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Mumbai street musicians hit the right notes

Group seeks to reclaim public spaces for arts by performing at railway stations and entertaining hassled commuters.

Last updated: 24 Mar 2014 08:20
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The National Streets of Performing Arts now boasts of 30 musicians [Al Jazeera]

Life in Mumbai is fast and frenetic. Yet, it is not entirely out of the city's character for occasional strains of sweet music to rise over the customary chaos and cacophony.

As harried commuters hop in and out of local trains to crisscross India’s congested financial capital, musicians strumming their guitars and belting out foot-tapping numbers are often seen taking over corners of crowded railway stations and turning them into impromptu stages.

Caught up in a construction boom, public spaces in Mumbai are fast vanishing. But the ones that survive are literally coming alive every other day, courtesy of a group of musicians with a mission.

Part of an initiative by the National Streets of Performing Arts (NSPA), the artists aim to reclaim public spaces for the arts.

They started some two years ago with a debut performance at the city’s popular Churchgate railway station. Since then, they have regularly hit the right notes, and touched a chord with the city's residents, known as Mumbaikars. 

"I have seen live performances only in orchestras. This is the first time I am seeing musicians performing in a different way. Please tell me how can I support this," Rajesh Shinde, a commuter at the Churchgate station said, offering to connect more musicians and scout more venues.

Another passenger, Jocelyn Souza, was equally impressed. They have the power to make passers-by pause, she said.

The brainchild of Ajit Dayal, a financial entrepreneur, the group that started with eight musicians, today boasts of 30 artists who perform regularly under the NSPA banner.

The performances take place at designated railway stations.

The initiative has provided budding musicians with a platform to perform. It has also exposed a transient crowd to music beyond Bollywood.

The musicians from the group have also performed at other spaces, such as the Horniman Circle garden in South Mumbai and the Farmer's Market at Maharashtra Nature Park in suburban Mumbai.

Dayal was fascinated by musicians in the West performing at subway stations and city squares, He was driven by the desire to facilitate a similar interaction between people and arts in India, by giving artists the space to perform.

Street musicians

The NSPA founder remembers that in the 1960s and 1970s, street musicians would stroll into every lane in the city, singing and collecting whatever residents would offer from their windows.

"Slowly, the city's skyscrapers and narrowing spaces made it impossible for these street musicians to survive," he said.

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He raised funds from friends, and then he began to identify "dead spaces" within every railway station. Bandra is one of the several stations in the mega city, where music performances are held regularly.

Shortly after, Dayal, along with his associates, approached railway officials.

"It was God-sent to have a senior railway officer, who had spent some time as a child in London and had remembered the street musicians there. She understood what we were trying to do at the railway stations," he said.

Dayal was also inspired by Covent Garden in London, where musicians are first auditioned by a committee, and then given a permit to perform there without having to pay a fee. This is unlike the rest of the spaces in London where musicians have to obtain a paid license from the mayor's office to perform.

The Mumbai musicians are auditioned by the NSPA, and then necessary permits are obtained for those who make the grade.

NSPA is managed by a team in their mid-20s, and their exuberance reflects on the white board in their office that lists other possible locations where the musicians could perform. Among these are public gardens, the city's iconic Marine Drive along the sea, and the Mumbai international airport.

"We complain about the city's shrinking spaces but there are actually so many spaces that can be explored," Dayal said.

His young colleague Anisha George, feels that this “cultural interruption” on the streets never fails to surprise people.

Great journey

Though microphones are not permitted, the performing musicians do make their presence felt, and crowds invariably gather round them.

The response has prompted some of the musicians to leave their day jobs and pursue music full-time.

Thomas Albert, 26, from Baroda, came to Mumbai to be a musician. After several jobs, and a year of performing with NSPA, he was able to leave his job and concentrate on his music through performances with NSPA and freelance work as a musician.

"From the time when I was told that I cannot sing, to people stopping to listen to me and sometimes dancing to my songs, it has been a great journey. I hope one day people who stop by to hear me would encourage their children to pursue the arts," Thomas said.

The musicians sign a contract with NSPA, promising to give at least eight hours every month for these performances, and they are paid Rs1,000 ($16.45) for every hour of performance.

The performances have also ensured visibility for the artists, and many of them are now being invited to cultural and musical festivals across the city to perform.

Perform to entertain

Sometimes, some members of the audience, swayed by the music, step forward and seek to tip the musicians. The gesture is appreciated, but the money is always refused.

"Money put in the hand is an end to the experience," Anisha said. The musical shows are intended only for entertainment.

Dayal is now keen on taking NSPA to Delhi and Bangalore, to their metro rail stations. Eventually, he wants to include other performing arts like puppet shows and dances, and he is looking forward to a day in the future when people support artists and open up spaces for the arts.

"My moment of nirvana would be when there would be no need for NSPA, with the society opening up to welcome the arts," he said.

For the time being though, the NSPA and its members are working hard to impress and entertain the society.

Jessica Noronha, a NSPA staffer, has just brought herself a guitar and is looking forward to dishing out some great music. Fellow member, Heloise Saldanha, is also on a high, as she sees the audience swoon over her songs.

"Through performing at public spaces, I have interacted with a diverse set of people. It has made me a much more confident person and singer," she says. Mumbai's street musicians are on a roll.

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Al Jazeera
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