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When traditional meets contemporary

When contemporary Indian theatre director Roysten Abel chanced upon a few Manganiyar musicians back in 2001, he was inspired enough to cause something of a revival.

art and culture Updated: Nov 20, 2010 15:55 IST
Pranav Dixit

The Kamancha, the folk fiddle of Rajasthan, is a three-stringed ancestor of the violin. It has a bowl-shaped chamber covered by goatskin and resonates with a deep, impressive sound. Eight months a year, Shamkara Singh Suthar, one of the best kamancha makers – out of the handful that remain in the country – moves from his home in the deserts of Rajasthan and uses his skilled hands, honed by generations of kamancha-making, to make sofas for the rich and the wealthy in the city of Pune.

This man is a Suthar, a craftsman by caste, who makes instruments for the Manganiyars from Rajasthan, a community of Muslim court musicians whose royal patrons have long gone but who still make the most sublime music. Traditionally, they performed at marriages, deaths and births, in return for alms, and it’s a tradition that continues into the present.

There’s nothing about the folk music scene in India to write home about. Bollywood and flashy commercial artists ensure a slow, choking death for the tradition. There just isn’t enough business. For part of the year, many Manganiyars are Kamanchaforced to travel to cities looking for work. Others survive on subsistence farming.

So when contemporary Indian theatre director Roysten Abel chanced upon a few Manganiyar musicians back in 2001, he was inspired enough to cause something of a revival. “They struck a chord with me,” says Abel. “And I was completely, completely psyched into their music.”

That was the birth of The Manganiyar Seduction, a dazzling, 67-minute long audio-visual spectacle, often described as ‘theatre in music’. The production that has opened and closed some of the biggest theatre festivals in the world – everything from the Holland Festival, Amsterdam to Broadway – will play at Delhi’s very own Purana Qila on the evening of 27 November.

Picture this: 43 musicians are seated in 36 lighted, red-curtained cubicles arranged horizontally on top of each other. Then they start playing. And you go on a musical and emotional journey like no other. The music has three main strains that flow from one tradition to another in a heady spiral, ending with a return to the haunting chorus from the Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah. The show features all the traditional Manganiyar instruments like the kamancha, the sarangi, the morchang (a tiny instrument held delicately in the performer’s mouth) and the algoza (a double flute).

“It takes you into a whirlwind of emotions through music and since it’s audio-visual, it ends up being experiential,” says Abel.

Desert Blossom
When The Manganiyar Seduction was first performed in India at the Siri Fort Auditorium during the Osian Festival in 2006 for a limited audience, a quartet of theatre and music buffs was blown away enough to start Amarrass Records, their own record label, to promote folk music from all across the world. Says Ravneet Kler, one of the founders of the company: “The four of us – Avirook Sen, an author and journalist, Ankur Malhotra, a hobby DJ who runs the Madison Music Review in Wisconsin, USA, Ashutosh Sharma who runs a travel agency and I – thought that folk musicians were not really getting their due in the market. We really wanted to do something for them.”

The Amarrass Society, a not-for-profit initiative of Amarrass Records, aims to share half of the net profits from the sale of albums with their artists. “This is what we will commit to every artist we sign up with,” says Kler. The Manganiyar Seduction is the label’s first release. In fact, it is the first time that the composition has been released as an album, on CD (Rs 500) and on LP, for discerning audiophiles (a steal for Rs 2,500!)

“As a single track of over an hour, The Manganiyar Seduction is probably among the longest compositions you will hear,” says Sharma. “It’s got versatility, vocal and instrumental versatility… it’s a luxury listening experience, not something you can listen to for four minutes and move on to the next track.”

Adds Kler: “From beginning to end, it takes you on a mental journey through the whole of Rajasthan and the different eras that existed there. The voices that come out are so rustic. They are the kinds that don’t come out of systematic training; these are the voices of people who toil all day and sing in the evenings – actually they sing even as they toil!

Considering how Rajasthan is such a great tourist hub, we thought this was a great production to start off with.”
Why Purana Qila? “That’s because the set itself is a gargantuan 25 by 40 foot structure that doesn’t fit into any normal auditorium except the one at Siri Fort!” says Sharma.

In fact, the set is so big that when the Manganiyars perform around the world, it has to be dismantled and transported in 20-foot-long containers, reveals Abel. “It’s 3,500 kilos of solid wood and metal that takes a crew of eight people about six hours to set up,” he says.

How the structure was conceived is a story in itself. Says Abel: “When I first heard the Manganiyars, I was completely seduced and I started looking for physical parallels to ‘seduction’. One thing that struck me was the red light district in Amsterdam that I had seen 12 years ago. It was the most amazing experience – you had these narrow streets lined on both sides with three-tier buildings filled with tiny cubicles. And in those cubicles were these women with garish make-up and all kinds of lights. It was such a burlesque sight that I instantly fell in love with it. What was happening there was the seduction of the body, and here, it is the seduction of the soul, and we humans are always caught in between. At least I am.”

And there’s more. “The little windows almost become like the windows of the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur,” adds Abel. “And that’s a nice allusion to the land where the Manganiyars come from.”

Children of the sands
As the CD and LP album jacket notes state: ‘With their raw, free voices, the Manganiyars have enthralled audiences at important cultural venues all over the world. Yet, they are rooted in a very different reality. They return to parched villages that are barely lit by electricity and often unconnected by motorable roads.’

“But the the beauty of it is that they are so unaffected by the whole thing,” sighs Abel. “They are not like urban singers and actors who lose their bearings and freak out when they become big,” he says. “They are grounded, because for them, it’s just another performance. After all, they have performed for royalty in the past. What are normal people like you and me then?”

Getting a structured performance out of folk singers was quite challenging, says Abel. “They are not used to the concept of a systematic rehearsal with about 50 people,” he says. “Between rehearsals, people used to get up and go to the loo or go out to smoke or something. But I couldn’t just say aisa mat karo (stop that), because I was also entering their world.”

All across the world, reactions from audiences have been stunning. “You can see the glee on people’s faces, like they’ve smoked a joint or something!” smiles Abel. “And we have got a standing ovation for every single performance we’ve done. I’d be surprised if we didn’t.”

Music of the masses
Can folk music ever be commercially viable? “It can be, but only in a niche way,” says Sharma. “You’re not going to buy a Ferrari, but you’ll make a decent buck.”

Big music labels require a certain number of copies of an album to be sold before they call it commercially viable. “And of course folk music is never going to sell that much,” Sharma says. “With the Amarrass Society, though, we want to take up the cause of folk music all over the world, not just India – African folk, the blues and jazz in the US… all we want to do is to raise awareness among the young generation, which doesn’t really care for this kind of music.”

“That’s true,” agrees Abel. “All my daughter listens to is Linkin Park and Radiohead. Unless you find ways to give folk music new platforms, it will certainly die out. The funny thing is, that once upon a time, folk music was actually just that: music of the folk. So unlike today, its popularity was really mass.”
Isn’t that ironic?

This spectacular production has wowed international audiences since 2006. From opening the Festival Internazionale di Villa Adriana in Rome in 2007 to the Singapore Arts Festival in 2010, the show has played in more than 50 countries – and always to standing ovations. Even as you read this, The Manganiyar Seduction will perform at Broadway in New York tomorrow. But now, for the first time, you can experience this musical extravaganza in Delhi!

When and where: Saturday, 27 November at 7 pm at the Purana Qila (Near Pragati Maidan)
For invites: Go to amarrass.com or call
011-46661200. Invites are also available at all Fabindia outlets in Delhi and NCR