On or off stage, folk artiste Mamta plays her own tunes
Mamta Sapera, while performing at an event

A typical folk performance from Rajasthan is underway at Jaipur’s Jawahar Kala Kendra. There are musicians wearing colourful Rajasthani turbans playing various instruments – harmonium, khartal, bhapang, morchang, dafli and the like. There is this classic vibe of a regular folk performance from the desert state – colourful, rooted, melodious and soul-stirring. But, there is something different here. A turbaned young face playing the morchang is not of a man. It is 18-year-old Mamta Sapera.

Mamta, from the Kalbeliya tribe known for the performing arts, believes in taking her community’s art forward but not through the regular route. As a child, she was trained in the Kalbeliya dance, typically associated with women of her community, by her mother. She has performed, too. But, the visit of a musician relative altered Mamta’s course. “A relative was visiting my home. Since I was always intrigued by the instruments he played, I asked him to teach me something about them. He bluntly refused and told me girls do not play instruments. This upset me no end. So, on my 15th birthday that year, and I asked my father for the morchang, khartal and bhapang as a gift. My father agreed to gift them to me,” Mamta shares. But, her father put a challenge before her. He asked her to perform on stage within 15 days. “I told him I was not ready yet, but he said if I wanted to go ahead in this field, I will have to perform. I took on the challenge. I felt very good when I was up on the stage, playing the morchang and I received appreciation from everyone. That was my beginning!” says Mamta, who has recently completed her Class XII and wants to graduate in music.

In the past three years, Mamta has added many more instruments to her prowess. She has learnt to play the drum, kazoo and harmonium besides the traditional instruments that she has been practising. She is also learning to play the violin and takes beatboxing lessons. While it usually take six months of practise to play an instrument, Mamta does it in 15 days! She comes from a family of performing artistes. Her brothers sing and play instruments, her father plays the bean and organises folk performances, and her mother is a noted dancer herself. Everyone in her extended family is a performer as well. It is through multiple shows and performances all over the country that Mamta’s family came out of living in tents and now owns a house in Jaipur.  

“In the beginning, it was not that I wanted to learn only to play instruments. I was into Kathak, too, besides Kalbeliya dance. But my relative’s comment got to me. I decided, that not one or two, I will play as many instruments as possible. I wanted to show people that girls can play whichever instrument they want! And, we can do what we want! The same people who discouraged me, now compliment me on my talent,” says Mamta. 

Mamta has performed all across the country and what she enjoys the most is jugalbandi. “It was a defining moment in my life when I played the khartal and morchang with my idol, folk artist Ghazi Khanji. I used to learn techniques watching his shows and videos and wanted to emulate him. It was such an honour when he complimented me on my art,” she says. Among her other memorable experiences is a jugalbandi where she was playing with Carnatic musicians. “It was a beautiful communication between folk beats and Carnatic melody. After half-an-hour, we began to understand each other’s music,” says Mamta who is immensely passionate about her art. Among her wide range of performance experiences is injuring her tongue so badly that it started bleeding. “I love the morchang because it is the smallest and toughest-to-play instrument. I was doing a show a few months back and I didn’t realise that my tongue had started bleeding. When we play, the entire head region goes numb. Some members of the audience came up on the stage and asked me to stop. I gestured to them that I will stop only when I complete the piece,” Mamta shares.

The young torchbearer of the Kalbeliya community rues the fact that they don’t sing the old-time songs anymore. “There were songs about our life in the tents, about longing for loved ones living elsewhere… the present generation doesn’t know them. Today, they mix the sound and the purity isn’t preserved. People should know these stories of our collective past. I would want to revive those songs,” says Mamta.

Mamta wants to create a space for girls like her. “I want to start a studio where girls can learn to play instruments. No one will tell them what they should not do. I am currently working with a few girls, training them to play the khartal as and when I meet them. A studio would give them a proper platform. I would also want to support their pursuit of what interests them, be it dance or academics,” she explains.

Mamta also believes in challenging the norm in the way she dresses. “I don’t like gender taboos on one’s outfit. I like to wear kurta-pyjama and safas, so I wear them. We should dress according to our choice, not according to how others want!” says the feisty young woman. Mamta enjoys her unique take on life. “I always wanted to be different. My instruments have given me this identity. I am happy that I am living a life of my choice,” says Mamta on a closing note.

Shefali Martins – Rajasthan