About Roysten Abel:
Born in Kerala in southern India, Roysten Abel graduated from the National School of Drama in 1994 before doing an apprenticeship with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the same year. On his return home he founded the Indian Shakespeare Company with one of his most renowned productions, Othello in Black and White, which won the Scotsman Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Fringe (2001).
Roysten has also done extensive work with street performers and in 2005 was invited to conceive and direct a play on Fellini in Rimini, Italy. In that same winter he returned to India and created a play called The Spirit of Anne Frank, which featured the biggest female stars in the country. Soon after this he went on to direct his first feature film In Othello. Recently he has started to work with musicians and theatre, creating two productions; The Manganiyar Seduction and A Hundred Charmers.
Roysten has recently finished directing his latest production at the historic Red Fort in New Delhi, featuring 2000 folk artists, and is currently in the process of setting up an international centre for contemporary and traditional performance, due to open in 2012. Roysten is also currently working on The Manganiyar War, interpreting the Mahabharata through music.
About the Manganiyars:
Interview extract with Prof. Komal Kothari, conducted by D. V. Sridharan for GoodNewsIndia.com (2001)
A wizened old man plying his bow on the strings of a kamayacha. An impish young boy or two clacking away on pairs of khartals held in each palm. One of the singers is squeezing a harmonium and belting away. The other vocalist waits for a cue to join the ride. The drummer rouses his dholak. The boys rise on their knees and arc and weave their arms as they clack on. The old man plies his bow quietly. The colour of their costumes, the sounds of the desert, the passion in their voices and the animation of the boys make it more than a concert. It is gripping theatre, as audiences world-wide have come to realise. To send a Manganiyar group on stage is at once to evoke India itself.
Strangely, for artists who so visibly enjoy their act, Manganiyars were obdurate traditionalists and reluctant to go on stage. In the wide and desolate country of Sind and north-west Rajasthan, Manganiyars have for centuries survived on the patronage of wealthy merchants in caravan towns. At times of birth, marriage or any family festivity, the Manganiyar troupe would be in attendance evoking the right mood with songs of the desert and praise of the patron and his family. The patrons assured them an annuity and so survived the Manganiyars’ world well up until the fifties.
While their patrons were invariably Hindus, they were Muslims, though with a twist. They were indeed devoted to Islam but without any rigidity. There were, until recently, Shankar Khans and Krishna Khans among them.
The story of how the Manganiyar craft found new support in the changing economy of India, as their patrons’ fortunes began to wane, cannot be told without getting to know Prof. Komal Kothari. Born in Jodhpur, in 1929, Komal Kothari studied in Udaipur. In 1953, he started a magazine called Prerna which set itself the task of discovering and transcribing a new folk song every month. His family’s nationalist leanings and Kothari’s love of music and fine arts amalgamated into an interest in another genre of Rajasthani folk songs. These were songs created between 1800 and 1942, by common folk of Rajasthan that focused on anti-British sentiments.
It was this music that opened his eyes to the richness of creativity that lay undiscovered. In 1958 he found himself at Rajasthan Sangeet Natak Academy, and there began an obsession to record for posterity, many of the dying strands of folk singing.
In 1960, he ran into Antar Khan, a Manganiyar in the street. Kothari knew the Manganiyar culture was under pressure and offered him the opportunity to record his songs.
“I was preparing my vintage tape recorder to record him,” says Kothari. “When I turned around, he was gone. I went to the door and looked out. There he was, sprinting away. I chased him and caught up after some effort.
It turned out he feared that if he sang in front of the recorder, the machine would swallow his voice forever!”
During the next two years, Kothari made several trips to Manganiyar country. He explained the technology of recording and assuaged their anxieties and lectured them
on the promise of worldwide publicity and a new livelihood for them.
In 1962, the first ever recording of Langa music took place, followed by the first ever Manganiyar stage performance in Delhi, in 1963. But Kothari envisioned taking them farther afield and showcasing them to global audiences.
In 1967, Kothari travelled to Sweden with a troupe of Langass for the first ever performance outside of India. Acclaim, interest, invitations and recognition followed thick and fast. Today, Rajasthan’s tourism industry is driven quite substantially by these charismatic performers.
Komal Kothari himself has come to be loved by them as their godfather. “I am amazed at how these simple folk have mastered their instruments, codified their craft and marketed themselves over the centuries,” he says. “And now, despite their initial reluctance, they have quite rapidly adapted to the new potential. They seek markets, travel the world, deliver professional performances and handle success with great suavity. I laugh when I hear of the backwardness of India’s unlettered masses.”