What’s the finest musical production in India?

I would say The Manganiyar Seduction. I saw it again last Friday in Bangalore and am convinced there’s nothing approaching its scale here, and few things of this quality anywhere in the world.

For those who haven’t seen it, here is a description: It is a performance in the sense that though it features Indian musicians, there is composing and a sense of choreography (the show last week was part of a dance festival).

The show consists of three dozen musicians on a stage four storeys high, each man sitting in a curtained, partitioned cube. The structure is bright red and each musician’s chamber is framed with naked bulbs. The man who created this, Roysten Abel, was influenced by the manner in which prostitutes are displayed in Amsterdam’s red-light area.

The show begins with a man on the ground floor playing a line of melody on the kamancha, a sarangi-like instrument. Then the singers, of various ages and arranged by generation on different floors, begin to join in. Then other musicians, each unveiling himself in time as the symphony unfolds.

As may be imagined, this is quite dramatic and special visually. It is a superb piece of theatre. Like I said, I’ve seen it before. This time I shut my eyes to it and only listened. This is why I’m convinced that it is the finest musical production out of India and further afield.

The quality of the musicians individually is first-rate. Any singer of khayal, our great offering in high culture, would envy such harnessed power and technique.

To have three dozen musicians of this standard playing together is astonishing. Just as staggering is the fact, which Abel told me a couple of years ago, that there are so many of them in Rajasthan that other than a few key people in The Manganiyar Seduction, the rest are easily replaced when someone is unavailable or on tour.

The Seduction is our finest musical production because it is that rare Indian thing: an ensemble of equals. It is impossible that one can get even 10 Hindustani musicians to perform together because the problems of hierarchy and general pettiness will not be resolvable.

I used the word “Hindustani" and not “classical" because there is no doubt in my mind that what the Manganiyars sing is classical. The singing, the playing is pitch-perfect. The articulation is sophisticated and nuanced. The sense of raga is preponderant.

Though Manganiyars sing much of the same material as qawwals, such as Bulleh Shah, their singing doesn’t have the abandon (and therefore crudeness) of qawwali.

How did so many musicians of the first rank suddenly appear? The fact is that they’ve always been there and it is The Manganiyar Seduction that showcased them properly.

The Manganiyars are musicians from Marwar. Like most things of quality in India, they spring from a particular caste, which is where they get their name from. The Manganiyars are from the bardic tradition, like Homer, who is thought to have been an oral performer rather than a writer. Though all of them are Muslims, the kings they sang of were Hindus, given Rajput chivalry and the historian James Tod refers to some of the odes.

Abel has an announcement during each show that gives a bit of their background. He tells us the Manganiyars all keep Hindu shrines at home (something which the terribly edited and expensive People of India series, an anthropological survey, doesn’t say). The Seduction performance has two songs: a long and a short one. The latter being from the Hindu tradition, a Mirabai bhajan, which is opened by the only Hindu member of the group, who is a Meghwal, before the Muslims join in. It is quite moving.

The Manganiyars primarily perform at functions in the villages of Marwar and Barmer, which is where they still live when not touring. It is because they operate out of a caste that the tradition has remained alive.

To listen to their music in the traditional form, one must look at what my friend Ashutosh Sharma has done out of love and respect. He and his partner Ankur Malhotra at Amarrass Records have travelled through Rajasthan and recorded the Manganiyars in their natural environment. This has produced a magnificent series called At Home. This is three recordings with some of the greatest living exponents of the Manganiyar tradition, including Sakar Khan, who plays the kamancha, and Lakha Khan, who plays the Sindhi sarangi.

The recordings are soaked in the environment in which these men play their music (there is family conversation that carries on uninterrupted between and during the songs) and the environment in which the Manganiyars live. Their position by caste is low in the social order in the village. It is Ashutosh’s presence that occasionally alters the equation in the village, when the landed people come over to see who has driven over from Delhi, often where there are no roads, to spend some time and record.

The songs are quite remarkable. Sakar Khan sings Hindoni, about a girl who loses her patchwork quilt and is searching for it. She finds it in the end, though I thought it was a metaphor for her virginity. There’s another song about hiccups, and one where he replicates what happened when the first train arrived in Jaisalmer.

Ashutosh says “these men are rock stars". He’s treated them as rock stars and the three discs are a reflection of this.

Lakha Khan is the last Manganiyar to play sarangi, says Ashutosh, which is why the sarangi players in TheManganiyar Seduction are actually Langhas, another caste of Muslim musicians.

It is astonishing that the passing of something of this quality should not have been noticed. However, the Manganiyars have more publicity in American and European newspapers than in India, which is shameful but expected. It is The New York Times and The Guardian that are interested in tradition.

There are many reasons to enjoy the Manganiyars. There is the spectacle of Abel’s creation. There is discovery of a syncretic strain in Islam, the idea of Muslims and Hindus in one tradition.

All of that is fine and terrific. The primary reason is that they are outstanding musicians.

You must, if you haven’t, listen to and absorb this beautiful and uniquely Indian culture (click here for details.)

Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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