THE MANGANIYAR SEDUCTION: From religion and red light

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THE MANGANIYAR SEDUCTION: From religion and red light

Inspiration doesn't always come in the proverbial flash. It may emerge over a period from a number of disparate sources, as it did for Roysten Abel and his theatrical staging of The Manganiyar Seduction.

The 43 performers from a caste of Rajasthani musicians from Northern India are housed in four tiers of 36 separately illuminated cubicles. They sing and play a contemporary extension of their own Hindu, Islamic and Sufi music which has developed over many generations.

Their profoundly emotional and dramatic music has been brought into the contemporary world by Abel who first encountered two Manganiyar singers when he took them on the road in Europe as part of traveling show of unemployed street performers which also included acrobats, jugglers, snake charmers and musicians.

“They would follow me and sing at any given point in time, waking me in the morning or putting me to sleep, almost like 15 hours of intense singing I was subjected to,” laughs Abel.

“But it was more than welcome because I was so inspired and seduced, and it was not just a psychological experience but a physiological one.

“When something is supposed to happen it just follows you and makes it happen. It was an overwhelming experience I felt for those two weeks so I wanted to translate that experience into theatre.”

When the musicians are illuminated in The Manganiyar Seduction – which has three performances at the forthcoming Auckland Art Festival – the effect is one of a glittering jewel box, which was one source of his inspiration. And another was . . . the red light district of Amsterdam?

“Yes, that's true, but only part of it. The first thing I was looking at was how to take this into a physical space and I thought of what that experience had done for me, it seduce my soul. So I was looking for parallels of seduction and one that came to mind was the red light district of Amsterdam where I had gone for the first time about 12 years ago.

“I went there by mistake but it was absolutely stunning with the floors of windows [in which prostitutes sit and try to seduce clients].

“I had never seen anything like that in my life and I found that burlesque experience very theatrical. So I thought that could be a starting point – and when the Manganiyars sang I experienced a more beautiful side of myself, so it was like a mirror.

“So I created what looked like theatre make-up mirror with lights on all four sides. And what are these musicians? They are like gems of India. So it is a combination of all these different things.”

After the European tour Abel returned to India, went to Rajasthan and auditioned around 500 musicians, whittled the number down to 36, then tried an experiment with 20 minutes of music. The players were not used to coming in on cue or even rehearsals, and they were being required to take a seven or eight minute traditional piece and stretch it out and “I arranged like the emotions in a play”.

Over time – a year and half between auditions and first serious performance – a trust built between the Manganiyars and this conductor/director who was from Kerala in the south.

TheManganiyar“They knew what this man, even though he was from outside, was trying to do and so I was okay. And I needed to understand them and let them sink into this world, and me into theirs.”

The result has been a piece of musical theatre which has been acclaimed in Europe, Australia and the United States. Yet Abel – who travels with his production as lighting director – came to this through a circuitous route.

He started off in Shakespeare which he found easy at school, directed a production of Merchant of Venice while at drama school and spent a year with the Royal Shakespeare Company as an apprentice in 94 before returning to India where he increasingly combined Shakespeare with new Indian writers, then Indian song.

“I liked to look at classical Indian songs which gave expression to Shakespeare's writing. My initial work was pretty straight and placed them into an Indian setting and then we got more culture specific, almost recontextualising Shakespeare. If the source is specific it actually becomes universal.”

He also directed a feature film In Othello in which boundaries blur between the play and the cast: “The play flows into life and vice-versa and at the end you don't know if Othello is killing Desdemona or the actor playing her.

“But I don't enjoy film. That was just because someone came to me asked me to do it. I'm not passionate about it the way I am about theatre, I find it too tedious, too boring. Film happens in parts and you wait for it to come together through a mechanical process.

“It is too mechanical a medium, unlike theatre which is more organic – and where unexpected things happen all the time.”

The Manganiyar Seduction, The Civic Theatre, Thursday March 10 to Saturday March 12 2011, 7.30pm

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