Upcoming play celebrates the Manganiyars from Rajasthan

Updated: Nov 24, 2016, 10:54 IST | Suprita Mitter

A new play celebrates a Rajasthani community of professional musicians, through their children, while questioning the education system

Scenes from The Manganiyar Classroom
Scenes from The Manganiyar Classroom

Sounds of the khartaal and dholak fill the room accompanied by lilting, rustic voices that warm your heart. But this is not just any other Folk performance. The actors in a new play belong to the Manganiyar clan from Rajasthan; a community of professional musicians whose music has been passed down from generation to generation as a form of oral history of the desert that they inhabit.

Directed by Roysten Abel and titled Manganiyar Classroom, the play features 35 children from 20 villages across the Jaisalmer and Barmer regions. In the hour-long performance, the Manganiyar children aged between nine and 13 years will present their talent — each one a repository of song, dance and rhythm. However, the play is not just an attempt at introducing the glorious musical reserves of the community but also a kind of activism.

“I have been working with the Manganiyars for 12 year now. When I first heard the children rehearsing, it was celestial. I wanted to create a choir with them. In the following years I got busy with other projects,” shares Abel, who also created and directed The Manganiyar Seduction, an audio-visual feast featuring an ensemble of more than 40 singers from the community. “When I met these kids eight years ago, they were bright and sparkling. Over the years, they lost most of it. They were all going to school but this was doing more damage. Our education system is linear and offers little scope for honing natural talent. My idea was to do a piece that protests against the prevalent education system,” he adds.

Roysten Abel
Roysten Abel

According to him, at the end of the performance, there is a realisation of how the carriers of a great tradition are doomed to be forgotten, while being included in the programmes of ‘progress’. Their vibrant Folk music legacy is on the verge of extinction due to India’s rapid modernisation.

None of the children in the play have acted before. Abel rehearsed with them for eight months and would work extensively during their vacations. The act features 15 Folk songs and dialogues in Hindi. “Working with children is sheer joy. It is not the songs but the way they sing them that reflects the protest. The community has been in this musical tradition for 3,000 years. We ask why music can’t be used to teach and empower them. The generation today is told that they can’t make a career of their talent and the form is dying. It will be a shame if we lose this traditional art. The kids have the potential to be world-class musicians,” shares Abel. He also feels that reality shows are of little help. “They are way too commercial and business like. The originality of the art form needs to be retained. I am in the process of setting up a state-of-the-art school for the Manganiyar children, which will hopefully be up and running by 2018,” Abel sums up.

On: November 24, 7 pm 
At: Tata Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point
Call: 66223737 
Cost: Rs 300 onwards

Popular instruments used by the Manganiyars
>> Kamaicha is a 17-string bowed instrument. Made of mango wood, its rounded resonator is covered with goat skin. Three of its strings are made of goat intestine while the other 14 are made of steel.

>> Khartaal is a kind of castanet made of teak. Its name is derived from khar, meaning hand, and taal, meaning rhythm.

>> Dholak is a classical North Indian hand drum. It has a simple membrane and a handle on the right hand side. The left hand membrane has a special coating on the inner surface. made of a mixture of tar, clay and sand.

Who are the Manganiyars?
They are highly skilled Folk musicians who sing songs about Alexander the Great, the local Maharajas and past battles in Rajasthan. The Manganiyars have survived for centuries on the patronage of wealthy merchants in caravan towns, particularly Jaisalmer. The traditional patrons of the Manganiyars is the locally dominant Rajput community.

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