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Mohsin Khan, 31, sitting on a charpoy with his traditional musical instrument called Chimta or tong in his hands.
Mohsin Khan, a Muslim jogi, looking into the mirror while wearing his colorful turban.

In India, Communal Violence Put To Song

Muslim Jogis uphold age-old traditions amidst a changing landscape.

Words: Gafira Qadir
Pictures: Gafira Qadir

On the fateful afternoon of Feb. 14, 2023, Junaid Khan and his nephew Nasir Khan left behind the familiarity of their humble village, bound for a family function, their laughter echoing through the narrow lanes as they waved goodbye. But as night descended, so did a shroud of unease. 

By the time the sun had dipped below the horizon in Ghatmeeka, a remote village nestled in the heart of India’s northwestern state of Rajasthan, the men’s family members were gripped with anxiety. Junaid and Nasir had not returned. 

Two agonizing days later, the horrifying truth was revealed. The charred remnants of a vehicle lay abandoned in the village of Loharu, 111 miles from their home. Inside this twisted metal tomb lay the lifeless bodies of Junaid and Nasir. Members of a far-right extremist group had allegedly abducted, tortured, and killed them on suspicion of smuggling cows — animals that are considered sacred by Hindus, India’s majority community. 

The incident shook not only the victims’ families but also the country’s Muslim minority more broadly. A hundred and thirty miles away from Loharu, in Pinan village, Jumme Khan Mewati was frightened and disappointed enough to express the community’s collective grief and anger through his words and music. 

Khan is a Muslim Jogi (also sometimes spelled “yogi” but not to be confused with Hindu yoga practitioners). Muslim Jogis are folk artists who sing spiritual and devotional songs and also comment on political and social issues through their music. Traditionally, Jogis are syncretic — while they are Muslim, they borrow from multiple faiths and traditions for their art, fusing Muslim and Hindu myths and sounds. Now with the growing communal violence and ethnic tension in India, the Jogis worry about the extinction of their craft and their community, while continuing to voice their concerns through song.

“The Greed for Power Is Destroying This Country”

“I wrote a song about communalism ‘Haalat gajab dunya ke’ (The state of the world is astonishing),” Khan said one hot afternoon in September, as the golden rays of the sun bathed his humble home in intense light. The artist was seated on a worn-out charpoy, wearing simple attire — a grey kurta and a well-worn dhoti. In his hand, he held a notebook while his spectacles perched precariously on the bridge of his nose as he carefully scanned the words he had penned down earlier. “I wrote it because I was disappointed, but nobody listens anymore.”

Jumme Khan and Moshin Khan, September 19, 2023.
Jumme Khan and Moshin Khan, September 19, 2023.

As he took a deep puff from his hookah, he began to hum softly then loudly.

Daya dharam, sharam nahi; bhaandi ghatarya paap ki

([People no longer have] mercy, religion, no shame; [People are] carrying vessel of sins)

Kursi ka laalach kar raha is desh ko barbaad hai

Haalat gajab hai dunya ki, kitna badal gaya insaan hai.

(The greed for power is destroying this country

The condition of the world is astonishing, man has changed so much!)

“I can’t mention the name of anyone in my poems, it can turn bad for us [Jogis],” said Khan. “Considering the worsening situation around here, it’s not easy for a Muslim Jogi to survive now. We have started to divide people on the basis of religion and caste. This is what it has come down to.”

A Folkloric Tapestry 

Khan, 53, began singing about Hindu deities with other Muslim Jogis of Rajasthan’s Pinan village four decades ago. “We weren’t asked about our religion back then. We were just artists.” Now, he says, people point fingers and single the Jogis out as Muslims.  “I don’t get booked for many shows anymore.”

Jumme Khan at home, September 19, 2023.
Jumme Khan at home, September 19, 2023.

Khan’s Muslim Jogi community is part of the larger community of Meos in Mewat nestled amidst the rolling hills of Rajasthan. The Meos of Mewat are practicing Muslims who trace their lineage to the Hindu Rajputs in Northern India. They are considered low-caste by both Hindus and Muslims, yet they play an important communal role as performers, and through their art keep alive the folkloric tradition. 

The Jogis were storytellers, musicians, and mystics, carrying with them the wisdom of ages past. Their musical repertoire was a treasure trove of stories and songs that echoed the legends of ascetic kings with transcendental powers, the battles of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the tales of local heroes who followed the yogic path of Gorakhnath, and the enchanting lore of Krishna. Known for their soul-stirring performances that traverse religious boundaries, these spiritual artists have been integral to the nation’s cultural heritage. 

The Shadow of Communalism

However, recent years have seen a decline in opportunities for Muslim Jogis, as communalism has cast a shadow over their livelihoods. Once a thriving community that could command a steady income, many Muslim Jogis now find themselves struggling to make ends meet.  “We [Jogis] feel neglected and marginalized,” he said. “We [Jogis] are Indians, too, and our art is a bridge between communities.”

Khan lives in a village barely 70 miles away from Haryana’s Nuh that recently saw communal violence in which six people were killed and dozens were injured. “We are living in unfortunate times. Even if the government changes, our situation won’t,” he said. “Now, communalism has firmly made its way into people’s thought process.”

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, there has been a steady stream of violence and hate speech directed at Muslims. Extremists have openly called for the killing of Muslims in India. Critics argue that Muslims have been targeted due to an upsurge in the right-wing majoritarian ideology of making India a Hindu Rashtra” or “Hindu Nation.” 

“The situation has worsened over the past few years. We used to get orders for over 15 shows a month, but now, we are lucky if we get two. Sometimes, we don’t even get that,” said Khan. “BJP government is not good for Muslims. It’s not in our favor.”

Khan and his fellow Jogis lament that in today’s India, the cross-cultural fusion of spiritual and faith-based practices inherent in their art is increasingly under attack. As they struggle to keep their traditions alive, they also serve as a poignant reminder of the syncretic heritage that has defined India for centuries. While the Jogis are Muslim, they also follow the Hindu gods. “We are ardent devotees of Gorakhnath and Shiv ji (Hindu god), which inspires us to sing their praises without a pause,” he said. 

But now that blend is under attack. It pains them to see communalism’s destructive forces, “backed by political ambitions,” attempting to foment hatred between Hindus and Muslims, Khan said. “We can tell that people no longer like when we sing about Hindu deities. Their face says it all even when they are unable to say it to us  directly.” The musicians have received backlash from both Hindu and Muslim community members. “Our sense of community and connection to our roots has been disrupted,” said Khan with a somber tone. 

Jumme Khan reading lyrics of the song that he wrote about communal tensions in India from his notebook, September 19, 2023
Jumme Khan reading lyrics of the song that he wrote about communal tensions in India from his notebook, September 19, 2023
Lost heritage?

In the past, Khan memorized all of his songs, but for the past several years, he has been writing them down in a notebook. “I was afraid that no one would remember me after I was gone,” he said. “I write every day, and this notebook does not contain all of my work.”

For years, the Jogis’ faith has provided comfort and solidarity to their community. Occasionally, the Jogis would gather in their village with traditional instruments in hand—a dholak, tong, bhapang, sarangi, chikara, masak, harmonium, and sitar — and begin their mesmerizing performances. The notes flow like a river, carrying with them the secrets of centuries gone by. “Generations of Jogis had carried forward this tradition, passing down the art of storytelling through music to new generations, It was their way of preserving the cultural treasures of their ancestors, a way of keeping the flame of tradition alive,” Khan told Inkstick. “But our children don’t want to learn this art from us anymore.”

Earlier, Muslim Jogis would be invited by the jajmans or patrons in Alwar to perform at weddings, festivals, and family occasions. Today, the new generation has stopped listening to their music. “The older generation still appreciates the art. [The] new doesn’t,” he said. “They are anyway into modern music and now the Hindu-Muslim [communalism; has made it even worse. Hardly anybody invites us anymore.”

Khan and his fellow Jogis lament that in today’s India, the cross-cultural fusion of spiritual and faith-based practices inherent in their art is increasingly under attack.

The new generation is not only moving away from the tradition of Muslim Jogis traversing villages for festivals and harvests, performing and getting paid — young people also find the job risky.

Near Khan’s charpoy, standing in the compound of his modest home, his son, Esadeen Khan made everyone groove with the sound of the bhapang, a single-stringed traditional folk musical instrument. He learned to play from his father. However, he said, he would not play it for a living. There is no money in it and it is a dangerous job now, he said. “I don’t feel safe,” he said.

Last year, when Khan’s diminishing gigs made the family’s finances tight, Esadeen had to drop out of school. “I was in seventh class. Now I work as a laborer in fields,” he said. 

While the teenager doesn’t want to continue, his father’s 31-year-old cousin doesn’t want the tradition to be lost in history. His guru, or teacher, is Khan. Ever since he can remember, he has been humming the ballads in praise of Hindu gods including Ram and Krishna. When Khan performs with his band holding a bhapang with others joining him on sarangi, a traditional stringed musical instrument, Mohsin joins him on Chimta or steel tongs.  

Khan stays up and anxious at night thinking about the extinction of their tradition. “I keep worrying about the loss of our art. We were respected and stars of every event around here,” he said with a genuine smile that faded quickly as he sighed, “Everything has now changed. The last four years have been really difficult.”

But Mohsin has come to the rescue, he wants to resist today’s times. “I will continue with it till I can and even when I can’t, I will still try,” he said. “This is my identity and I am happy with it.” Even though the news of attacks on Muslims has been scaring Mohsin he still wants to take the tradition forward. “I am holding on to a hope to keep this art alive.”

Gafira Qadir

Gafira Qadir is a freelance journalist who mostly covers human rights, gender issues, education, and culture. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Rest of World, The Daily Beast, Maktoob, The Kashmir Walla, and others. She is a recipient of a Pulitzer Center Grant.

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