You do not have to be a frequent local-train traveller in Mumbai to encounter people who beg in exchange of a devotional song, a qawwali or a melodious Bollywood number. While most of them are physically challenged, some just take up the practice out of sheer poverty. But a recent study reveals that many of these beggars are also musically trained or belong to families that have been practising music for generations together.
The study was undertaken by Swaradhar, a group of youngsters working towards providing dignity to people singing in trains since 2012. The group of four researchers interviewed 22 persons who perform on the central, western and eastern railway lines to earn a living.
Of them 22 interviewed over the last one year, 16 have finished various levels of classical musical training, with one possessing a Visharad degree, which is equivalent to graduation. Eleven of these singers are visually-challenged having undergone training during schooling, Swaradhar members said.
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“We want people to identify them as artistes and not beggars,” said Nikita Tiwari, a Swaradhar member and researcher. “It is amazing to see the command that the artistes have on music. If given better opportunities, they can shine on the stage. We have been striving for the same,” Tiwari said, adding that the group had organised more than 20 shows in various Ganpati mandals in the last three years.
The study is a part of the one-year fellowship programme offered by PUKAR, a city-based urban research collective.
During their research, the group met many performers who were being tagged as beggars only because they sang in local trains. “The same people, if performing on stage would have been called maestros. Their family conditions have pushed them to take up this profession,” said Mayur Pethad, a Swaradhar member.
One of the interviewees, 32-year-old Chetan Patil, has completed four years of the seven-year rigorous course in music. Patil, who has been playing “dholak” for the last eight years on the central line stretching from Karjat to Fort, earns about Rs 500 everyday.
“I did try to get a job in the private sector but I failed. Even if people say that I can use my talent for stage performances, one cannot be assured of getting paid every month,” said Patil who learnt music at his native Chalisgaon in the Jalgaon district of Maharashtra before shifting to Mumbai.
The 35-page research paper in Marathi also talks about a performer from Rajasthan who has been trained by his father in music. Mayur Pethad, a Swaradhar member, said, “While interviewing him, we also found out that many of his family members sing in local trains and they identify themselves as a musical troupe. They do not do anything else apart from this. The state government is trying to implement a hawkers policy, but the performers are not even mentioned in it. All they need is dignity and better opportunities to showcase their talent.”
However, the city’s apathy doesn’t seem to deter the people, who consider it as a profession that can “give them a break” in Bollywood too. With their sturdy voices and an instrument to lend them support, they demand to be known as “street performers” or “artistes”.