When music rings true

When music rings true

When music rings true
Their voices cut through the air, sharp, unwavering, confident. They have a presence on stage that can beat any of the Bollywood Khans hollow. They emote and dance naturally, sing like they've been doing it forever. They generate a level of energy that can surely spark a fire. Their spirits soar with each song, and your mind soars with them. The young folk song singing sensations of the Manganiyar community from Rajasthan are a revelation.

The Manganiyar Classroom is a theatrical music production by noted theatre director Roysten Abel. It is an experiment that taps into the roots of this musical richness, but with an aim to raise awareness about the way their lives are boxed into this rather strange situation.

This lot of around 35 children, all under 16, and hailing from around 25 villages in Jaisalmer and Barmer districts, are the first generation from the traditional Manganiyar community, to go to school. On the one hand is the government drive to get all children enlisted in school, and their parents' belief that "bacche padh likh ke bada banenge" (kids will study and become 'big' people), points out Roysten, and on the other is the disconnect the children face between their naturally musical lives and the rigid and irrelevant formal schooling.

Religion no bar

The Manganiyar are Muslim singers, earlier patronised by noblemen and the Rajput warriors of yesteryear Rajasthan; they sing Sufi kalams as much as they do of Lord Krishna. But their repertoire is more knitted with the community around them — they were invited to perform on occasions. The subjects of the songs have remained unchanged over the last 40 years — they sing of kings, gods and festivals, love ballads, songs for ceremonies like bidai, marriage, childbirth etc. They are sung in Sindhi and Marwari, adds Roysten. Steeped in a system of oral history passing from one generation to another, the children aren't even formally taught music by their parents, he says. "They simply pick it up from their folks. They don't have toys at home — musical instruments are their toys."

"This is an extremely talented community. The children had the potential to become exceptional. But their existence in modernisation is lost — they are in a 'neither here nor there' kind of space. They lose out on what they have and don't gain anything," says Roysten. He had been working for over a decade with the community, his first production with them being 'The Manganiyar Seduction', featuring the adults.

When he saw these kids struggling with formal schooling and often not completing school, he believed they needed an alternate education system that focused on music or were taught subjects through music. "I'm still looking out for an educationist who can draw up such a curriculum and run such a school for them," says Roysten, with the vision being to set up such a school by 2020. But first, an awareness of their situation had to be raised, says Roysten, a graduate of the National School of Drama. And that's why The Manganiyar Classroom started taking shape about four years ago.

He hopes that they will soon start composing new and more contemporary pieces. "They are very capable of composing. Unfortunately, they think modern music only means Bollywood music." He discourages them from singing at forts and palaces for the touristy audience, says Roysten, because the kids will lose their voice from singing too much. Several NGOs have been working with the larger Manganiyar community in the region, for their betterment, and have helped take them out of their state, and country, to perform. They are a fixture in several tourism festivals, and often in Hindi films.

The idea of protest against the schooling system forms the crux of the one-hour performance of The Manganiyar Classroom that has been touring the country and the world (this year they were at the prestigious Perth International Arts Festival, Australia). They were recently in Bengaluru to perform a charity show for the Akshay Patra Foundation.

Setting matters

The setting for every show is a classroom, with the children straight away breaking into song and dance, answering the attendance call by the teacher with a song, answering every question of his with another song. The tables become percussion instruments. The chairs become their stage to stand up on and hold forth. They can play a dhol on an empty bucket with the same ease as they can play a morsing, harmonium or the khartaal (used to clap rhythm). When their teacher walks out on them, they decide they will learn one song each from the other, taking the audience through a whole repertoire of music.

"Many of the children in this production have stepped out of their villages for the first time as part of this experience, something that has instilled in them amazing levels of confidence," says Roysten.

Do the children want to go into fields apart from music? No, he says. Even the ones who are brightest in school say they want to pursue music. The performers in them can't be suppressed. Roysten recalls that after they had sent the crowds of over 10,000 into a tizzy at the NH 7 Weekender concert once, the kids came backstage to tell Roysten, "Unko mazaa aaya ki naheen humein pata naheen, lekin humein to bohut mazaa aaya." (We don't know if these people enjoyed our music or not, but we definitely enjoyed it.)
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