Arts Desk

Maximum India’s Manganiyar Squares

Performing on the Millennium Stage, Panjabi MC brought the Kennedy Center’s Maximum India festival to a close last night in front of a crowd of about 1,500. With CD turntables for sampled bhangra beats and snippets of melodic vocal melodies (plus a Jay-Z verse from the “Beware of the Boys” remix), the British-raised Indian’s sound also included his own old-school shoutouts, rapping from MC Trix, and live beats from two tabla percussionists. For lots of festivalgoers, it was probably the final day's highlight.

For me, though, the most exhilarating musical moments came earlier in the afternoon, with the second of the weekend’s two sold-out presentations of The Manganiyar Seduction in the 1,600-seat Eisenhower Theater.

The Manganiyar Seduction is a 2006 opus featuring 37 musicians  from India’s Northern Thar desert region. The cast performed from a Hollywood Squares-like collection of boxed, red-curtained rooms stacked nine across and four high while musician and conductor Deu Khan, holding Indian castanets, bounced joyfully in front of them. Using a variety of stringed, wind, and percussive instruments—and singing in wails and chants—the performers offered sonics that moved from meditative to rhythmic and dramatic.  Light bulbs surrounding each room  turned on and off, depending on which musicians were participating in a given moment.

Indian Shakespeare Company director Roysten Abel, who frequently works with street musicians, came up with the idea after being captivated by the music of two Manganiyar musicians who took part in his play Jiyo. Thirty-six of the 37 Manganiyar musicians who performed at the Kennedy Center were Muslim, the last one Hindu. The Muslims from this part of the Indian state of Rajasthan—which is near the Pakistani border—uniquely blend the worship of Hindu deities with Islam. As Abel explained after the show, their religious background meant numerous visa headaches and an eight-hour delay at the airport. The group had similar problems on its one previous visit to the U.S. in November 2010.

Unfortunately, the Kennedy Center program didn't give the performers much respect, either.  It did not list the names of the musicians, their instruments, the names of the compositions played, or which dialect they were using. Despite all of that, the  production was dazzling.

Seduction started slowly with one white-outfited, red-turbaned, cross-legged musician bowing a drone across a vertically held, cello-like instrument called a khamancha. The pace soon picked up. Seamlessly, a singer in a box one level up and over joined in, intonating phrases and stretching syllables like a Sufi muezzin. Soon, more curtains unfurled and a second and third singer joined in, adding soaring, rough-voiced harmonies as the light bulbs around their rooms flicked on. A fourth singer entered and added hand movements before the vocals dramatically switched back to the second singer as the accompanying rhythm sped up. Suddenly, seven performing were vocalizing, joined by four percussionists holding dholak drums horizontally in their laps, which they pounded with their hands on both ends.

Time and again, the lights switched as different combinations of players joined in. Six stringed-instrument musicians began playing—some appeared to be bowing the vertically held Indian lutes called saranghis.  Eventually others joined in: There were marching-band-style drummers in the right and left upper corners, a cross-legged player of a psychedelic-sounding, mouth harp-esque instrument called a morchang, and more. The conductor often took part, excitedly moving about and propelling the tempo with the clicking sound of his hand-held karthal. The music reached a final climax after 80 minutes: Two percussionists jointly pounded a large bass drum while all the others joined in with instruments or prayer-like vocals. After some words from the director, the group performed a short encore for Krishna—a melodic piece that added a sound resembling a Chinese fiddle. The curtains on each box closed and the light bulbs went dark. And then the Eisenhower Theater's stage did the same.

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