November 19, 2011

Hearing the Maganiyars

Busyness has been my week so far! I am just dropping by to say hello and post this article of mine about the Maganiyars, which was published a few days ago. Back with original posts next week, fingers crossed:)

Here is where the article appeared...


Speaking over a crackling phone line from his native village, Keraliya near Pokhran, 80 km from Jaisalmer, Manganiyar musician and conductor of the acclaimed show The Manganiyar Seduction, which presents 43 Manganiyar musicians in an utterly modern avatar, Daevo Khan explains the universe of Manganiyar musical traditions.

“The Manganiyar community has been singing songs since the time of Lord Krishna,” Daevo Khan begins, speaking in a mixture of Marwari, Hindi, and English. In those times, he explains, they were known as Gandharvas, and they were then referred to as Mir during Mughal emperor Akbar’s reign. However, they acquired their present moniker, Manganiyar, when princely states began to rule what is now Rajasthan; their name denotes the term ‘to beg’. Although the Manganiyars are now a folk musical community spread out in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer and Barmer areas performing a rich repertoire of ballads for their aristocratic Rajput patrons, they once “played to appease the goddesses and it is said that when we performed, even [the goddesses] stopped in their celestial chariots above to listen” says Khan, adding that if goddesses themselves are happy with the music that the Manganiyars create, it is their hope that ordinary mortals down on earth too will be satisfied. Such statements reflect their syncretic religious identity; the Manganiyars are Sufi Muslims and yet sing songs in praise of Hindu deities with much fervor.

Daevo Khan wields the responsibility of being the conductor of The Manganiyar Seduction, directed by the acclaimed Indian director, Royston Abel, who has produced and directed award-winning productions such as Othello in Black and White. Daevo initially met Abel in Delhi while working on Jiyo, a play dealing with out of work street performers; when travelling with the production in Segovia in 2006, Abel once again met Daevo, who along with another Manganiyar artiste presented a new folk song every day for two weeks. “It was an absolutely intense encounter,” says Abel. “Their music took me to a different place altogether, it was one of the most amazing experiences that I ever had.” Abel was so inspired by their music that upon his return to India he requested funding to initiate a project; he then went on to Jaisalmer where he selected 43 artistes from the 300-400 odd who had auditioned and, in two weeks, created an initial version of what was going to become The Manganiyar Seduction which he presented in Delhi as the opening act of Osian’s Cine Festival 2006, which showcased a range of Asian cinema. The show was received very well, enabling him to garner more funding; he then spent a year and half structuring the show which is now known as The Maganiyar Seduction.

Combining the startling visual pyrotechnics of the Amsterdam red-light area and the Hawa Mahal of Jaipur along with the Manganiyar performers’ haunting music, the show has been described as a sensory feast. “We haven’t done a show till date where we have not received a standing ovation,” says Abel who has presented the show all over the world. “I describe the show as a virtual whirlwind of sorts, working in spirals and completely immersing the audience into the Maganiyars’ music; in other words, they experience what I did [so] in those two weeks [in Spain],” he says, referring to his introduction to Maganiyar music. Abel is now working on a future project, The Maganiyar Longing, which will open in 2012. “The success of The Maganiyar Seduction has become a parameter for me,” he says.

Describing his m├ętier as that of working with traditional performers in a contemporary style, creating theatre in their music, Abel says that collaborating with the Maganiyars has been a memorable journey and that Daevo was the essential bridge between himself and them. “Apart from being the one who introduced me to the Maganiyars in the first place and being the best khartal [traditional Maganiyar instrument] player in the country, he also possessed a hunger in him to challenge himself,” says Abel to explain his decision to make Daevo the conductor of the show. He elaborates that Daevo was also crucially in alignment with Abel’s vision in addition to significantly being able to communicate it to his fellow Maganiyars, thus facilitating its execution.

Such innovative representation of folk and classical music performances is essential towards attracting those who may otherwise not gravitate towards such music. “Folk maa hai, classical beta hain; folk se hi classical niklegaclassical ultimately originated from folk music says Daevo Khan, who has performed with many Indian classical musicians. “I performed alongside artistes such as Anindo Chatterjee on tabla and Ustad Shujat Khan on sitar,” says Daevo, who has also played along with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Zakir Hussain. “I enjoy such moments a lot, I get inner peace while doing so.”

Having created and conducted many shows, busy even as we speak finalising his travel arrangements to France, where he and a troupe will be performing shortly, Daevo describes a show in Madras in which he performed a jugal bandi [fusion] with Kathak artistes. “They would pose a question through a dance performance and we would respond to it through our music. After we finished, there was a rapturous response, demanding an encore and we performed in reverse,” he says, adding the show became extremely popular. 

Daevo describes the Manganiyars’ musical legacies as a gift of god which the community has nurtured and sustained over the centuries. “When we visited America, [scholars] asked us how is it that even a small child is so easily able to pick up the musical traditions. I said that when a pregnant woman sings, the child absorbs it through the womb and thus [the child] arrives in the world, crying in tune,” he says. His eleven year old son is already an accomplished artiste and performed twice abroad. Manganiyar women also sing, and two of them participate in The Manganiyar Seduction.

Daevo is presently absorbed in creating a new show, Folk Rajasthan, which will use traditional folk percussion instruments as its basis. Another project that he’s contemplating performing is to do with Virh or the pathos of separation, the performance striving to conveying the intensity of the emotion through music. Apart from time devoted to conceptualizing shows and performances, Daevo Khan has also established Swaroop Musical Institute in the premises of his own home in Keraliya where he teaches orphaned children showing inclination for learning music from his and surrounding villages.

“I am dedicated towards ensuring that our music remains traditional and uncorrupted; I have heard ten generations worth of music and would like to preserve it,” he says in oblique reference to many folk numbers who have migrated to Bollywood.


Image courtesy Roysten Abel

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