserve and revitalise the musical traditions of Kutch. The formation of the Soorvani Sangathanas has gone a long way to do not only that but also to help local artists earn more through their art.

The need for a programme such as Soorvani arose out of the unique cultural heritage of the Kutch area. Kutch is home to descendants of pastoral tribes, who over centuries migrated into the area from places such as Sind and other parts of Pakistan, Africa, Central Asia and even Europe. As a result, the music is unique — a blend of classical, folk and Sufi genres. Dastaan music, for example, is an ornate form of oral history that through poetry transmits a system of values from one generation to the next.

Many of the instruments used are native only to the area — jodiapawa, bharindo, manjira, morchang, ravanhattho, etc. The jodiapawa, for instance, is a double flute popular among the cattle herding community and requires extraordinary breath control to play. These instruments have contributed to giving Kutchi music its complexity and depth.

Like most folk cultural legacies, Kutchi folk music has also been on a decline. “Lack of awareness and diminishing audience for traditional music forced traditional musicians to turn to other genres or even other livelihoods. They were unaware of government welfare schemes that could support them, and unable to leverage opportunities as they typically lived in remote villages with little access to the music industry,” says Deepika Sorabjee, the programme officer for media, arts and culture at the Tata Trusts.

There was an urgent need to revive interest in traditional folk forms. This was when the KMVS stepped in to create the Soorvani Sangathanas with the support of the Trusts.

The project has enabled artists like Ismailbhai to gain exposure, perform at state and national level and create greater awareness about the art form. Ismailbhai has collaborated with KVMS for over a dozen years now. Through Soorvani performances, he shares his knowledge of music with other performers, in order “to spread the music of Kutch far and wide, to help the new younger generation move ahead, and brighten the name of Kutch. Only then will the music of Soorvani flourish, spread, entertain and educate,” he states. During performances, he explains the nuances of harmony, rhythm and melody to the audience and other performers.

According to Ms Sorabjee, project reviews show a clear positive impact. Annual performances per artist have increased from two to eight, while average remuneration has more than doubled. In 2012, the baseline studies showed that average remuneration per artist per performance was Rs250-500 (approximate $4-8). By March 2015, the average pay per performance had risen nearly ten-fold to Rs2,250 (approximate $34).

Performances by folk musicians of the Soorvani Sangathana; the Sangathana has revitalised the musical traditions of the Kutch region of Gujarat and helped local artists earn more through their art

The project has generated a cumulative income of Rs18 million (approximately $27,000) over three years, for the over 350 artists in the collectives formed by KMVS, which works out to an average annual income of Rs17,000 (approximate $250) each. Another positive trend has been the increase in the number of artists practicing folk music as their primary occupation — up from 46 to 176.

Today, Soorvani has five zonal arms — Kanthi (Mandvi and Mundra), Vagad (Rapar and Bhachau), Sindhi (Nakhtrana, Abdasa and Lakhpat), Middle (Anjar and Bhuj), and Panchamm (central Bhuj). Each arm works for capacity building and networking in its respective zones.

The project has developed its own curriculum. They also work with Waai artists (Waai is a unique folk music genre which has high pitched singing) to run soorshalas (music schools based on the ancient Indian teacher-pupil tradition known as gurushishya parampara) in their villages. Another achievement has been the archiving of the Sindhi music tradition of Kutch.

In short, Soorvani is a movement where local communities work together to preserve their culture and heritage. And it has been made possible by the Tata Trusts.

This article is part of the cover story about the Tata Trusts featured in the January 2016 issue of Tata Review:
Philanthropy fine-tuned
The Tata Trusts has — through integration, use of technology, advocacy, partnerships and more — set course for a renewal aimed at deepening the impact of its numerous charity endeavours
Read the complete articles, and more, in Tata Review
'The Tata Trusts will have to keep renewing itself'
Ratan Tata, Chairman, Tata Trusts, talks about the trusts' evolving philanthropic approach, future growth and priority issues facing India
A flavoured solution
A unique public-private partnership involving the Tata Trusts has ensured that thousands of tribal schoolchildren enjoy wholesome meals
Food way forward
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Net gains are cooking
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In search of that creative edge
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Schooled for uplift
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Equity and excellence
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Harvesting hopes, reaping rewards
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Rural riches
The rural livelihoods and communities portfolio of the Tata Trusts targets poverty reduction through a host of measures
Building the future, brick by brick
Backing from the Tata Trusts has enabled thousands of migrant workers, especially in Gujarat, to secure better working conditions, find financial security and transform their lives
An urban variant of a rural malaise
The Tata Trusts trained its spotlight on urban poverty and livelihoods as an issue that required focused intervention at a time when most philanthropic agencies were focusing on rural poverty
Going against the flow
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Mission maximum
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A canvas widened
The media, arts and culture theme of the Tata Trusts concentrates attention of conserving India's civilizational heritage and those who embody it