A rapturous journey

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

In a chat with theatre artist Roysten Abel, who has conceptualised The Manganiyar Seduction, a music concert that needs to be seen and heard

At the Virsaa Fest’s The Manganiyar Seduction, presented by Phoenix Marketcity, Vimannagar, recently, the audience was treated to a visual spectacle amplified by earthy, enthusiastic folk tunes. The programme, which was directed by theatre director-actor Roysten Abel, is a collaborative effort between him and the Manganiyars. The Manganiyar Seduction features a folk performance staged by the Manganiyars, a Muslim community, from Thar desert in Rajasthan.
The four-storeyed red-curtained cubicles arranged in four horizontal rows is a visually impactful construction. It houses 37 artists dressed in angrakhas, dhotis and pagdis, while one musician stands on the stage conducting the show. The concert begins when a single cubicle lights up and the first singer belts out his song. Soon another cubicle lights up and then another, thus creating a dramatic and astounding build-up of 38 musicians and their musical instruments performing in unison. The Manganiyar Seduction was conceptualised in 2006 and has journeyed through several states in India and abroad. Abel, who founded the Indian Shakespeare Company in the year 1995, says that he spent the last decade with the Manganiyars trying to figure himself out. Here’s more from him...

How did you learn about the Manganiyar artists? 
I was introduced to the traditional forms of India very late in my life and that’s when I heard about the Manganiyars as well. I was doing another show with my other folk performers and my permanent singers weren’t there. So I took two Manganiyars with me. We were touring in Spain with these guys and at that point, I could spend a lot of time with the artists singing for almost 18 hours a day and that’s when it really touched me deeply. I went back and created the show.

How was your experience of working with them?
See, to start with, they’re gifted musicians. Secondly, they’re very nice people, and thirdly, I was attempting to learn about their culture, whereas they were trying to understand who’s this guy who wants to come and work with us. That was a great process... probably the best part of the journey.

How did you train an ensemble of 38 musicians so flawlessly?
They’re all folk musicians, so if you ask them to sing a song, or play it, they’ll do it. The Manganiyar Seduction is a structured piece. If I tell them in the technical terms of music, they’ll find it very difficult because they’re not used to it. We were discovering the piece 
together and to get it to this shape, it took us a year and a half.

You’ve been one of the biggest names in the Indian theatre for the last two decades. How much have you seen the theatre and yourself change during this time?
Interesting! You know, I parted ways with the mainstream Indian theatre and then I went on to do the stuff that I do, which many people believe is undefinable. I live in a very small village in Kerala, and so I hardly get to see a lot of stuff that’s happening in India. However, I do watch a lot of international shows when I travel. 
Overall, I can say that the theatre in the world has changed. People are trying crazy things, everybody’s trying to do something, discover something fresh. That way, I think, we human beings are craving for something new; the quest and curiosity is always there.

When did you realise this was what you wanted to do?
After school and dropping out of a couple of colleges, I’d often question myself about what exactly made me happy. Back in the day, I came across an article in a magazine which my mother used to subscribe to. It was about two girls in a drama school in Thrissur, Kerala. That’s when I realised that there were drama schools which imparted knowledge about theatre and acting. The moment I walked into the drama school and felt the ambience, I said, ‘Dude, this is where I belong.’

From Shakespeare to folk, how did this drift happen?
It was a gradual journey. William Shakespeare was also a folk performer. His plays became classic later on. His audiences were the labour class, and of course, he had the royalty as well. Having said that, my understanding of Shakespeare was very different. You’re going through a journey, and then you experiment with Shakespeare, and then you experiment Shakespeare in traditional forms. So, when I did Othello, I did Shakespeare and Kathakali, and I tried to see how we could marry both of them. 
Then, gradually, Rajiv Sethi, who was my mentor, opened up this world of folk for me and I was blown away. I had never seen so much skill in my life. I started working with traditional street performers like jugglers, magicians, snake charmers, musicians and that’s how I eventually got into folk music.

Wherever there’s creativity, there’s plagiarism. How do you tackle it and to what extent is it acceptable?
The Manganiyar Seduction is probably the most plagiarised piece in this country. It’s been copied and copied and some people even called it the Manganiyar Seduction. Luckily, we had a video footage of them announcing it during the show. We filed a case against them and won it. So yeah, even that has happened. But now, I seriously don’t care. They say imitation is the best form of flattery!

Did this programme move you spiritually?
Yeah, in the sense that because there was a movement in me, I decided to create this show. Imagine being surrounded by 40 gifted musicians, it does affect your spirit, right?

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