Nida Najar
Raneri, India — In this tiny village almost 400 miles southwest of New  Delhi, where women wash dishes in the sand to conserve water, and electricity is scarce, Lakha Khan sat on the floor of a stone hut, legs crossed and white turban in place. There he coaxed a bright, high-pitched, dizzyingly fast melody from his violin-like Sarangi.

Mr. Khan, 66, who is known as Lakha or Lakhaji (ji at the end of a name is a sign of respect in India), is one of the few remaining Sindhi  Sarangi  players among the Manganiyars, a caste of hereditary Muslim musicians who live in this desert state of Rajasthan. He plays for hours — until black beetles falling from the ceiling indicate nighttime — usually with no more company than a couple of passing goats. But on a recent afternoon he had an audience of two: Ashutosh Sharma and Ankur  Malhotra, who were crouching over their gear, including a five-channel mixer and two analog recorders. They placed some of their seven microphones on towels to absorb the noise of the flour mill across the street.

“There’s an exuberance or just kind of a lack of inhibition when they’re  performing at home,” Mr. Malhotra said of the Manganiyars, whose music is a mix of traditional melodies and arresting vocals. “Here these performances are genuine and real and filled with emotion.”

Mr. Sharma and Mr. Malhotra, both 37, said they want to preserve the music of the Manganiyars, whose songs — devotionals as well as stories of births, deaths and love, often about the Hindu families that are their patrons — have no written record. The two men said they were inspired by Alan Lomax, the musicologist who more than half a century ago traveled the American South recording previously unknown blues musicians.

And like Lomax they hope to preserve the music and to bring it to a wider audience through a small, independent record label they began with two friends, called Amarrass Records. Yet they realize that trying to popularize Manganiyar music is a daunting task in India, where most young people would rather download  Bollywood ringtones than listen to an ancient folk music.

Several authorities on the Manganiyars, like Shubha Chaudhuri, an ethnomusicologist at the American Institute of Indian Studies  in Gurgaon, India, are skeptical about the goal of making the musicians more widely known because their indigenous music is not meant to be commercial. “It’s a niche audience for this kind of thing,” Dr. Chaudhuri said.

Mr. Malhotra and Mr. Sharma are undeterred. They grew up in New Delhi, listening to Sufi and Hindi music. As they got older they turned to Western rock, though the music was difficult to get in India, which was just liberalized. Mr. Sharma’s father, a British Airways pilot, brought him Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones records that he picked up during trips to the United States and Britain. As Mr. Sharma began to explore the music that had influenced such rock acts, his interest eventually lead him to Lomax.

Mr. Sharma had begun a travel agency in New Delhi (it handles many foreign journalists in India, including some who work for The New York Times. Mr. Malhotra moved to the United States, earned an M.B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and created an education technology start-up. But the two men became “fed up,” as Mr. Sharma put it, by the lack of music in their lives, and they began talking about starting a label. Not long afterward Mr. Sharma showed up at a rehearsal in New Delhi of the “Manganiyar Seduction,  a theater show with roughly 40 Manganiyars that was about to go on tour outside India. His agency had been handling travel for the show, and when he went to drop off plane tickets, he recalls being blown away by the music. He called Mr. Malhotra in Wisconsin and had him listen to the performance over the phone.

“The 40 of them singing and performing in a room, there’s no way you can’t feel that,” Mr. Malhotra said. After finding limited recordings of Manganiyar music, they decided to make their own and approached the theater director about recording the show on vinyl. He agreed. The show led the two to thinking about making field recordings.

“There was this curiosity about these rock stars,” Mr. Sharma said. “Their two-minute piece is so good, what do they practice in their lives, what do they play?”

Several months later they traveled to Rajasthan, where they auditioned Manganiyars in the town of Pokharan. They then drove down desert roads  for hours to get to Raneri, where they met Lakhaji. They arrived at his home around 8 at night, exhausted.

“Then he picks up the sarangi and starts playing, and it just changes the mood,” Mr. Malhotra said. “We were there for an hour, and it was a beautiful session, just the three of us. It was such a moving experience.”

This spring they returned to Raneri hoping to record an album with several Manganiyar families. They stayed at Lakhaji’s house for three days, forgoing showers because Raneri has no running water. At night  they slept on cots under the stars.

“It was important for us to be with him,” Mr. Malhotra said. “When he gets up in the morning and feels like singing a certain song a certain way, we’re there. That doesn’t happen in a studio.”

Later they drove 200 miles to the village of Hamira, the home of Sakar Khan <>, 76. Sakarji is a master of the kamancha, an ancient stringed instrument played with a bow that is a signature of the Manganiyars. One of the best-known Manganiyars in the country, he has toured the world with his instrument, passed down from his father.

“Sakar Khan is to the kamancha what Yehudi Menuhin is to the violin,”  Mr. Malhotra said.

He and Mr. Sharma have underwritten their project with profits from Mr. Sharma’s travel agency. They raised money to cover some of their production costs, less than $3,000, on Kickstarter, and they received about $30,000 from one of Mr. Malhorta’s business school advisers.

Last year Amarrass put on its first Desert Music Festival in New Delhi, shuttling the musicians from Rajasthan and flying in the guitarist Vieux Farka Touré <> from Mali. But the performers played to a half-capacity auditorium, and Amarrass lost about a quarter of the roughly four million rupees, or around $70,000, it had spent on the show. The label has released two compilations of field recordings, which, along with the “Manganiyar Seduction” album, have sold around 3,000 copies, roughly three-quarters of what they figure they will need to sell to break even. Their goal is to turn a profit, which they said they will split with the musicians.

Roysten Abel, the director of “Manganiyar Seduction,” which was  presented at Lincoln Center <> two  years ago, said Mr. Sharma and Mr. Malhotra will have to make the music more contemporary, as he has done with his show, if they want to
popularize it. “That’s the only way India will go international,” he said.

Mr. Sharma agrees that concessions to modernization are necessary. While on location he and his partner shoot video of the musicians that they upload to their Web site. Mr. Malhotra, a D.J., recently had a show in New Delhi in which he mixed electronic music with that of the Manganiyars. Their next festival, in December, will be held at a new outdoor space in New Delhi with three stages that they said is more suited to the music than the auditorium where the Desert Music Festival was held.

Mr. Sharma noted that traditional roles are changing in a rapidly modernizing India, and he said he worries about how that change will affect the music. “Preservation is definitely the most important part,”  he said.

He pointed to Lakhaji as a case in point. His sons did not learn the Sindhi sarangi, which is more widely played by the Langas, another group  of folk musicians in Rajasthan; one abandoned the dholak, a two-sided drum, to work as a driver. Lakhaji said that they were discouraged by the rigors of the family trade, so they sought other opportunities.

“They feel they cannot do justice to the music,” he said. “They give up quite easily.”

Mr. Sharma and Mr. Malhotra said that no matter how long they sit in desert villages listening to aging masters, a valuable part of the centuries-old tradition will inevitably be lost. “They are keepers of the oral tradition, along with their own history,” Mr. Malhotra said.  “It’s all in their own heads. And 20 percent gets lost in a generation.”

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