From Northern India, A Singular Sufi 'Seduction'

Musicians in lit-up boxes i i

The Manganiyar Seduction opens by slowly lighting up a stack of boxes in which 36 musicians play a variety of Indian instruments. Roysten Abel hide caption

itoggle caption Roysten Abel
Musicians in lit-up boxes

The Manganiyar Seduction opens by slowly lighting up a stack of boxes in which 36 musicians play a variety of Indian instruments.

Roysten Abel

At New York's Lincoln Center, an intriguing theatrical concert is unfolding.  Musicians from a Sufi Muslim sect in Northwest India are attempting to seduce the audience.

The Manganiyar Seduction begins in almost complete darkness — light bulbs faintly illuminate 36 human-sized rectangular boxes on a large four-tier set.  Then the sound of a khamacha, an Indian stringed instrument, breaks the silence. Slowly, lights come up on one of the boxes to reveal the musician sitting cross-legged, dressed in white with an orange turban.

"It's very introspective," says Roysten Abel, the show's director and creator. "It's this one lone khamacha drone that actually starts seducing you into yourself."

The seduction is a slow one in this unusual multimedia experience. After a while, another box lights up and another musician, also in white, this one with a multi-colored turban, begins to sing. The lyrics, says Abel, are "all Sufi couplets, and it's all crying out to the universe or god.

"You know, so it's like ... asking for some kind of a blessing that we start the piece with."

Before you know it, that singer is joined by another singer, and another and another. The performance is something of a hybrid — not exactly a concert, not exactly a traditional theater piece, but something designed to illuminate and make the audience feel the music of the Manganiyars. A formerly nomadic group, they live in Rajasthan, a desert region in India, and have a kind of hybrid faith themselves.

"They have the Muslim saints and they worship Allah," Abel says. "And then they also have their ... Hindu goddesses. And they sing to both," he says. "Like, there would not be any difference if they were to sing a Sufi Islam mystic song or if they were to sing a Hindu mystic song. It would be with the equal amount of devotion."

Musician Sakar Khan performs i i

Sakar Khan and the other musicians are part of a formerly nomadic community of Sufi Muslims from Northwest India. Roysten Abel hide caption

itoggle caption Roysten Abel
Musician Sakar Khan performs

Sakar Khan and the other musicians are part of a formerly nomadic community of Sufi Muslims from Northwest India.

Roysten Abel

Jane Moss, a Lincoln Center programming executive, was the one who created the White Light Festival, drawing from Western and Eastern traditions to explore spirituality in music.

"We were not interested in producing, let's say, a generic world-music festival or a sacred-music festival," Moss says. "We were really interested in works of art that sort of come at these issues in interesting different ways."

Abel, who runs the Indian Shakespeare Company in New Delhi, says he was introduced to the music of the Manganiyars when he worked with a pair of musicians on a production that traveled to Spain.

"They slowly seduced me into their lives, and then they took me onto a journey, and just took me to a point where they really blew me away," he says.

So he decided to create a show that reflected his own journey into the Manganiyars' music.  Abel estimates he auditioned well over 1,000 musicians to find the 36 who perform in the show. But getting the Manganiyars to play the same thing every night hasn't been easy.

"They're not used to structures, they're not used to a concept of rehearsals, they're not used to playing something that they've been asked to play," Abel says. "They're free-spirited musicians, you know?  They just play what they feel like."

So the production, he says, has been a process of "trying to get them into my world, and me trying to get into their world — slowly, slowly adjusting, to arrive at a performance together."

That performance, which takes about an hour and twenty minutes, features many different musical colors and instruments. One part features Indian drums called the dholak and the dohl; in another part, there's a double flute — "the alghoza, which is so special," Abel says. "It's pretty haunting, and it's very typical of this community."

By the end of the piece, all 36 musicians are performing while the lights on the boxes are rapidly forming different patterns. It's a kind of ecstatic conclusion to this seductive journey, says director Abel.

"By the end of it, you're at the top of this spiral, you know?  You really don't know if it's a sound or a light show actually, because you're into another world."

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