A push to get India’s folk musicians heard – and paid

Courtesy of Anahad Foundation
Grammy-winner Gael Hedding, who helped the Anahad Foundation develop the "Backpack Studio," sets up recording equipment for Dholru folk performers.

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When Abhinav Agrawal was studying at Berklee College of Music, his research turned up a startling figure. Seventy percent of India’s musicians practice folk, he realized, but they earn only 2% of the industry’s revenues. Many dream of recording, but production facilities are out of reach.

That statistic sparked his passion to help traditional musicians earn a sustainable income. And once he returned home to India, he founded the nonprofit Anahad Foundation to try and bring unsung artists to the urban mainstream.

Why We Wrote This

Folk music is a rich reflection of India’s cultures. And it’s no relic – though the music industry sometimes treats it as one. This organization aims to keep tradition alive, by helping artists make a living.

“I wanted to empower [artists] so that their music could become a sustainable source of income for them,” Mr. Agrawal says – to close the gap between their genre's significance, and its visibility. 

“Folk songs are a form of oral history and represent our culture, and yet, they are somewhat forgotten outside of rural areas,” says Rakshat Hooja, who directs another music nonprofit that promotes the folk heritage of Rajasthan.

Anahad’s team travels to musicians they have heard of through word-of-mouth, and records using a portable “Backpack Studio,” created with the help of Grammy- and Latin Grammy-winner Gael Hedding. Capable of running on battery for three days, it’s a boon in villages that have erratic electricity, or none.

In the summer of 2019, folk musician Salim Khan travelled nearly 500 miles from his hometown, the “Golden City” of Jaisalmer, India, to do something he’d never done before: write a song.

Mr. Khan is founder of the folk group Jaisalmer Beats, a quintet whose members are Mirasi: Muslim communities known for playing a stringed instrument called the kamaicha. For generations, they’ve sung religious songs of praise in Rajasthan – a vast western state known for its deserts and sandstone architecture.

He was headed near New Delhi, to collaborate with the Punjabi pop duo Ahen and Gurmoh. “I contributed my thoughts and then we strung together the lyrics step by step,” he says. Over the next five days, the musicians recorded “Jhingur,” Hindi for “cricket”: a melodious track about a man pining for his beloved.

Why We Wrote This

Folk music is a rich reflection of India’s cultures. And it’s no relic – though the music industry sometimes treats it as one. This organization aims to keep tradition alive, by helping artists make a living.

Suddenly, Mr. Khan’s visibility was catapulted beyond Rajasthan, and invitations for paid shows outside his state began arriving. “I received a lot of appreciation for the song from across the country,” he says. “I felt like I got my place among musicians.”

“Jhingur” was born at a residency conducted by the nonprofit Anahad Foundation, which aims to bring the music of unsung folk artists to the urban mainstream. Seventy percent of India’s musicians practice folk, but they earn only 2% of the industry’s revenues, according to research that founder Abhinav Agrawal did during a master’s degree at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Those glaring figures drive his passion for showcasing folk artists to a wider audience, and helping them make a living. Though their tradition is a rich reflection of Indian cultures, many listeners today only hear the genre through movies, or adapted by indie bands. With greater support, Anahad hopes to sustain and even strengthen an important piece of the country’s musical heritage. 

Courtesy of Anahad Foundation
Musician Salim Khan, from Jaisalmer, India, participated in a residency hosted by the Anahad Foundation. The nonprofit aims to bring the music of unsung folk artists to the urban mainstream.

“Folk songs are a form of oral history and represent our culture, and yet, they are somewhat forgotten outside of rural areas,” says Rakshat Hooja, director of Jaipur Virasat Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the folk heritage of Rajasthan. 

In addition to Anahad’s free residencies with established bands, the foundation helps artists create a digital portfolio on their website, complete with new music videos, and teaches them entrepreneurial skills. Today, the site lists groups that include more than 1,000 artists.

Empowering artists

Mr. Agrawal developed an interest in folk while learning classical music as a child in Bulandshahr, just east of New Delhi. His mentors were folk artists, and he was struck by their common dream of releasing records. “The feeling is that once your music is recorded, you become immortal,” he says. But production facilities were unaffordable – and remain out of reach for most folk musicians today.

Mr. Khan, for example, dropped out of school at the age of 8 or 9, as his parents could not afford to pay for education. Learning music from his father and elder brother, he experimented with his harmonium and morsing, a tiny percussion instrument, at the Jaisalmer Fort, whose 800-year-old sandstone walls are a hub for musicians. Mr. Khan grew up to sing professionally, but his income relied on tourist season and weddings – and agents who often pocket big commissions.

“Every year, before the end of the summer I start borrowing money to keep the home fires burning,” says Mr. Khan, father to two toddlers.

Courtesy of Anahad Foundation
The Jikri folk group of Mahaveer Singh Chahar has participated in Anahad Foundation programs. “I wanted to empower [artists] so that their music could become a sustainable source of income for them,” says the foundation's founder Abhinav Agrawal.

Back in 2011, when Mr. Agrawal was an undergraduate, he’d take a train to a new region every weekend to record local artists, and left them with a CD of their music. Many called to say they had sold the CD and wanted more. That’s when the thought of equipping artists to commercialize their music first crossed his mind. He registered Anahad in 2013, but didn’t feel he had the chops to run an organization until he received his master’s in music business. “I wanted to empower [artists] so that their music could become a sustainable source of income for them,” Mr. Agrawal says.

Today, he and his wife, lawyer Shuchi Roy, co-manage the foundation alongside a production head, and offer a fellowship for ethnomusicologists. To record musicians outdoors in their villages, Anahad has assembled a portable “Backpack Studio” with the help of Grammy- and Latin Grammy-winner Gael Hedding. Capable of running on battery for three days, it’s a boon in villages that have erratic electricity, or none.

The team doesn’t book shows for musicians, but its websites help producers contact artists directly to cut out middlemen, though Mr. Agrawal says only about 70% of artists use it proactively. 

“There is little understanding of copyright among folk musicians and an inability to fight even if they do,” says Ms. Roy. Since most deals by agents are made casually over the phone, she emphasizes to artists how important it is to put agreements in writing – “even a few lines on a plain sheet of paper or WhatsApp.” 

Deepening ties

In its early days, when Anahad approached folk artists, the organization’s members were treated as “outsiders” and turned away. But over the past few years, they’ve gained trust. Ms. Roy says she has helped more than 100 artists negotiate fair deals or push for timely payments, and in one case, helped an artist negotiate for royalties after another performer used his music without permission. Now many musicians reach out to Anahad themselves – including Punjabi folk group Rangle Sardar.

The quartet’s popularity shot up after the release of “Karam,” a song they composed with Indian pop-folk band When Chai Met Toast at an Anahad residency in 2019. “In Punjab, everyone now asks for the boys who sang ‘Karam,’” enthuses singer Maninder Brar. “We now get to quote our own price for shows.”

In India, “state governments usually promote a handful of folk musicians to attract tourists, while the rest are left behind,” says Mr. Hooja. “Anahad has gone to the grassroots and documented the work of fairly unknown musicians and given them an international reach.” 

Back in Rajasthan, members of Jaisalmer Beats use their free time to teach singing, instruments, and a bit of business sense to schoolboys. “We want young, educated children to learn music,” he says. “They will grow up to write their own songs, manage their own business, and also carry our legacy forward.”

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