Seeking the Dholki of India's Punjab Region
There is an old buddhist saying that any search leads away from the point at which the object sought is to be found. (Hinting that the answer to all quests can be found within.) “Ah”, say I. “But what if the object of your search is an obscure folk drum from the Punjab region of India?” Well dear reader, with this headstrong attitude I set out on my bold quest only to confirm the Buddhist proverb in full force.

The story starts with a wonderful book I read about the languishing state of folk percussion arts in the Punjab region of India written by Alka Pande (Folk Music & Musical instruments of Punjab). Moved profoundly by the account of two specific drummers who were examples of a dieing breed of drummer that were only to be experienced in this generation, I set out to Chandigarh where the author said the two men lived, determined to seek them out, and experience their art firsthand. On the day I was to find our two revered artists, I set out early in the morning by bus, following directions of people at the station on which bus to take out to the suburbs I sought.

First stop, Ropar, home to the legendary Mehar Chand known by his nickname Mehru. Much to my dismay after an hour’s bus trip, I learn that Ropar is actually a very large region outside Chandigarh and that I’ve just missed Mehru’s hometown by about 20 miles. After taking the bus back to the town of Kharar where Mehru lives, I asked around about 10 shops at the small junction town where the “Bazigar Colony” listed in his address was located. To no avail. Giving up on my prospects of finding the drummers, I sought the drums. A small crowd of people gathered around me discussing in Punjabi how I might be able to find any of the four drums I sought (Dhol, Douroo, Dhad and Damroo).

The group finally came to a consensus that where I wanted to go was a place called “Mohali”. I was delighted to hear them mutter this place name because that was also the location of the other master drummer Mangat Ram. They sent me off with a little boy to get on the right bus. When I finally boarded the bus his friend was doubled over laughing, shaking his head and calling his friend “Charlie Face!” I figured out that my little guide was having a laugh with me and must have just put me on a bus to go off into the desert somewhere miles from civilization. Finally, the joke being revealed, he put me on the correct bus, and the bus driver confirmed the destination.

Finally we arrived at the Puda Office in Mohali. An exact match to the address of Mangat Ram. The driver pointed me off to a towering building (PUDA means Punjab Utility Development Administration or something like that.) Scary thing was that on the road through Mohali, I saw about ten different PUDA offices. So again in seek of help, I ask a group of old Sikhs standing at the temple across from this particular PUDA office whether they knew Mangat Ram’s house name listed in the book or indeed if they knew him at all. Alas, they didn’t know him and had no idea what the address was meant to be.

Trying my fallback, I asked for the drum again. And (after buying a souvenir to honor the founder of the Sikh faith) one of the gentlemen put me on a tuktuk explaining to the driver what I sought.

And we’re off! At last, after a long flight, and much bus riding zig-zags across the sandy outskirts of Chandigarh, I am at last going to find my drums!

Thirty minutes later the tuktuk driver stops and points to a tree by the side of the road where there were two Dhol drums suspended from the branches. No shop to be seen. Only a decrepit old shack with a dhol painted on it and some Punjabi script. Baffled, I paid him and got out. I walked over to the drums staring at them, wondering why they were tied up in the tree. From the distance a couple of young men came running over. They spoke to me in Punjabi and we went through the whole round of gestures again to explain why this lost foreigner had ended up on their curbside following the guidance of this book of pictures. I paged through the book and found a picture of Mangat Ram. No glimmer of a clue on their faces. I paged over to Mehar Chand and the young men looked at each other with joy and shouted “Mehru!”

WOW I thought! I’m getting somewhere! So I tried to gesture “Where is Mehru?” But they had no idea. So I pointed to the drum and gestured playing. They pulled it down and started to demonstrate how it’s played. At last! They brought me over to their relatives stall (a real estate office apparently) and treated me to a soda as they recounted the crazy story about my quest for Mehru, Mangat Ram and the Dhol. Their relatives, who could speak English, explained that the young men hung their Dhols from the trees awaiting the opportunity to perform for Punjabi weddings. So it all made sense. And the much dreaded fear that Alka Pande talked about in her book about the potential loss of the folk music traditions of the region (ten years ago when the book was published) had been overstated. Indeed the men she wrote about may have passed on. But their heritage, the folk tradition that they dedicated their lives to, was still strong, embodied by these young men’s continued passion for the Dhol.

Then my hosts explained to me that the best place to see traditional Dhol performed was probably Los Angeles, where I had originally come from. So my thoughts of the old Buddhist proverb sprung to mind. Here I had come to the opposite side of the globe from my home in quest for a drum and a tradition that was likely easiest found in my own neighborhood back home, where the Punjabi culture continued to revere its musical heritage in their international diaspora.

My quest of seeking these particular people was not realized. But a better message was, that the tradition that they represented had thrived and spread rather than dieing out as was my and Alka’s fear. What’s better, my mission had an unintended positive consequence. These young men the Dholkis of a new generation, acted as if they had just seen their name in lights. That an American would travel 10,000 miles to see their old mentor, someone who they may have thought of as another common Dholki, ordinary to them, showed that the impact of their art was international in scope. They saw that the Dhol they played was an infectious art form that had no global boundaries. As much as they were baffled that I would come so many thousands of miles to see Mehru, they were honored. Perhaps in the future they will pursue their art with renewed vigor, sensing the importance of their tradition to the heritage of our world.

At the end of my journey, I felt an odd sense of triumph, despite not finding what I set out to find. I felt my wayward quest through the desert had resulted in the encouraging of young Dholki’s continue their tradition. As took the picture above before I left. And they asked me (again through gesture) to print it and put it inside my book next to Mehru’s picture. Their fame will be ensured in my own private copy of Folk Music & Instruments of Punjab (as amended).

More on Dr. Pande

Rhythmuseum Indian Drumming Website