BENGALURU: Roysten Abel believes education shouldn’t be a homogenised system, and this certainly comes through in The Manganiyar Classroom, his latest production that opened at Ranga Shankara in April.
His connection with Bengaluru goes back a long way, far beyond being one of his favourite cities for world premiere: The Kitchen, with payasam actually brewed on stage and served to the audience at the end of the show, began its journey in JP Nagar’s intimate theatre as well. In the mid-1980s, he was a student of commerce in Christ College. He dropped out of the course and realised theatre – and later music, of course – was his calling.
Your memories of the city?
I remember Koramangala used to be the outskirts. This place (Taj Gateway, on Residency Road) used to be called East West, with a disc, The Opera House and Galaxy theatre nearby. All these are closed now. And Brigade and MG Roads were nearly empty. For college youth like us, going the other way on one-ways was like a challenge. I remember doing wheelies and driving in the wrong direction, the cops giving us chase. It was great fun.
Soon after this you dropped out of college. Did this experience have anything to do with The Manganiyar Classroom?
That was long ago. Of course, it’s the kind of experience that stays with you.
So how did this play come about?
About 10 years ago, when I was near Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, for The Manganiyar Seduction, a group of around eight kids sang for us. The song was full of life, but I didn’t know how to the fit them into the production. Then, when I went back a couple of years ago, they were 16-18 years old. The education, rather than helping them, had snuffed out the spark. They had lost their confidence.
You’re planning to start a school for the Manganiyars...
The thought is there, but I’m all alone. So hopefully, over the years, others will join in.
You have to recognise that kids like these are born with a kind of intelligence, and the generalised concept of ‘padhaayi’ actually dumbs it down. How can you take away their music from them and educate them? It’s as if you’re saying to them, you need to go through this system to be clever.
So a lot of them are giving up music, becoming jawans, drivers. Early dropouts are fine, but with late ones, it’s as if they’re taking to music only because they’ve failed in the better alternative. And, of course, the social pressures.
This will probably affect their survival skill because through their music they’ve been winning over patrons, in whose villages they live.
How different is school really for these kids as opposed to ones living in cites?
Schools here are very different from sarkari schools in Bengaluru, or even a village in Kerala. There are just one or two teachers to a school. And they don’t have it easy either -- they are often beaten up by the senior boys.
Tell us a little bit about the process of conceptualisation.
Once I get the idea, I workshop with the artistes and let it take its own course. I humbly believe what they can create is far greater art.
Which of your productions are still playing?
The Kitchen, The Manganiyar Seduction – we have had three sets for that, one of which has been pulled apart because of lack of room in my warehouse – and The Manganiyar Classroom, the simplest of the lot.
What about Othello in Black and White?
Barry John, who plays the lead, has been very sick. So maybe next year.
Anything new in the works?
A couple of ideas, but it’s too early to talk about them.
Would you like to go back to Shakespeare again?
I would love to, but for these I need experienced actors, and dates are usually a struggle.
How is working with experienced actors different from working with artistes who aren’t used to proscenium performances? Like the snake charmers you picked for A Hundred Charmers or the Manganiyars?
They are all performers and they have it in them. With the star actors, if they are the kind who do theatre for the love of it, it’s a pleasure. But if they do it simply because they think it’s something to do on the side...well.
How can you take away their music from them and educate them? It’s as if you’re saying to them you need to go through this system to be clever. Roysten Abel