‘The Manganiyar Classroom’ musical strives to keep a musical tradition alive

If you haven’t heard of The Manganiyar Classroom as yet, it’s time you do. Directed by Roysten Abel, this musical showcases and celebrates the folk tunes and young musicians of the Manganiyar community — and by doing so, highlights the crucial need to keep their cultural traditions alive.

The Manganiyar Classroom is Abel’s second production involving the music of the formerly nomadic group who live in Rajasthan; the first being the theatrical concert, the Manganiyar Seduction. Abel first learnt about the community’s musical prowess when he encountered a couple of street musicians in Spain.

The stars of the show are a boisterous 35 boy choir aged between 8 and 16, who, during the course of the musical, rebel against their classroom teacher’s attempts to silence their singing, through verse and melody. Defeated, he departs, and the group joyfully begins to teach each other songs, playing instruments and climbing onto their desktops to celebrate their music with a zeal that is loud, rhythmic and completely infectious.

It’s a didactic performance that is an introduction to the great musical legacy of this community as well as musical activism. In India, Manganiyar children find it difficult to merge knowledge that they have gained through oral tradition with that gleaned from textbooks and reading. Often, because of the structure of the school system and syllabus, the children come to believe that their traditional ways of learning and singing is not beneficial to them as it has no connection to the subjects that are needed for higher education.

In conversation with The Guardian, Abel discusses his worries about the impact of the system on Manganiyar music. “Everybody wants the tradition to be alive,” he says. “But then how do you actually keep that tradition alive? It’s not by keeping them within the existing framework. You’ve got to find new ways.”

‘The Manganiyar Classroom’ is one of those ways. Proceeds from the show go towards starting a school which would provide the children with academic knowledge as well as the time and space to preserve, promote and enhance music that matters.

“It’s very important to look after these traditions because it’s not something that you have in every other part of the world … It’s a treasure we need to look after,” concludes Abel.

Kerosene Digital explores the Current culture news in India. Read the latest news on Indian culture updated and published at Kerosene Digital.

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