Sounds of the IndieGround – Seduced by the Manganiyars
I hadn’t quite prepared myself adequately for what was to come on that Friday eve. All the signs seemed to point towards the extraordinary – a full moon, an atmosphere heavy with anticipation (and summer humidity), a star soaked sky. But I – possibly due to the numbing effects of straight whisky shots out of a plastic bottle – was quite oblivious to the obvious signs that were making their presence felt around me. That is, until the show started.
Perhaps before getting to the show, I should start with the story. It begins in Segovia, Spain. Theater director Roysten Abel was traveling through Europe with a play he was directing featuring out of work street performers, and traveling along with him were two Manganiyars – Mame Khan and Daewoo Khan – also the musicians for the play. I don’t think Mr. Abel had adequately prepared himself either, for the effect these two musicians would have on his entire state of being.
“I cannot recall a night nor shall I say day when I did not sleep before 5 in the morning”, he recounts, “once deep into my sleep I could hear the Manganiyars in my dream only to realize that they were outside my room waking me up with their lovely music at 9 o’clock. The day began literally on this wonderful note. The Manganiyars then would follow me and play music in all the places I went…they would then follow me to my room and once I was tucked in my bed at 5 30 in the morning they would sing and literally rock me to sleep…this continued for a fortnight and I could sense a strange physiological happening in my system, but could not put a finger on it.”
This “strange physiological happening” would set the stage for what would one day be called The Manganiyar Seduction – an idea conceptualized by Abel that brings together the visual dynamics, dramatic sets and lighting schemes of a theater production, with the esoteric yet simple beauty of the music of the Manganiyars – a caste of Muslim musicians from the Thar desert of Rajasthan, who are interesting in that they practice Islam but also worship Hindu deities and sing Hindu devotional songs. Though their music is considered folk, it incorporates distinctly Hindustani classical elements with Sufi mysticism. The show involves 43 musicians positioned onstage in a massive four storey high structure, compartmentalized into individual boxes that light up as each individual musician begins to play. A simple enough concept – but with such a grand impact on the soul that I would never have expected.
Back to that fateful Friday evening.
The stage went dark, and the audience went silent. A single spotlight shone on a robust, well fed looking man with an equally robust well fed looking moustasche, which curled cheekily into tiny little swirls at each end. He strode decisively to the center of the stage, his back facing the audience, barely acknowledging their presence. In his hand he held a set of kartal – castanet like Indian percussive instruments – which cut through the silence of the amphitheater with their sharp clicks – clickety clackety clickety clackety clickety clackety CLACK. The first box lit up to reveal the first singer, with a voice so powerfully mournful it could tell a thousand stories with just a single note. He was gradually joined one by one by an army of musicians whose instruments included the kamancha (a three stringed instrument with a rounded body covered in goat skin); the sarangi (a violin shaped string instrument played with a bow), the morchang (or mouth harp), the algoza (or double flute), as well as a series of percussion instruments. The fervour only intensified as each musician joined in and each box lit up, the conductor ever clickety clacking, beads of his sweat flying into the atmosphere as he flew across the stage with the musical urgency of a man possessed by the demons of rhythm and melody. The audience felt the urgency and couldn’t sit still – hooting, clapping, dancing, mesmerized by this music that emanated directly from the heart. I looked to my companions – Tritha and Camille, both incredible artists in their own right – and we all looked up to the full moon above, that was serenely watching over us and the entire scene.
This is an experience that Youtube videos of the production won’t convey – it’s something one has to witness in person, to truly feel. The entire spectacle left me humbled, in awe of what was unfolding before me. Chatting with the maker afterwards, it all made sense.
“If you have an intense experience with the Manganiyars, it’s somewhere inside you”, Roysten said to me during our interview, in his deep, dramatic drawl, “it’s a grand experience – and being a theater director, when you’re translating this into a more physical realm, you’re trying to create something within this one hour with all the tools you have – which is the sound, the set, the lights – and hope that the audience would be able to taste that feeling of grandeur”.
The physical set up of the production has an equally interesting origin. “My experience with the Manganiyars was like a mad roller coaster ride almost bordering on the burlesque inside my head, heart and body”, said Abel, “and for some strange reason the Red Light district [of Amsterdam] kept coming back to mind. It could have been to do with the seduction or the burlesque”. This certainly explains the allure the entire experience had on my senses – but I was only one of many who had been hopelessly seduced. “I thought the seduction was just a one time thing,” said Roysten, “but with the Manganiyars even after hearing them for a thousand times, they still keep seducing me”.