Mirasis -The custodian of folk tradition of Gujjars

Mirasis -The custodian of folk tradition of Gujjars
Ustad Ghulam Mohammad Dansalya performing during a Gojri programmer

Dr Javaid Rahi
The Mirasis are a distinctive community in Jammu and Kashmir, predominantly comprising musicians, artists, drummers, traditional singers, dancers, and other folk and traditional art forms. The Mirasis assist other communities, through their profession, in the performance of various rituals during weddings, festivals, harvests, and other social gatherings.
In many parts of the Indian subcontinent, the Mirasis are predominantly associated with and perform for one particular caste, community, or tribe like Rajputs, Gujjars, Jats, Ahir, etc. In Jammu and Kashmir, a sizeable chunk of population of Mirasi – live in tribal areas alongside Gujjars and Bakkarwals,and mainly perform for these communities. Although the Mirasis are a separate caste and are non-Gujjar and Bakkarwal, but they speak Gojri as their mother tongue.
Meaning of Mirasi
The word ‘Mirasi’ has several definitions, but as per available archival sources, it is derived from the Arabic word ‘Miras,’ which means inheritance, devoted to legacy, cultural heritage and the lineage of a caste or a tribe. In Jammu and Kashmir and other states of India, Mirasis are a particular Muslim caste recognized through their profession as drum beaters, entertainers, performers and genealogists. In Gujjars , they are known as Pedhi-Gin, Dholi (Drum beater) or ‘Nasab Khawan,’ or Sazinde ( Music Instruments Player) . The communities that are similar to them are known as Gardhi or Doom and Bhagtan in Dogri, and Bhand in Kashmiri or Pahat/Pandh in Punjabi.
As genealogists, the Mirasis recite all the names of a particular clan or a family in a poem with a musical rhythm on an instrument during certain occasions. They are also great storytellers among the Gujjars and Bakerwals, narrating oral lore to the audience. In some areas, they are known as the ‘Nasab Khawan,’ those who know the history and genealogy of a clan or a caste or a tribe, which is considered very respectable among them. Such Mirasis are considered as family ‘Mirasi’ like a family doctor.
According to the caste census of 1931, the Mirasi population numbered 6,933 people in Jammu and Kashmir, with the majority residing in Poonch Jagir (3,094), Jammu (1,388), Mirpur (1,235), Reasi (889), and Kathua (261). Despite their small size, the Mirasis have lived in their respective areas for centuries, clustering together in their own communities and practicing endogamy.
Presently their population in Jammu and Kashmir is around thirty thousand.
The Mirasi population is spread across all the districts of Jammu and Kashmir, with the highest concentration in Poonch, Rajouri, Reasi, Anantnag, Bandipore, Ganderbal, Baramulla, and Kupwara. These communities share a common piece of land, living there for generations.
Mirasi as Caste
The Mirasi caste in Jammu and Kashmir is a defined social group without sub-divisions or clans. However, in certain regions like Jammu and Kashmir, they may use sub-castes or clan names of other castes like Gujjar, Jat or Rajput to conceal their identity. For example, in Gujjar areas, they may adopt a Rajput, Jat or Ahir clan name such as Rathore, Jato, Khokar, etc., whereas in Jat or Rajput areas, they may identify themselves with Gujjar clans like Bhati, Khatana, Jangal, etc. to downplay their own caste identity. Additionally, they may also refer to themselves as “Qureshi” or “Mir,” which are considered royal castes in some areas. It’s worth noting that in Poonch-Rajouri belt, they try to avoid speaking about their clan.
Mirasis -the custodian of Folk of Gujjars
The Mirasis are the keepers of the rich tribal heritage of the Gujjars. Due to their low literacy rate, they rely on memorization to pass on the oral history and traditions of the tribe or clan they are associated with to the next generation. This includes the family tree, clan history, and the history of the Gujjar tribe, among other related information. During family ceremonies, festivals, and other rituals, the Mirasis showcase their skills as entertainers through their excellent communication, humor, wit and sharp memory. They remember hundreds of folk songs, folk tales, legends and stories of Gujjar heroes, which they efficiently transfer to the next generations in the form of long poems called ‘Bar’ or ‘War,’ passing them down from father to son and grandson and so on.
The Mirasis not only hold records of insightful traditional wisdom and collective experience of people but also know the history of Gujjar ‘Gotra’ (clans) like Khatana, Badhana, Bajran, Bhati, and others by tracing their lineage up to seven generations or more. They possess all oral facts in their memories, including the “sayings of ancestors.”
In each family of the tribe, numerous things are inherited from forefathers, which are followed like religious bindings. Mirasis present such records in public during family ceremonies or festivals in a praiseworthy manner to leave a positive impact on others about a particular family. They sing about their ancestors, legacy inheritance, which connect the new generation with their ancestors and demonstrate the kinship and pedigrees of its members in a way that becomes relevant in all the rituals and other events of the Gujjar tribe.
The Mirasis have made a significant contribution to the rich folklore of the Gujjar community. Folklore encompasses the oral traditions, folk songs, ballads, tales, myths, legends, proverbs and more. The Mirasis are the keepers of the poetic traditions of the community. They use the Gojri language to sing folk stories of love and bravery, accompanied by the Sargi. Their repertoire includes popular folk ballads such as Lok Bar, Noora, Tajo, Darshi, Noor Beguma, Jang Baz, Maryan Dheindhi, as well as Kuku, Baisakh, Chann, Kangana and Shopiya. Through their performances, the Mirasis preserve and pass on the cultural heritage and history of the Gujjars to future generations.
Folk instrument of Mirasis
Saargi (Tota): The Tota Saargi is popular in Gojri Musical Tradition for long. This is slightly different from “Sarangi”- a string instrument used in Hindustani classical and other forms of folk music. In Gojri, Saargi is a very popular instrument and is played in the singing of ballads, ‘bait’, ‘Barramah’ and other Gojri folk songs.
Mirasis use this instrument mainly made of wood, and animal skin (Madh) with four up wires and eleven down wires. The helping organ of Saargi is called ‘Gaj’ in Gojri.
In every tribal locality, some popular Sarangi players are always around. Ustad Mohammad Hussain Mirasi, Ustad Ghulam Mohammad Danslaya, Ustad Jatoo Mirasi, Ustad Noora Mirasi and Bashir Mastana are some popular names who sing Gojri folk on Saargi.
Dhool: Dhool is a type of drum. It is a wooden instrument of cylindrical shape with two heads mainly made of animal skin. It is generally struck on one side with a lose ‘L’ type wooden stick called ‘Damno’ bowed at the end, and with a large thin stick called ‘Chinj’ on the other side, though it is also played by the bare hands. It is the principal accompaniment for the ‘Sharnai’ (oboe).
Dhool players in Gujjars are called Dholi, Master or ‘Mirasi’. They are invited to play Dhools on marriage, Khatnal, Leetari, Satranj Chekai, Laadi and on other celebrations. For dances, they play the beats mainly called ‘Dhukro’ for Gujjars.
Totdhi: Totadi is also called Sharnai which is derived from Persian word Surr (feast) Nay (pipe-reed). This is a folk instrument usually accompanied with ‘Dhool’. ‘Sharnai’ is largely known as a wind instrument.
Ban on Music
The prohibition on playing music is a common practice in many communities for various reasons such as religious, moral or superstitious beliefs. This ban prevents the use of musical instruments on different occasions and can be enforced by the community.
For instance, the Gujjar community enforces a ban on playing the drum (Dhol) during the rice harvesting season’s end. They believe that playing the Dhol during this time invites hailstorms. Similarly, during the first ten days of the Islamic month of Muharram and for 30 days of the Islamic month of Ramdan, Dhol playing is usually banned to perform religious duties.
The ban on playing music can also be enforced for forty days after a person or tribal elder passes away. Additionally, drumbeating is also not allowed when livestock passes by graveyards, mosque crossings, or designated shrines, as also during Nikah, Azaan, Nimaz, or when a procession of vehicles or people traveling to or from a funeral, and during the time of Dua (prayers). There may be other occasions on which the ban on playing music is enforced.
Mirasis and social changes
The Mirasis have been facing significant changes in their traditional professions. Many members of their community have abandoned the practice of remembering the genealogy of Gujjars and their clans, instead opting to become drum beaters, dancers, performers, and entertainers. Some have even changed their caste to avoid being identified with their ancestral profession.
The socio-economic structure of surrounding communities has been changing rapidly, leading to the abandonment of their traditional occupations. The rise of new means of entertainment, globalization, the caste-based stigma attached to drum-beating, and militancy are some of the key factors impacting their profession. The survival of their ancestral occupation is under threat.
The younger generation’s taste in music is shifting towards English and Hindi, and this is pushing Mirasis to seek alternative means of livelihood beyond music and entertainment. Many drum beaters are now working as unskilled labor to make ends meet.
Although the centuries-old tradition of drum beating to make weddings and other occasions more enchanting is still alive, many Mirasis are opting for new professions due to the declining demand. Some of these new professions include labor work, painting, working abroad as labourers, joining the police bands, agriculture and opening dance schools.
Issues and Challenges Faced by Mirasis
The Mirasi community faces numerous challenges and issues, including:
Poverty: A significant portion of the Mirasi population faces poverty, with some families listed below the poverty line. Although they have been given government reservations in the ‘Other Social Caste’ category in Jammu and Kashmir, they have not benefited from it due to their low literacy rates.
Illiteracy: Illiteracy and unemployment are prevalent among Mirasis, with a high dropout rate among children. Few Mirasi children attend school, with those who only studied up to the middle standard being recruited into the J&K Police to perform bands and drums during parades and other events.
Landlessness: Non-ownership of land is another significant issue, with several families living in small houses. Many Mirasis are landless and work as agricultural laborers.The Mirasi community faces significant challenges on social, cultural and economic fronts. Despite this, they remain committed to promoting, preserving and disseminating their age-old rich artistic traditions to future generations. Immediate action is required to be taken to ensure that they do not abandon their profession and to support and uplift them in every possible way.
The communities and cultural institutions must persuade them to continue their traditional professions and provide financial stability to this community, enabling them to keep these traditions alive. There is a lack of awareness regarding the importance of these traditional musicians, and efforts should be made to encourage creativity in these traditional art forms. A conducive environment must be created to enable them to pursue their traditional professions.