The Manganiyar Classroom
Review by Lara Fox
The Manganiyar Classroom is half ‘school of folk,’ half Bollywood musical, carried out by the happiest little anarchists you could ever imagine. The Manganiyars are a heredity group of Sufi Muslim musicians from the Thar Desert of Rajasthan who are known for their musicianship. Director Roysten Abel has created a show with the youngest members from the community and brought their story to the world stage.
The show opens with the school teacher (Devu Khan) preparing himself for his day ahead at his desk whilst his class of kids are half asleep at their desks; sullen, sleepy and unenthused. He begins the roll call and the first two children respond in loud melodic singing, which angers the teacher, who orders them to be quiet. After a while, all the children awaken and start singing at the teacher, spontaneously rebelling through song. The words are in Hindi, so non-speakers won’t understand what the children are saying, but they don’t need to – they can feel it. The children are fed up, angry, pleading with the teacher to make their schooling more interesting.
The story follows along this path, with the children fighting the teacher for their freedom to learn, and fighting traditions; eventually, the children and the teacher fight together against a bigger authority – society and government.
With the teacher and children aligned against those who refuse progress, the show builds progressively both musically and theatrically. Incorporating percussive instruments (such as the dholak and khartal, as well as the kamaicha, morchang and jaw harp), with dancing, singing and even the unique Bhavai dance, the performance prompts the whole audience to join in with tapping, clapping, nodding and smiling along to every move and sound.
A particular highlight is when two very small boys enter the room with a harmonium and sit down at the front of the stage to play and sing harmoniously along to its harrowing, mournful sounds. The smallest of these boys has a voice which is pure and angelic, but at the same time manages to sound like that of an old, experienced soul – it is absolutely breathtaking and transporting.
All the children have incredible voices and are talented musicians, but it is how they come together that is most beautiful– like pieces of a puzzle, the true beauty is them as a collective. You feel as though you are witnessing something majestic, something spiritual and ancient that sees right through you and stares at your soul.
Each child is unique in their movements, expressions, singing styles and each displays varying degrees of enthusiasm throughout the show. It is this perfect amount of imperfectness which is most touching – they don’t come across as having every word and movement drummed into them –they are just kids on a stage, celebrating their culture and doing something they love that comes so naturally to them. As the teacher nicely sums up: “Manganiyar babies cry in tune. Music is in their blood.”
Much to Roystel Abel’s credit, the production is seamless and relaxed, and the scenes and story flow nicely. All the children as well as Devu Khan, give a lot as actors, without hamming or being inanimate; they seem natural and at ease. This adds to the organic and authentic feel of the show, making it a wholly immersive experience for the audience.
As well as the show being a celebration of culture, it is also a political statement – that education should not be one-dimensional. That all children, from all walks of life are different and learn differently, and as such, education should be multifaceted and forever evolving in order for society to progress most rapidly.
It was however disappointing that the sub-titles only worked through half of the show and the air-conditioning at Regal Theatre was not working (on a 38 degree day), though the humidity did really make you feel like you were in India.
The Manganiyar Classroom’s story of hope and change was well received by the audience, as was evident in the standing ovation it received and the whoops of agreement throughout. It is an uplifting show which will leave you clutching your heart with a wry smile and happy tears, but most importantly, it will leave you with a renewed faith in change and humanity.
The Manganiyar Classroom was presented at The Regal Theatre as part of Perth International Arts Festival 2017 from 3 – 4 March.