For acclaimed Indian theatre director Roysten Abel, the prospect of touring the world with 35 boys under the age of 16 who never stop singing is not daunting, but exciting.
“All of them are travelling outside [India] for the first time. Many of them are getting into an aeroplane for the first time,” he says. “There’s so much to look forward to in the faces of these children.”
The children, some of whom are as young as eight, make up the cast of The Manganiyar Classroom – a buoyant, energetic production showcasing the music of the Manganiyar people, a community of Muslim musicians from Sindh, Pakistan, and Rajasthan, India. They are the keepers of distinctive musical traditions that include vocal acrobatics, percussion and a variety of instruments, which for a long time were supported by aristocratic patronage.
Now, however, those traditions are facing an unexpected threat: the rigidity of the modern school system.
Speaking to the Guardian ahead of their Australian tour and international debut, Abel explains he has been passionate about Manganiyar music ever since his first encounter with it over a decade ago, while he was touring a production called Jiyo through Spain. Jiyo was created with out-of-work street performers, and the company included two Manganiyar musicians.
“They would sing for me everywhere,” Abel says. “They would sing and wake me up, they would sing wherever we would go. They would follow me and they would keep singing, and I got addicted to them.”
The intensity of this experience led Abel to arrange funding to create a theatre show with Manganiyar music at its core. This project became the highly acclaimed Manganiyar Seduction, which wowed Australian audiences when it toured in 2012.
“I just found something very deep inside me being touched by this whole experience,” he says. “And then travelling to all these villages, and meeting them and their families ... spending night-long sessions with them – it just became a different journey.” That journey was a long one: The Manganiyar Seduction – a “structured composition” with a spectacular visual design – took three years to make.
This time around, Abel has focused on the talents and experiences of Manganiyar children, and the politics of education.
“This one is a production where the kids question the government education system that they’re subjected to,” he says.
“What we talk about is the homogenisation of education. We have an education system [in India] which is the same for kids in the villages, kids in the cities, kids with special talents, without talent.”
The Manganiyar children are the first generation of people in their villages to go to school, and the musical traditions they have inherited are not easily incorporated into the strict structure of the Indian education system.
“There isn’t a thought to how we can actually get the best of these super-talented children,” Abel says. “And it’s very important, especially when you have a demographic of extremely talented children, where there is the potential of actually achieving greatness in the field of music, in the field of arts.”
It’s common knowledge, says Abel, that for musicians, “life is a struggle unless you really make it. But here we’re talking about a whole community, a whole tribe of musicians. Where is the place for them to flourish?”
The influence of the market, which is not kind to things like tradition or heritage, coupled with the inflexibility of their children’s schooling, means the Manganiyar musical traditions are under threat.
“They’ve all been told that going to school and getting an education gives you a better future. [Members of the community are] all putting their children into schools for other vocations, for other careers. So as a community, the amount of musicians coming out every year is dwindling.”
Abel worries about the long-term impact this will have on the music. “Everybody wants the tradition to be alive. 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.”
In this respect, Abel is putting his money where his mouth is: the proceeds from The Manganiyar Classroom are going towards creating specialist schools for Manganiyar children, to enable them to learn widely but in a way which allows them to continue to develop the musical traditions for which they are renowned.
“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.”
• The Manganiyar Classroom is showing at Womadelaide on 10 and 11 March