The Manganiyar Classroom and Taalavadya recital conceived and designed by ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakram stole the show at Bhoomija’s Jackfruit project

Experiences are rarely singular. The word ‘Manganiyar’ itself is enough to evoke a hundred memories. Your heart swells with gratitude to AIR for bringing these remarkable musicians from the deserts of Rajasthan into your sensibility. You remember the extraordinary folk music series that Music Today brought two decades ago. You want to doff your hat in respect for the likes of Komal Kothari who spent an entire lifetime protecting the musical rights of the phenomenally talented folk artistes, the Langas and Manganiyars of Rajasthan and bringing them to concert stage.

Manganiyar Classroom directed by Roysten Abel is, in a way, continuation of his earlier work Manganiyar Seduction. With 35 little Manganiyar boys what Abel attempts in this Bhoomija production is not just an introduction to the glorious musical reserves of this community, but a kind of activism. He brings to centre stage an India that is not so shining but left far behind. In this one hour performance, the Manganiyar kids stun you with their talent – each of them a repository of song, dance and rhythm. However, at the end of the performance, there is a painful recognition of how they are doomed to be carriers of a tradition, forgotten to be included in the programmes of ‘progress’.

The little Manganiyars transplanted into a humble classroom from the expansive deserts, with their colourful turbans and jackets strikingly absent, looked like any other child in a modest school. But that’s only till they started singing. Led by the amazingly talented 11-year-old Arwar Khan, the group came alive with a traditional folk number, “Baayisa Mora Ladka” – and then they could hardly be fettered behind those wooden benches. Their body breaking into graceful swings, their hands rising and falling involuntarily, trying to invoke the gamaks that their charming voices were producing, and constantly establishing their musical consanguinity, they had flown away from their physical space just in the span of a note. They not only evoked the timeless sands of their home, but they were also connecting to their collective unconscious which could hardly be shackled by a modern, theatre space. Not even the presence of an overwhelmed audience. They loved their music and nothing else was an obstacle.

The folk music of Rajasthan has qualities that appeal to both the layman and the learned listener, probably because of the earthy allure and the profound dhrupad-like graces, which reminds one of the Jaipur style of singing. In their natural high-pitched voices and gifted sense of laya, the teeny-weeny maestros negotiated the complex Deepchandi taal as if it were child’s play.

The 13-year-old Hayar Khan played harmonium with the attitude and mastery of an Ustad, brilliantly capturing the bordering dissonances of this extraordinary folk form. The seasoned Dewoo Khan, a top class musician and khartaal player (one-time assistant to the legendary Gazi Khan), played the ‘khadoos’ teacher who, a few minutes into the performance, metamorphosises into a true-blue Manganiyar. Buoyant, energetic and innately connected to their music, the Manganiyar Classroom was hardly a performance. The ownership rested so totally with them that even the director, by the end of the recital turned out to be a spectator, moved by the rich experience.

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The other stunner in Bhoomija’s Jackfruit project for children and by children was the Taalavadya recital, conceived and directed by the legendary ghatam musician, Vikku Vinayakram. With a supremely gifted set of six children playing different percussion instruments, rich and varied dimensions of laya was presented.

From the word go, the presentation sought to belie common notions that percussion instruments are mere time keepers and hence remain mathematical in their spirit. Beginning with a shloka by saint Thotaka, to a fun composition ‘Didin’ to the fantastic ‘Guruvandanam’ composed by Vikku Vinayakram himself, one could recognise that the composer sought to alter our perspective of laya. “My guru’s father Harihara Sharma,” explained Sukanya Ramgopal, “believed that all music lies in the seven notes. Similarly, there are seven main points even in the mridangam and everything emanates from there.” Sukanya ably recited the nadais followed by the shloka – in her lucid rendition it was evident how music was embedded in the many layers of laya. She not only fore-grounded the stunning aspects of laya, but put on display its inherent musical textures that closely resembled a complex kriti. What followed was staggering – each of the six youngsters, the eight-year old Hemant Joshi on tabla, Smaran Haridashwa on morsing, Ramana Balachandran and Rahul Krishna on mridanga, G. Harish on ghata and Ramakrishnan on thavil carved out stunning laya vinyasams (interpretations) on their respective instruments. From sincere to talented to intellectual to monstrous, the talent of these kids could be differently tagged, but it became a special experience for the manner in which they transformed complex calculations into emotional experiences. Each kid, an awe-inspiring performer, dared to go beyond the perfection of form and craft. The mesmerising 16-year-old Thavil player Ramakrishnan from Coimbatore embodied the spirit of laya itself, as envisaged by the great masters.

The most endearing part of the experience, which in fact mirrored the audience’s feelings too, was how each one on stage was responding to the other’s music. In fact, musical conductors of the show Abhishek Raghuram and Ananth Krishnan made no efforts to conceal their appreciation. Enormous time, energy and rehearsal had gone into both these concerts; but remarkably, true to both sets of musicians, musical was taking birth at that very moment. It was spontaneous, packed with surprises and unanticipated moments, and retaining the character of Indian music, there was no aesthetic climax.