35 children, Manganiyar songs and a strident protest form Roysten Abel’s latest
At the NH7 Weekender in Pune last year, a 6,000-strong audience was held in thrall by 35 young boys—with just their voices, a few drums and some wooden benches. The Manganiyar Classroom is a protest, a question and a solution rolled into one, all addressing how the arts are being ignored by our current education system. Directed by Roysten Abel, the production is debuting in the city next week, to mark the end of the ongoing Poetry with Prakriti Festival.
Abel tells us that he first met the younger generation of this musically-inclined Rajasthani tribal community 10 years ago, when he was searching for musicians to perform in his globe-trotting epic, The Manganiyar Seduction. “I had just returned from Vienna, having listened to the Vienna Boys’ Choir, when my friend and collaborator, Daevo Khan, made me listen to a few boys he was working with. It was as if the angels were singing, literally,” begins Abel, recalling how the “pure, unadulterated voices”, without the training or money the Vienna boys had access to, had amazed him.
For the love of music
While the idea of working with them had been at the back of his mind, Abel finally decided to do it in 2013, when Gayathri Krishna from Bengaluru’s Bhoomija Trust approached him—to participate in Jackfruit ’14, a music festival by and for children. “I was busy, but it was too tempting. Working with children is always therapeutic,” says the 49-year-old, adding how he hit upon the idea for the production after revisiting the children he’d met 10 years ago. “The spark had disappeared from their eyes and they’d become awkward adolescents. Both society and school had done a lot of damage because there isn’t space for talent within our system,” he adds. Abel workshopped with over 100 children, “teaching them songs, joking and talking with them, so they got comfortable with me” before finalising the 35. “It took us over six months to train and the challenge was to get them used to working in a production, something they’d never been exposed to. Also, children grow up too fast. By the time they are 12 or 13, their voices start to crack,” smiles Abel, adding how his best singer’s voice cracked recently.
Changing the system
The production begins with a protest against the current form of teaching, with the children even leaving the ‘classroom’ at one point, forcing their teacher to find a way around the system. Abel notes that much of the music is created by the children—with drums and mundane objects like buckets and their benches—and that he dressed them in uniforms (with no hint of turbans or traditional clothes) to underline the universality of the story. There is also a plan behind it all. “The ultimate idea is to raise awareness (and money) for an alternative school. We are in talks with alternative educationists to figure out how it should be structured. But it will take some time,” he shares. Meanwhile, Abel and his kids will head to Bengaluru, to perform at Ranga Shankara, and to Mumbai for Mood Indigo at IIT.
At Sir Mutha Hall, on December 11, at 7 pm. `200-`1500. Details: eventjini.com
Surya Praphulla Kumar