An Insight into the Life of Roysten Abel and his Musical Extravaganza
Roysten Abel lives in a quiet beachside village in Northern Kerala, but that doesn’t stop him from conceiving giant-sized theatre productions. his plays are mostly staged abroad because the sets are so big that theatres in India can’t afford to stage them indoors, both in terms of space and money. In his famous production, the Manganiyar Seduction, the set of which is inspired by the red-light district of Amsterdam, he has 36 Rajasthani folk musicians in 33 boxes stacked over four levels, the whole set rising up to 25 feet.
It is as much a visual treat as it is a musical extravaganza. Another production, the kitchen, features 12 Mizhav drummers sitting in a 5-4-3 combination over three levels on a set that rises to 22 feet (with each copper drum weighing about 25 kilos). This set forms the backdrop to a couple making Payasam live onstage, which is later served to the audience. In a hundred charmers, he had a hundred snake charmers playing the been like in an orchestra.
On the scale of his productions, Abel says, “If i had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done it. I would have thought it’s a logistical nightmare — 2000 kilos of metal that need to be easy to assemble and dismantle [for the Manganiyar seduction]. But, when you’re going for an idea, you’re never apprehensive.” Adds actor Ddil Hussain, a fellow National School of Drama (NSD) graduate who has known Abel for 25 years, “since our NSD days, Roy has loved a big canvas. and, he’s capable of handling it.”
Abel’s heart beats for so many things — Kathakali, the Manganiyars, Mizhav drummers — that he ends up playing matchmaker more than a theatre director, marrying one idea with another. His first major play had a Kathakali dancer play Othello; his Much Ado About Nautanki had five Bidesia singers in a Shakespearean setting; and, At the Fringe – A Beggar’s Opera, as the name suggests, was an opera by street performers. Any other theatre director would have taken any one of these ideas and milked it for the rest of their career. But, Abel has made connections where others only see adrift souls again and again.
A case in point is this incident, when Abel was in Amsterdam with Goodbye Desdemona, a devised play in which Hussain and acting coach Barry John played lovers. “It was one of those startling, theatrical, burlesque experiences when I went to the red-light district for the first time,” says Abel. “I did not go into the politics of it — how these women got there — but the visual of it. And, the atmosphere was something that never left me.” A few years later, Abel was visiting Shadipur Depot, affectionately known as the Kathputli Colony, in Delhi, when he heard the Manganiyar singers. The two came together, beautifully, effortlessly, stirringly, in The Manganiyar Seduction.
With about 100 international shows and 20 shows in India, such as at the NH7 Weekender in 2012, the production has gained admirers worldwide. Actor Geoffrey Rush wrote a personal note to Abel — “You have made beautiful theatre — it surprises constantly with the hidden magic of red curtains and lights. I was seduced.” On the two elementshe brought together, sex and music, Abel says, “It came together in a good way, and that’s why the show was so well-received. One is the seduction of the body, but we’ve turned it around to the seduction of the soul. The Manganiyars touched the depths of my soul in a very unique way.”
For an unconventional career in theatre, the 49-year-old Abel has had a very classical education. He studied at Good Shepherd International School, in Ooty, where two teachers, one who taught Shakespeare and the other who used to write one-man plays for him, were early influencers. The first play he directed, as a 12-year-old, was the play-within-a-play in Hamlet, The Murder of Gonzago. His father, a ship chandler in Kuwait, and his mother, a housewife, wanted him to pursue an MBA. But, his “heart wasn’t in it”, and he dropped out of two colleges before joining the School of Drama, in Thrissur. As part of the course, he also learnt Kathakali, among other things. “Early into drama school I figured I was very bad as an actor. My kick was always direction, making a scene work. A friend told me that NSD was calling for interviews. I hadn’t even heard of NSD then. He said, ‘NSD is a better school, and they give a scholarship of Rs 650.’ I was running out of money anyway because I was not supported from home.”
Abel, who got in pretty easily at NSD, studied direction for three years. “A few teachers inspired me, such as Anamika Haksar, Robin Das and Raghunandan, in the way they arrived at their productions. You are then motivated to follow your path and find things for yourself. I don’t think any institution can teach you anything. But, it can create an atmosphere for you to be curious.” After a three-month stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, Abel returned to Delhi and formed the Indian Shakespeare Company. “Maybe I wasn’t so intelligent so I didn’t think too deeply about Shakespeare. I just had fun reading Shakespeare. All his plays were highly dramatic, with generals and kings.”
After a couple of straightforward Shakespeare plays, and a few riffs such as Goodbye Desdemona and Much Ado About Nautanki, Abel visited Kathputli Colony for an evening that changed his career. “There were about 300-400 puppeteers, impersonators, snake charmers, all these people ready to perform. I was extremely moved; I was crying. I was enjoying the performance even in that extreme poverty. There was such great skill. It was a weird combination. We were performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and these people were on the fringes of the society. They could not go on the streets of Delhi to perform because of the Beggary Act [Prevention]. In the eyes of the law, they were beggars. That’s how At the Fringe – A Beggar’s Opera happened. Then, I started working with the performers of Shadipur Depot, and a couple of other performances came out of it.” One of those performances was The Manganiyar Seduction. “I thought I would get over the Manganiyars’ music after one year, maximum two years. But, even after ten years, it has the same impact on me.”
Abel and Hussain met in 1990 at NSD; Hussain acted in Abel’s diploma play, Kafan, a story by Premchand. “Because we were classmates, ours is a very special relationship,” says Hussain. “He gave me shelter when I had no money. He used to live in a one-room apartment with his wife [actor Mandakini Goswami] and child, and I stayed with them for months and months. I was their permanent guest. He sponsored my marriage. He was not only my director, he is my closest friend.”
Hussain describes Abel as a loveable person, someone who treats people very gently, someone who hardly ever raises his voice. “He seems absentminded. He’s talking, but something else is brewing in his head.” In 1999, Abel asked Hussain to play Othello as a Kathakali dancer; the play changed their lives. “Most of the films I got in the beginning, maybe even today, are because of him. Casting directors knew who I was because of Othello. Other theatre professionals started recommending me. I owe him 10 per cent of my earnings,” Hussain laughs.
Although Abel’s productions were musically-inclined earlier, post The Manganiyar Seduction, music has taken centre stage. “When music happens in theatre, it becomes magical,” says Abel. “And, when the spoken word comes in, it takes the magic away.” He listens to Leonard Cohen, Pakistani qawwals, Coke Studio Pakistan and Celtic music, but not any form of classical music. “When I jump into these projects, I really don’t know anything. I’m fascinated by what they’re singing; I’m curious. I’m sure there are many people like me who don’t know anything — these people are my audience. It’s not like I’m the maestro, and I’m creating something. I approach the process like creating a play. Listening to the musicians and translating it into a performance is basically a theatre director trying to arrive at a performance piece by total intuition.” Hussain says, “Roy was always looking out for new forms of music, hunting for old CDs and records. That habit was always there. I think he started working with musicians because he became interested in creating a rasa in the audience which is uplifting. Not like happiness, but a quiet joy. He sought some sort of originality and authenticity in the performer, and he was a bit put off by actors’ falsehood in their performance.”
Lest anyone call Abel a one-hit wonder, his follow-up to The Manganiyar Seduction was the equally stunning The Kitchen, which has been performed 23 times internationally and five times in India. On its inception, Abel told The Hindu, “I’d gone to Konya, in Turkey, to pay my respects to Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi. And, I was taken to Rumi’s kitchen, which had a raised platform where Rumi and his dervishes meditated, with two pots of food cooking beneath them. Novices who wanted to join them had to kneel and wait, sometimes for weeks on end. So, there were the novices, whose souls were being cooked, the actual food and then Rumi and his dervishes cooking on a cosmic plane. So, that’s how the idea for The Kitchen was born.” On bringing so many elements together — the temple drummers, the payasam, the couple fighting a wordless battle between love and longing, he says, “When things are right, everything falls into place. When they’re not right, you struggle.”
On his ideas, he says, “I don’t attribute all the good ideas to myself. Because I truly believe I’m only an instrument in receiving that idea. It’s always been given to me from somewhere. The greatest difficulty is in not thinking of ideas, but letting the idea come to you.” A more practical man would think that the greatest difficulty is in making money from these far-out ideas. “Let’s put it this way: initially the funding is zero. Then, the festivals buy the idea. Because we do festivals, we’re able to sustain. With the Manganiyars, everyone has been able to build their own house, and we’ve managed to create another production out of it [The Manganiyar Classroom, which features the children of Manganiyars who are “born singers”]. It’s not that all of us make a lot of money, but as long as there are shows, we do okay.”
Maybe the secret to Abel’s mind is that he lets his heart guide him. In 2014, he shifted back home to Kerala, to a 150-year-old property in Kannur. “I live in a small village, and I live at the fag end of it. After my house there is only the sea. I don’t know anybody here. It’s the most impractical decision. But, it was a very intuitive thing that I wanted to live close to the sea. It’s like any other production of mine,” he laughs.