Reigniting the Manganiyar spark

After his previous efforts with the folk musicians, Roysten Abel now presents a one-hour theatrical performance featuring children from Rajasthan

In 2009, theatre director Roysten Abel had staged a theatrical concert, The Manganiyar Seduction, featuring over 40 Manganiyar folk musicians from Rajasthan. The set design was partly inspired by the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur and partly by the red-light district of Amsterdam.

While working on the live album, Abel met a group of children from the community, who were “full of spark”. “Two years ago, I discovered that the very same children I had met in 2009 had lost that spark,” Abel says. After being exposed to the regular school system, all their qualities were drained out of them, he says.

“Gayathri Krishna of the Bhoomija Foundation suggested I create a kind of choir with the children.” Thus, Abel decided to produce The Manganiyar Classroom featuring 35 Manganiyar village children. While each child will showcase his or her talent through song, music, dance and rhythm, the initiative also involves a kind of activism. “At the end of the performance, there is a painful realisation of an India that is not so shining but left far behind,” says the director. “Its vibrant folk legacy is on the verge of extinction because of India’s rapid modernisation.”

An alumnus of the National School of Drama, New Delhi, Abel grew up in Palakkad, Kerala, and studied in Udhagamandalam (Ooty) and Bengaluru. He first made a mark as a director with Othello: A Play In Black And White in 1999. Subsequent plays included Perfect Evening, an adaptation of Girish Karnad’s ‘Flowers’; The Manganiyar Seduction; and The Kitchen, which had 12 mizhavu drummers from Kerala.

“I love theatre and I love music, especially the folk forms. Thus, it is natural for me to blend the two. Maybe I was born for that,” says Abel. “While I was doing The Manganiyar Seduction, I was exposed to a lot of their music through the artiste Devu Khan and by researching the work of Komal Kothari (an Indian folklorist and ethnomusicologist from Jodhpur). I always wanted to include children in one project, and The Manganiyar Classroom seemed ideal.”

The Manganiyars consider themselves descendants of the Rajputs, and their songs have been passed on from generation to generation as a form of oral history of the Thar Desert. They sing in Marwadi and Sindhi about Alexander The Great, local maharajas and past battles in the region. Though most musicians are Muslim, they sing about Hindu deities and festivals too. The instruments commonly used are the khamaicha, which falls in the bowed category, and the hand percussion instruments khartal and dholak. “The lyrics of the song are not that important. The Manganiyar music has a pathos that touches a chord,” says Abel.

A one-hour performance, The Manganiyar Classroom has been staged in other cities, but makes its debut in Mumbai this week. None of the kids had done any stage theatre before, and thus required adequate training. “I divided the process into two sessions,” says the director. “The first lasted about 15 sittings. I just observed them, and made a mental note of their strengths, and where they needed touching up. After six or seven days, they became familiar with me.”

By the beginning of the second session, Abel was convinced the children enjoyed acting, and would get a thrill from theatre. “This is when I honed their skills, both musical and acting. I never write down a script, but it evolves during rehearsals. That’s something I followed here too.”

Abel’s next mission is to create awareness and help raise funds to create a unique, state-of-the-art and alternate educational institution for the children of poor artistes. He is already in touch with leading educationists. “The talent should not go wasted, as it has often gone in the past,” says Abel. That surely is a worthy cause he’s pursuing.

The author is a freelance music writer.

The Manganiyar Classroom will be staged at the Tata Theatre at the NCPA in Nariman Point on November 24 at 7 p.m. Tickets are priced between Rs. 225 and Rs. 760.

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 10:04:24 PM |

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