For India’s Manganiyar population, music is in the blood. Surviving on the patronage of wealthy supporters, the desert folk musicians have honed their craft for centuries, a carefully curated aural history handed down to each new generation. Perth was exposed to the haunting beauty of the Manganiyar sound in the 2011 production, The Manganiyar Seduction, and six years later, director Roysten Abel has again brought the distinctive sound to our city, this time aided by a cast of talented children in The Manganiyar Classroom.
Emerging from his fears that formal schooling was ruining the confidence and musicality of Manganiyar children, Abel’s classroom experience is part choral performance, part musical theatre and part social equity lecture. The performance opens with a strict and stern teacher (Deu Khan) attempting to call the roll, while forbidding his pupils from singing in the classroom. Out of this conflict, the boys sing in protest before the teacher, defeated, departs. His replacement seeks to inspire the students through music, and the resulting melee of sound, energy and joy permeates the remainder of the performance.
The design of the production is simple yet effective. Taqmir Ahmad’s desk and bench combinations place the performance clearly in time and space, and the Regal’s failing-to-function air conditioner on a balmy evening gave the setting of a rural Indian classroom even more authenticity. Like in real life, the traditional classroom set up somewhat limits movement, but Roysten Abel does his best to overcome this with break-out scenes on both floor and tabletop. A projector screen plays subtitles throughout the spoken scenes and, as the rest of the performance is in Hindi, these scenes are pivotal in piecing together the meaning of the songs. Frustratingly, these appeared to not be behaving as they should on the night of viewing, which disrupted the effective communication of the content to the audience.
However, it is the music that the punters came for, and music there is. There are some beautiful young spirits in this cast, who attack each song with unbridled energy and enthusiasm. Their ability to hold both pitch and focus throughout a very warm performance was commendable. Amusingly, the dynamics of a regular classroom seem to be at play – bright sparks sitting in the front row eager to impress, and a back row that appears somewhat disengaged until their percussion instruments are revealed. Students dance, play instruments, and clamber on their desktops to celebrate their songs and cultural heritage. Sections of call and response with their teacher showcase individual students’ talent, and while the meaning of the songs is lost to most of us, the sheer charisma of the young men on stage is infectious and universal.
Abel’s plan to reinvigorate the education system with alternative schooling for Manganiyar children is at the heart of this performance, and it is easy to see why. Music and passion come with such intensity and ease to these young performers, and to witness it being shred from them through the classroom setting would be heartbreaking. At times, the performance becomes heavy-handed with this message but, given the stakes, it is understandable.
The Manganiyar Classroom is a joyful, boisterous and captivating celebration of the rare talent within its young cast and their community. It bristles with the kind of energy that only children – wonderfully and hopelessly lost in the moment – can provide, and sustains it from the opening note through to the final curtain call. It is optimistic, enthusiastic and turned up to 11, and if it succeeds in its educational mission, the future for these young men is very bright indeed.
A Can & Abel Theatres Production, Co-production Bhoomija Trust
The Manganiyar Classroom
Director Roysten Abel
Venue: Regal Theatre | 474 Hay Street, Subiaco WA
Dates: 3 – 4 Mar 2017
Tickets: $66.30 – $25.50
Part of the 2017 Perth International Arts Festival