Aga Khan Museum and Amarrass Records Launch New Docuseries ‘Searching For The Blues’
Founders Ankur Malhotra and Ashutosh Sharma talk about creating three episodes about Rajasthani music
What does Rajasthani music have in common with the blues? According to record label Amarrass’ co-founder Ankur Malhotra, it’s more about the emotion than anything else. He points out when veteran sarangi artist and vocalist Lakha Khan sings “Dardaan di Maari Dilri Aledi,” it’s blues. “He’s full of pain. [It’s] a man singing in praise of the gods, but also you can hear his lament,” Malhotra says over a video call.
Whether it’s stories of a married woman’s laments of things she’d left behind at her father’s home or other human experiences, Amarrass co-founder Ashutosh Sharma was going village to village, tracking a lot of these traditional songs out in Rajasthan. Sharma says, “You’d go into each village… even if they’re singing the same song, that guy had his own blues, it’s his rendition. What he gave to that song was completely different from the next village. In more than one way, you’re going down the Delta, similar to how one would find blues musicians along the Mississippi Delta.”
That’s the nomenclature behind the new documentary series Searching For The Blues – airing in three parts starting June 6th, commissioned by the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. It serves as a showcase of artists like Lakha Khan but also of Amarrass’ work over the last decade to give artists from Rajasthan a distinct identity. Sharma says, “Our entire work has been trying to create these identities. We want to say, ‘You may have heard Rajasthani music, but have you heard Lakha Khan?’”
Streaming on YouTube as well as on Aga Khan Museum’s webpage, Searching For The Blues was originally intended as a live concert with Lakha Khan in Toronto. With the pandemic still looming large, the label and the museum pivoted to a docuseries structure. “Their premise spoke to the museum’s wider goal of fostering understanding and appreciation that Muslims have made to world heritage,” says Amirali Alibhai, head of Performing Arts at the Museum.
Watch the teaser to ‘Searching for the Blues’ below.
In trying to provide Rajasthani folk artists with livelihood during the pandemic, Malhotra and Sharma were coordinating digital concerts and subsequently began filming earlier this year in February, even using phone cameras for the series. A “glaring” technological divide between rural and urban India was certainly visible, according to Malhotra. Sharma adds, “The youngsters under 15 are involved in the production part of the work because they know how to use the phone much better. Like Lakha ji’s granddaughter is involved in the production.” It might prove challenging to remotely teach people about auto-focus and lighting, but Sharma feels that it’s presented an opportunity to rural youth. Even though bandwidth and mobile data speeds might be an issue at times, Amarrass know they’ve adapted. “At times we’ve done it so well that people have commented on some livestream saying, what kind of miking are you using? It was Oppo, that’s all we had!” Sharma says with a laugh.
Through the course of three approximately half-hour episodes, the series introduces Lakha Khan, the Amarrass journey over the last decade and also pays tribute to musicians who passed away, including kamaicha exponent Sakar Khan, singer and dhol player Rukma Bai and vocalist Nihal Khan. Malhotra adds, “Episode three, we kind of delve more into the future and ask about the next generation. Dane Khan [Lakha’s son] is accompanying Lakha ji on tour and has also learned how to play the sarangi. So that’s also going to be featured in that third episode, father and son both playing this instrument together,” Malhotra adds.
Given that performances and touring are still tough to plot out for the Amarrass roster, the founders are sifting through several recordings by all their artists – young and old – to figure out more releases. There may be even an accompanying soundtrack to Searching For The Blues. Sharma says, “We have some 50 hard drives each we are going through.”