On a hot sunny afternoon in 2010, in a packed Churchgate-bound local, two commuters replace their white canes with a flute and a little drum as soon as they are on board. Over the next few minutes, as the fast train makes its way through bustling platforms, the visually impaired duo begins to sing old songs and traditional folk numbers. They ask for money in return, but they receive indifferent and annoyed stares instead.
Cut to 2015 — The stage has been set. The banner has been laid out. The guitar, harmonium (referred to as peti) and ektara have been tuned. As the curtains are drawn, a thunderous applause follows. The energy in the room is infectious.
The next few minutes are pure musical bliss- old film songs and traditional folk numbers are performed on stage. Little boys and girls in the audience are thumping their feet to the beats of the dholak.
Switching platforms- from the packed railways to a packed auditorium- was a journey that was steered by a group of young Mumbaikars in September 2012. The group, Swaradhar (meaning ‘with the support of music’ in Marathi), comprising an engineer, lawyer and writer among others, brought together the city’s unseen population: visually challenged musicians performing in local trains. The group got on board the PUKAR ‘Barefoot Researchers for Better Communities’ Fellowship local in June 2014. At the end of a year marked with interviews, focus group discussions and heated debates, the group succeeded in systematically chronicling the life and everyday struggles of the talented musicians.
“The biggest learning from our research was to know that even as the other commuters in the local thought otherwise, none of the musicians thought of themselves as beggars,” says Mayur Pethad, who was a part of the research study. “They were artists, who were using the train as their stage.” The study also highlighted the musical tradition of the families of the performers and their domestic struggles. In several cases, according to the group’s findings, the musicians had been pushed out of their own homes owing to their blindness. Despite the everyday hardships, the group identified that the performers still carried aspirations of making it big in Maximum City.
The research study has opened new vistas for the group. With media attention and appearances in reality television shows, the group has now been able to scale up even its work on ground. While until 2014, Swaradhar performed in just about five shows a year, over the past year, the group has performed in more than 15 events including college festivals, social gatherings and weddings. The highlight of the year was a meeting with Bollywood star, Amitabh Bachchan, on a reality show.
With more opportunities coming their way, and a more distinct understanding of the struggles, experiences and aspirations of the musicians, Swaradhar is creating a new lifeline for this invisible bunch of Mumbaikars.