It’s 10.15 on Monday morning at Churchgate railway station in Mumbai. Sandesh Surve, coming from Mira Road (a northern Mumbai suburb) by local train, is late by over five minutes to reach the station. But that doesn’t stop him from stopping at the foyer across the ticket counters to watch Nitesh More play the djembe. After spending a few minutes enjoying More’s drumming, Surve proceeds to his office in Ballard Estate. In the last three months, for Surve and many others passing through Churchgate, music performances like this one, have become one of the ways to counter the typical Monday morning blues!
More is among the 20 musicians working with the National Streets for Performing Arts (NSPA), an initiative to take “art to the people by reclaiming public spaces for street performances”, founded by Ajit Dayal, founder-chairman of Quantum, an asset management company. In partnership with Western Railway, NSPA organises 15 weekly concerts of one hour each at Churchgate (Mondays), Bandra (Saturdays) and Borivali (Wednesdays) — three important stations of the suburban rail network. Performances take place for two hours (9 to 11) in the morning and three hours (5 to 8) in the evening.
Dayal, who grew up in Mumbai watching artists and musicians perform in public places, was toying with the idea of launching something like this. He had two clear objectives in mind: one, to give artists a platform and a fixed income, and two, to bring a smile on the face of commuters. An artist who performs with NSPA earns Rs 1,000 per hour. And a band (of not more than three artists) gets Rs 1,500 for an hour’s performance.
“If a person working in Goldman Sachs or in Morgan Stanley can get a fixed income, why can’t an artist get a fixed salary,” asks Dayal, who is now funding the project from his own pocket, acknowledging at the same time that it is a small beginning.
As for bringing a smile on the faces of passersby, Dayal says that NSPA has been fairly successful. He has been to performances in Churchgate and Bandra stations, as much for enjoying music as for gauging the response of the commuters. “Music does make people smile and I have seen it during several NSPA performances.”
NSPA’s roster of artists includes musicians from different genres — Hindustani and Carnatic classical, classical rock, folk rock, blues, Kabir rock and folk music from across India. In order to perform for NSPA, the artists go through an audition and initiation to perform at railway stations where there is no guarantee of a fixed crowd.
“We have at least one audition a month to select artists. There are performance drills. We prepare them mentally to perform at a place where there is no stage, or where they would find all kinds of audiences or at times, no audience,” explains Shrishti Iyer, performance co-ordinator for NSPA.
What NSPA wants from its artists is an open mind to perform at a platform which is completely different from the traditional or formal set up. “We are rethinking performing stages. No performance, wherever it happens, is less or more important. To that extent, NSPA is a reaction to an elitist formal set-up,” says Iyer, who is a trained dancer and Carnatic vocalist.
Not every musician is happy with NSPA’s idea of weaving performing arts into the everyday life of the city. Iyer recalls an incident where a Hindustani vocalist dropped out after being auditioned because his guru objected to NSPA’s style. Another time, a tabla player from the Delhi gharana walked into NSPA’s office and told the authorities that what they are doing is “demeaning” and that he did not like it at all.
“One of the biggest challenges for the musicians with NSPA is their struggle with the structures of their own musical background. They worry about how they are being judged,” says Anisha George, NSPA’s project coordinator. “Today, you need courage to pursue music as a profession. Artists are constantly trying to reinvent. Every day is not a happy day for them,” George adds.
However, there are several other artists who vouch for NSPA and its art-for-all concept. Smit Dharia, a Hindustani classical musician, has been with NSPA right from its inception. “I enjoy performing at public places like railway stations as much as in a well-attended closed-door hall,” says Dharia.
NSPA plans to scale up and take their concept to other metros. It is a platform for performing arts and not just for music. “We have started with music as this art form does not require a stationary crowd. Other forms require a more static crowd. The opportunity lies in exploring other public places like promenades, gardens, and amphitheatres in cities,” says George.
As for Dayal, he did not wait for sponsors and funding agencies to start the initiative. He wanted to demonstrate what NSPA means and what it can do. After a good start, Dayal says he has assurances from high networth individuals who are willing to put in money into the project. “My long-term ambition,” he says, “is that an artist, on an average, should earn more than what a finance person working in Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley earns. It may take 500 years to get there. But someone has to make the start, and, in the process, make people smile.”
For Thukram, a porter at the Borivali station, it is work and play as usual. “It’s time pass”, he says with a smile as he enjoys Uttarakhand folk music by Suresh Kala accompanied by K K Singh on dholak.