My last show for the 2017 Perth Festival was the Indian theatre group The Manganiyar Classroom. It’s the second in a trilogy of works by director Roysten Abel about the musically rich Manganiyar tribe. This time the show featured the Manganiyar children and I took Matthew as my guest. He was one of many kids in the audience watching children who were only a few years older share their cultural story.

The show was set up as a classroom and the children used music to protest against the education system. Two adult musicians sat to the side accompanying on the bowed khamaycha and dholak hand drum. A bell tinkled and the haunting sound of the khamaycha set the scene as the children (all boys) filed into class.

The roll call elicited musical responses from the children, much to the irritation of the teacher. “Who told you to sing? Shut up.”

But the protest continued. A boy was berated for bringing a harmonium to school but he sat on the floor and accompanied himself singing while the children grouped around him to learn the song. Feet tapped, hands gestured and heads waggled as they sang.

“We are Manganiyar children,” they explained, “we need music in our education.”

When the teacher finally walked out the children danced on their desks in delight and began to teach each other songs. Their voices were bright and strong, confidently singing the long phrases and complicated decorative inflections.

A new teacher arrived and taught new songs using call and response. A highlight was the rhythm lesson where his khartaal (castanet) rhythms were echoed by the students on a variety of percussion instruments. The children responded with intense concentration and real joy as the layers created intricate textures. Eventually the older students brought out two enormous bass drums that shook the chairs in the theatre with deep vibrations. It was spontaneous, virtuosic music making and a powerful demonstration of the life affirming power of community music making. The audience response was ecstatic.

Abel’s concern for the homogenised Indian education system and its failure to meet the needs of fringe tribes has resulted in his vision to establish a new school and education system for the Manganiyar chilrdren.

The topic resonated with me as I have been watching my six year old boy struggle with the intense fine motor skill demands, excessive homework and the confidence crushing speed of our current education syllabus. Abel described in the program notes the disturbing transformation of first generation school-educated Manganiyar children from brilliant musical kids to washed-out adolescent drop outs. I am glad the Manganiyar parents have Abel to advocate for them, to give voice to their musical gifts. And I am encouraged to do the same for my child.

Matthew’s favourite part was when the children got the big drums out. He wondered where the girls were? And he wished that next time the story would be told by Australian kids so that he could understand the words. The most important part, he explained, was when the adult listened to the children and started singing with them.