Forty musicians from three generations of Manganiyars, a caste of desert instrumentalists from Rajasthan, will perform in an illuminated 36-window ‘jewel box’ on Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre stage in the visually and musically stunning masterpiece The Manganiyar Seduction on 6-7 March. The vision of theatrical director Roysten Abel, the founder of the Indian Shakespeare Company, celebrates the music of the Manganiyars, musicians from the heart of the Thar Desert, in an astonishing audio-visual feast.
The beauty of the traditional Manganiyar music is heightened by a set inspired by Amsterdam’s red light district and the Hawa Mahal Palace in Jaipur. The musicians are seated in a four-storey bank of 36 red-curtained pods, each one framed by lightbulbs and occupied by a single performer who is illuminated whenever his voice or playing joins the extended piece of music being performed. As the ensemble grows in number and the sound gathers momentum, the skin-pricking climax is heralded by a sumptuous light show as all the pods glow and pulsate along with the musical rhythms in an extraordinary original concept, brilliantly executed. The Manganiyars are a caste of Muslim musicians who are predominantly settled in the districts of Jaisalmer, Barmer and Jodhpur, in the heart of the Thar Desert. They traditionally performed for Kings but over time their patrons have shifted significantly. In the 1970s ethno musicologist the late Komal Kothari discovered them and gave them a new life in contemporary times and spaces. Their repertoire includes ballads about Kings and also Sufi poems written by various mystics. They have songs for birth, marriage, feasts and more, and even though they are classified as folk musicians, their traditional music is classical and reflects upon the roots of classical music in India.
“My experience made me think of a red light district, bordering on the burlesque inside my head, heart and body. I thought of windows in Indian palaces where women folk would view ceremonies or processions while unwittingly becoming the subjects of voyeurism themselves. For me, these windows came alive with musicians” — Roysten Abel
Director Roysten Abel has reversed the usual practice of using music for theatre and instead uses theatre to create magic in music. He describes what he calls, his ‘First Seduction’. “While directing a play in Spain in 2006, I was accompanied by two Manganiyar musicians who formed part of the company. They would follow me and play music in all the places I went, most of the time overlooking the decorum of that space. I would wake up and sleep to their playing over the course of a fortnight, during which time a strange psychological event took place. Having left for Germany to direct another production, I realised that I missed the music so I would call them and ask them to sing over the phone. I was totally seduced.”
Returning to India filled with inspiration, he wanted to translate this seduction into a physical realm. “My experience made me think of a red light district, bordering on the burlesque inside my head, heart and body. I thought of windows in Indian palaces where women folk would view ceremonies or processions while unwittingly becoming the subjects of voyeurism themselves. For me, these windows came alive with musicians,” he says.
Abel went to Jaisalmer and auditioned a thousand musicians, from whom he selected 45. The Manganiyars were not accustomed to rehearsals and Abel says he was attempting to translate an experience into a piece of theatre. “We got into the process of understanding and trusting each other over a three-year period before arriving at The Manganiyar Seduction. But even after hearing it a thousand times, it still has the power to seduce me.”
First created to open the Delhi Film Festival in 2006, The Manganiyar Seduction’s rousing success, incredible originality and intense musicality has seen it tour the globe ever since. Described as “rapturous… jaw-dropping… buoyant… compelling…tranquil…” by The New York Times, the show has received long-held standing ovations all over the world, from Salzburg and Vienna, to New York, Singapore, Washington, Paris and Hong Kong. Its 2018 season will include performances at Arts Centre Melbourne, WOMADelaide and Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane.
Arts Centre Melbourne and Arts Projects Australia present The Manganiyar Seduction State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 6-7 March at 8pm. Log in to artscentremelbourne.com.au or 1300 182 183