Take forty-three musicians from the heart of the Rajasthan desert (handle carefully); one well-formed stage set, and 300 small light bulbs. Gradually combine ingredients together one by one, and then knead rhythmically for one hour.
The resulting dish is The Manganiyar Seduction, directed and designed by Royston Abel. It premiered at the Barbican to a packed house – no surprise after touring worldwide for the past four years to rave reviews.
Though the piece is described as musical theatre, its concept is simple. There are no set changes, and the performers are humbly attired in traditional Rajasthani dress. There is a pleasing simplicity, too, in the way that the piece is structured. Each musician sits inside a personal cubicle, arranged in rows and stacked on top of one another. The piece begins with just one sarangi player, soon joined by a single voice. Over the remaining time, the music unfolds, gradually at first, picking up speed and energy until it reaches its dazzling, joyous crescendo.
Abel’s striking set design was conceived as a series of windows in a red light district, where the audience watches almost as a voyeur. It does succeed in this regard, conjuring up a sense of drama and unpolished glamour. The rows of spotlights that line each compartment play a vital part too, glowing dimly until the musician within begins his part, then lighting up to perfectly complement the changing patterns in the music.
Though the cast of performers is large, each had a chance to display their unique character. One of the stand-out performers was conductor Debu Khan, whose joyous dance-like movement provided a welcome contrast to the seated, fairly static musicians. Though his back was turned to the audience almost throughout, his sense of humour and dextrous karatal-playing evoked cheers from the captivated audience and a standing ovation by the end.
Surprisingly for a show that departs so little from a traditional Indian music concert, the audience were mostly non-Indian, and a diverse group at that. It was a real delight to watch their reactions throughout. After some sniggers at the beginning as the singers displayed some characteristic vocal gymnastics, a hush descended as the piece slowly unfolded. Each new instrument that was introduced stimulated smiles and pointing, and by the time the giant, rib-rattling dhol drum sounded out, many looked as if they were barely holding back the urge to jump out of their seats and dance.
As a dynamic piece of entertainment, it couldn’t be faulted, although at times I did wonder if the artificial separation of the musicians created a certain stiffness. Part of the joy of watching music performance is seeing the lively interaction between the musicians. This presentation seemed to stifle that somewhat, especially considering the raw, bursting energy of the music. I also considered whether for performers coming from such a spontaneous tradition, playing the same hour-long piece, night after night, might be equally stifling.
The performance came to a poignant close with a speech by Abel, who joked that the musicians – forty-two Muslims with the last name ‘Khan’– caused a great deal of concern at every airport they passed through. Considering the recent blockbuster success of My Name is Khan and the lead character’s similar dilemma, this is still a very sensitive issue. But Abel stressed that leaving aside religion, the spiritual passion behind the music is tangible and universal. He closed by inviting the only Hindu member of the troupe to lead the group in a lilting love song dedicated to Lord Krishna. As the choir of voices swelled, pulsating with romance, heart and soul, I think this message was wonderfully conveyed.