The Manganiyar Seduction worked its joyous magic on a large and responsive Carolina Performing Arts audience in UNC's Memorial Hall as the 36 musicians and a dancing conductor led us in a thrilling journey through the rhythms and tones of Rajasthani music. The highly dramatic presentation was created by writer/director/producer Roysten Abel, who places the white-clothed Muslim singers and instrumentalists from Rajasthan (in northwest India) in an arced arrangement of red-curtained boxes in four tiers that fills the vertical space of the stage. Designed to mimic the sex showrooms of Amsterdam's Red Light District, this set instead offers other pleasures. Its bright lights around each box dim and glow around the players depending on the flow of the music.
When the event began, the curtains were all drawn closed, and none of the lights surrounding the cubicles were lit. Suddenly the curtains opened to reveal a single box on the bottom tier in which a musician in white pants and dhoti sat cross-legged, bowing a stringed instrument (possibly a kamayacha), his bright-turbaned head bobbing rhythmically. The next box to open held a player with a dholak, a large bongo type of drum with a low pitch. Many more dholak players came into the mix soon after – but first some singers. Those in the lowest tier seemed to be the most venerable, and their white clothes were topped by white turbans. Those above were younger, and wore bright turbans – red, gold, green – and were lavish with the gestures accompanying their songs, gestures that called to mind the elegant mime languages of classical Indian dance.
All the while, the dancing conductor, also in white but without a turban or sandals, utilized his own dazzling movement language, prancing, spinning, pointing, scooping, and leaping. He was like a conjurer, or charmer, bringing forth the sounds and seeding the musicians' gestures with his own. He also had a musical role, setting tempi with his two khartaal. These wooden clackers, some set with little bells, are like highly evolved castanets and make sharp sounds that contrast wonderfully with the attenuated droning of the strings and the full round drumbeats.
Later, other strings were introduced – sarangi, I think, and near the end, two sitars. A huge drum appeared on the upper tier, its many colorful decorations quivering with the deep-toned beats. All the sounds were such that you felt them throughout your body as well as taking them in through your ears. They hovered around that wavelength that connects you meditatively to the soul – not just your own, but the larger, universal soul.
As you began to be lifted and joined by all this spiritual energy, the players kicked it up a notch and then another and another. A cubicle that had remained dark suddenly flashed open, and the other-wordly sounds of a mashak – a kind of bagpipe – laid their tendrils on you; in the top row, a morchang – mouth harp – player set to work, vibrating all the bones in your head. Another big drum joined in, then one so big it was played by two men, one slapping, one using sticks. All four tiers were then ablaze with light; all instruments and voices surged out at full volume; and the conductor whirled them to a grand climax before stepping it down to the single drone, a vibration that remained with you long after the lights went out on this gorgeous, life-affirming musical drama.