The daily grind from one end of Mumbai to another in a crowded local train is occasionally met with a popular Bollywood tune sung in a rustic voice or played on an instrument. Among the weary, the stressed, the impatient and, very often, irritable commuters, many find a rupee or two to spare but a kind word is hard to come by.
But over the last seven years, a group of about 40 of these musicians has scripted a journey “from gaaliyan (curses) to taaliyan (applause)”.
Bearing their harmoniums, the one-string ektara they call sarangi and the tambourine they call “dafli” or just “duff”, and mostly hailing from humble homes on the outskirts, these musicians found each other in 2012 through Swaradhar — a troupe put together by 24-year-old Hemlata Tiwari, a resident of Andheri, now studying management in Delhi.
Today, they have performed “around 200 shows” across Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra, Goa and Indore, playing at Ganpati pandals, weddings and birthdays — even appearing on TV talent shows. The change that came about has also included the first air journey, a YouTube channel, respect and confidence.
“I know what poverty is,” says Tiwari, daughter of an autorickshaw driver. She says her dream of being a doctor was thwarted by her family’s financial inability and she pursued her undergraduate education in commerce.
“After completing my Class 10, I joined the National Service Scheme (NSS) through which I took part in a number of social activities. It is then I decided that I want to do my part for the society and felt I should do something for these musicians treated like beggars. So I decided to collect artists from different areas of the city and form Swaradhar,” she says.
One of those musicians is Ramesh Marvadi (45), who stays in a slum cluster in Anand Nagar, Vasai (West). He cannot remember the year he came to Mumbai but says it was at the time when the latest hits included “Ek, do, teen” from “Tezaab” (1988) and “One, two ka four” from “Ram Lakhan” (1989).
“I came from our village near Sirohi in Rajasthan with my father. I was grown-up but I watched my father play the sarangi and learnt. We have been playing since. We have no formal training,” says Ramesh.
When he started playing on the train, he started with “1 paisa, then 10 paisa” and gradually came to a time when people often give him Rs 10 for his performance. “Once in a while, a very generous person may give you Rs 100. But anyway, one makes about Rs 400-500 a day playing on different trains through the day. But no matter how well you play, you’d never get an applause on the train. Nobody values art on the train,” he says.
On one wall propping up Ramesh’s dingy home are five ektaras that he has fashioned out of bent steel pipes. Rahul Goswami (24), a tambourine player from Boisar, has similarly crafted his own instrument. “We buy the material ourselves from hardware stores. With a little help from local blacksmiths, we make the instruments ourselves. It costs about Rs 700-800,” says Rahul, who first started by selling drawing books on the train as a 12-year-old.
He says that with their group moving towards playing on the stage, the charges per artist are pre-determined. “It depends on the artists performing. We get about Rs 400-500 per artist per performance,” he says.
Last year, Rahul opened for a TV show in Indore — it was his first air journey. “I had never been on a flight. I was nervous and when it took off I felt nauseous. But then I looked out of the window and saw our city reduced to little squares, that felt nice,” he said.
Through Swaradhar, the group also receives training in music, says volunteer Dhurba Kadara (23). Dattratay M Mistry (33), who trains the artists in the group, is a professional singer.
The artists still perform on local trains. “Sometimes, I would hesitate to play fearing the abuse,” says Rahul’s nephew Deepak, also a tambourine player. “This doesn’t happen in stage performances,” Rahul is quick to add. “We play, people appreciate it, they come and pay us compliments and then the word travels. Someone who has seen us play, later invites us to play elsewhere. It is a good feeling.”