The Manganiyar Seduction @ Barbican Theatre
The Manganiyar Seduction
Barbican Theatre. 06mar10.
To put it trivially, it’s like Celebrity Squares, but instead of nine celebrities you have 38 Manganiyar musicians in 33 compartments of a giant, but still relatively cramped, dolls house hidden behind curtains until their turn in the spotlights dotted around their segment comes around.
The Manganiyars are a company of Muslim folk musicians who historically were employed as court performers for the kings of Rajasthan. Director of this theatrical presentation is Roysten Abel who became so enamoured with their sound after working with two of them on a play in Spain in 2006, that after leaving for his next job, he found himself missing their music so much that he called them up and asked them to sing to him down the phone.
Thus the seeds of the Seduction began. You can certainly understand Abel’s thought process too, he was removed from the sound, and found himself craving it and thus in this 75 minute performance we are held back from the full experience of all 38 musicians and vocalists performing together until ten minutes from the end. Having it cascaded so stealthily, rationed out like wartime cheese, causes the intrigue and imagination to effervesce and to become enraptured, sucked in by the consistencies of the rhythms, the subtle undertones and the vocals that sound like the issuing of an ultimatum.
In a way, the swish of the curtain rail is part of it, part of the ‘reveal’ of course, but also an aspect of the excitement of the sound diverting and layering. It begins with just one musician, bowing a kamancha slowly, establishing a base drone to which dholak players add percussion before the vocalists are introduced largely one-by-one.
As the piece continues, different instruments such as the murli, dhol and sarangi are brought into play; introduction and re-introduction to the arrangement highlighted by the increased lustre of the lights that box them in, the bulbs fading out as their instrument falls to rest.
Certain instruments are given the chance to solo, or trade off with each other. Daevo Khan not only conducts from in front of the box structure but also works the kartal, a percussion instrument similar to a castanet, and at one point engages in a duel with Kutla Khan’s morchang (similar to the jaws harp) that has a jazz-like fortitude.
Eventually an intense four-drum breakaway builds the pulse-rate, a down-tempo diversion then cleverly counters expectation of this being a non-stop race to the summit before the entire ensemble comes together as a whole for the first time. Naturally, the breath is stolen from us at this point.
The deliberate and hesitant exposure, the red boxes and the lights betray the burlesque aspect that Abel had in his vision but it seems unbecoming to refer to it as a ‘tease’, strip or otherwise; to introduce a seediness that doesn’t do justice to the majesty of the music. Abel’s suggestion that he also had the windows of Indian palaces in his mind’s eye appears much more in keeping with the intricate and ornamental nature of the visual spectacle.