March 25, 2009

vignettes of Ladakhi musician castes

---, a 42-year-old surna player and carpenter who lives in a hamlet of Nubra Valley, only a few kilometers from the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, understood that playing his music is a double-edged sword -- "Music is very important, valued very much in our Ladakhi culture...but we musicians are taken advantage of.  Our music is demanded.  We must play when we are ill and not complain.  We must make three-day treks in the middle of winter to play for a festival.  We must accept what they give us in return for our music, and not complain if they give us nothing or treat us badly."  --- spoke about the social role of his family and about the social and physical isolation of his community hamlet.  "It is where we Nurbuxsha live.  It was called Bekhang," referring to the peripheralized and untouchable community of which he is a part.

Twenty years ago, --- was required to play for a monastic celebration continuously for over twenty-four hours.  To stop would have been considered offensive, but he began to vomit blood.  The consequence of his overexertion left him unable to play the surna, thus without a source of livelihood.

In a village situated at 15,000 feet, near the border of China, one 80-year-old mon musician declined to share his history.  Villagers related memories of a neighbor beating him at a wedding because he had stopped performing his music before the party finished.  The village has since boycotted him and his family; they do not speak to him, will not sell him goods, or let him borrow their livestock for farming.

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