Spotlighting the victims of a particularly dire fulcrum in the modernization of India, Paula Fouce and William Haugse’s docu portrait of the indigent folk musicians of Rajasthan is an admirable yet at times distractingly unfocused chronicle of difficult lives and painful legacies. “Song of the Dunes” could be a valuable teaching tool for schools and cultural centers, though it’s likely too slow-moving and insular to attract much commercial attention. Pic played Feb. 4 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“Song of the Dunes” splits its focus between two musician families representing the Thar Desert’s Kalbeliya and Manganiyar tribes, both descendants of the Untouchable caste who historically secured patronage from the nobility by performing at ceremonies and weddings. With the rise of the Indian republic and decline of princely power, they’ve since been reduced to performing for tourists and scrounging together what little sustenance they can find.
Most of the docu consists of a rather lackadaisical, free-flowing record of daily life in the families’ respective villages. Though several interview subjects re-emerge throughout, the docu never gives a deeper sense of who these people are, and even though one Manganiyar man notes that his family has been performing for 36 consecutive generations, the history and origins of their music are never adequately discussed. As a glimpse of a rarely seen and strikingly harsh way of life, it’s fascinating, but as a work of cultural anthropology or a portrait of individual people, it comes up short.
Pic takes a turn for the tragic when the Kalbeliya clan subjects are forced out of their homes to make way for government-mandated development — these onetime nomads had been historically allotted remote stretches of land on which to live, yet have unclear legal claim to it — and appeal to the sympathetic, yet near-powerless Maharaja for help. The docu never reveals how or if the village has since been rebuilt, and it serves as a powerful illustration of the fragility of these musicians’ livelihood, and the unintended consequences of modernization.