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"In Transit Railscapes"

India's Street and Transit Music

By Navin Thomas

Kali on dhol, his nephew Ramesh on harmonium and Kali's daughter Krishnaveni on vocals with Navin Thomas with audio microphone. Click on images to see larger versions.

December 2011 Update:

Navin Thomas has informed me that he has stopped working on ethnographic sound and these days his practice is focused in the field of acoustic ecology.  He will not respond to inquires regarding this old research.  The information will remain on this site for historical reference only.  Stephen Baird

Navin Thomas received a fellowship to study India street musicians in Mumbai City in 2003. The study was presented at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. The study was expanded to include metro stations in Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, and Bangalore and was presented as a sound exhibit titled: "In Transit Railscapes," at Galleryske from January 17 to February 28, 2004. Reviews of the sound exhibit can be found at the links bellow:

http://www.hindu.com/mp/2004/02/12/stories/2004021200050200.htm "Singing in borrowed spaces" Thursday, Feb 12, 2004 The Hindu, 859-860 Anna Salai, Chennai - 600002, India.

http://www.deccanherald.com/deccanherald/jan262004/ar1.asp "Imagery of sound" January 26, 2004 Deccan Herald,The Printers (Mysore) Private Ltd., 75, M.G. Road, Post Box No 5331, Bangalore - 560001, India

Click on images to see larger versions. Photos: Navin Thomas

Blind Quawhli singers -- Rehmetullah on harmonium, Kapil Bhai on dhol. The local authorities turn a blind eye on blind buskers -- a lot of the time they are allowed to perform on the platforms. Rehmat and Kapil (bhai-brother) singlehandly support their families, come from a Urudu speaking part of Bihar. They travel the length of the Mumbai Suburban Transit.

Click on images to see larger versions. Photos: Navin Thomas

Lakshmi (age 20) on harmonium, her niece Annaparna and younger cousin Lakshmi on the Mumbai Suburban Train singing popular Hindi film tumes. The three girls are from a family of traditional folk musicians from Andra Pradesh. They earn a pitance from their bi-annual melas (festivals). Many own farm land, but due to drought and financial set backs are unable to plough the land. They earn 50 to 100 rupees ($1-$2 US dollars) which is enough to feed themselves and family members who are too old to busk.

Click on images to see larger versions. Photos: Navin Thomas

1. Kalidas Rao on dhol -- Folk musician fron Andra Pradesh, who moved with his family to Mumbai City. Used to earn his living with family members in local suburban trains. Kali died in the spring of 2003, after jumping from a moving train. He was an active member of the buskers community -- helping train younger musicians.

2. Kali's nephew and niece, Brahima on harmonium and Shahuntala on vocals. The parents of younger buskers can be booked and arrested under the child labor acts.

Click on images to see larger versions. Photos: Navin Thomas

1. Madhuri, age 9, travels alone every day on the Mumbai Suburban train singing popular tunes.

2. Rajashari boy playing saranji on the Mumbai Suburban train.

Navin Thomas sent me some of his photographs and notes to publish on this web site. This page may be expanded in the future to include some of the audio files. Below is the study concept statement by Navin Thomas, STREET MUSICIANS IN MUMBAI CITY, published on December 25, 2002: http://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/reader-list/2002-December/002130.html

While travelling through various parts of the country, I was exposed to a lot of rural folk as well as urban street music. I noticed that the amorphous nature of music had given rise to a unique marriage of folk music coupled with popular 'Bollywood' cinema sounds, being performed by musicians in stages and arenas which intensify and interact with the cultural experience of urban life - the streets.

There is an evident cross fertilisation between the two musical forms, with both taking from and responding to, the other. The Indian 'filmi' music industry has a strong influence on popular Indian culture and while it has shaped public preferences, it has also borrowed from classical music forms. For example, the 'shair-e', a musical form performed in public where two people interact with each other through poetry and song is evident in popular cinema, where the hero and heroine play out a more stylised version of the former. One popular image of street musicians is of them being too lazy to get a real job, harassing people on the streets with 'inferior' or 'crude acts' to solicit money to support a degenerate lifestyle. This perception is not confined to this part of the world.

As late as the end of the 1970's, street artists everywhere were arrested and charged with begging and obstruction. Even today street musicians at the Gateway of India are usually whisked away or fined. Street music is perceived as a 'baser' performing art &endash; an illegitimate art form. However, it continues to endure this viewpoint, surviving elitist ideas of 'high' art.

Moreover, street music is being increasingly absorbed into mainstream musical forms without recognition. This resonates with implications with respect to the ethics in art, wherein the art form and its practitioners are ignored. Besides the obvious ethical violations of this practice, it puts in question the future of street music and the way it is practised. Lack of recognition of the agents of the art form; deprive the artists of social and economic benefits that are rightfully theirs. Street music is fast becoming an endangered resource.

The purpose of this documentation is to study how street music, with its influences of popular and folk music forms embodies the developing times, attitudes and the temperament of people in ever-changing conditions. Taking into consideration that the streets are a stage used by artists and performers alike, part of the research work would also go towards studying musical performances, the corresponding public spaces where they are enacted and the kind of audience and response it receives. The streets are one such setting and it would be hard to ignore the influence of street culture on this particular art form. One cannot delineate street music from the multi-dimensions of street culture. The study would therefore be incomplete if the cultural settings of these performances are not considered and researched.

In the course of fieldwork, photographs of musicians and their musical instruments, sound recordings and field notes will be compiled together to fully represent the performances. The value of this multi-faceted collection is that one is invited to hear the voices, see the faces, and sample the cultural context of the performances being recorded.

The notes will be of an ethnographic nature, studying the individual performer, pertaining to his economic, social and cultural conditions. The homespun, creative and intelligent construction of musical instruments made by the artist's themselves, will constitute an undiminished part of the documentation. These instruments mirror the many dimensions of the artist, helping us gain a further insight into the realities that exist, in this particular form of music.

Streets and their culture lie at the heart of public life in contemporary India, especially in cities where urban housing is crowded and uncomfortable and its streets act as thoroughfares, bazaars, theatres and most of all a setting whose culture is constantly changing and where much of life is lived on the streets.

I will be exploring street musical performances in and around Mumbai City. This is an ideal location for this study as the City is a large metropolis with a multi-cultural population consisting of diverse cultures from all over the country. Specific areas appropriate to this study would include the Hajee Ali area, Grant road, Churchgate, the Flora Fountain vicinity (including Pherozshah Mehta road) Chowpathy beach and most of all the various bustling train stations in the city.

Although each item in the field collection will have an individual value, it will gain added significance when viewed in the context of the other materials gathered during interaction with the people and activities being documented. At the end of this project, the entire collection of recordings, photographs and research notes will singularly as well as collectively be important. Each work will have merit as an individual piece as well as when viewed as a part of the whole collection.

Copyright 2002-2004 by Navin Thomas

March 19 to April 25, 2005



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