Visually challenged musicians, brimming with talent and tenacity, work hard to create magic on a Kochi stage
By Shevlin Sebastian
In August, 2007, Kerala’s greatest singer, K.J. Yesudas was staying for a few days at the Hotel Le Meridien in Kochi. One day, as he was loitering around in the lobby, the piped instrumental music caught his attention. When he enquired, the staff told him it was played by three visually challenged musicians, who did a gig, every evening, at the hotel, between 8 and 10 p.m. Yesudas expressed an interest in meeting them and, thankfully, the musicians were living nearby.
“We went to his room one afternoon,” says flautist C.A. Muthu, 34. “Yesudas gave us plenty of tips. He told me that whenever there was a change in the octave, there was a jump. I could avoid that by studying the techniques of Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia.”
Muthu says it was one of the best experiences in my life. “All my life I had thirsted to meet Yesudas and now here I was, in his presence and talking with him,” he says. “There was a dryness in my throat. I felt so nervous.”
Muthu sits on a red plastic chair in his house at Kundannoor Road. It is a bachelor’s pad, although he shares it with a married visually challenged tabla player, T.V. Jaimon, 45, whose family lives in Alleppey. There are boxes at one corner of a bed, newspapers at another, a speaker and CDs on a shelf.
At the age of four, Muthu lost his eyesight. “I don’t have any visual memory,” he says. He joined a blind school, and learnt vocal singing. But after college, he joined a professional music troupe as a flautist. “I learnt the flute on my own in Class 7,” he says. He played for several years before he became a member of the Heart2Heart orchestra run by the Society for the Rehabilitation for the Visually Challenged (SRVC) in 2006.
His colleagues Jaimon and guitarist, Frederick Joseph Ben (Benny), also discovered music, when they were young, played for several years in professional troupes, before they joined the Heart2Heart orchestra.
Last Sunday, they are joined by several other members for a two-and-a-half hour show held at the Fine Arts Hall for the Rotary Club of Cochin Metropolis. There is Josey on the keyboard, Ratheesh on the mridangam and congo drums, Jairaj on the rhythm composer and vocalists -- Sinimol, married couple Prashant and Manju, and Velayudhan.
There is also guest artist Vijaylakshmi, on the gayatri veena, an unusual one-stringed instrument, attached to an amplifier. To lend humour, there are mimicry artistes Jaleel and Anish. It is astonishing to see that every participant is visually challenged.
As Vijaylakshmi starts the first notes of Chand Sifarish from Fanaa, you can see the intense concentration with which the other band members are following the tune and always, without an error, coming in at the right time. “Unlike normal people, they cannot read notations,” says Sunil Mathew, secretary of the SRVC. “To get the coordination right, they have to do numerous rehearsals.”
Muthu says that since they live in different parts of Kerala, each person has to learn his part and arrive for the rehearsals a couple of days before a performance. Josey, the band leader, ensures that all the elements blend in perfectly. “We don’t look at the time when we do rehearsals,” says Muthu. “We only stop when we have perfected the song.”
The result is a pulsating, thrilling, rendering of Chand Sifarish.
During one particular section, when Vijaylaskhmi does not have to play, as the other instruments take over, she slaps her thigh in rhythm with the music and an ecstatic smile breaks out on her face. It is an unforgettable sight.
When singer Sinimol is led to the mike, she stands a little to the right. A volunteer, Amla Antony, gently comes up and straightens her, so that she is facing the audience. When the song is over, she stands still, waiting for Amla to lead her away.
Earlier, in the green room, just before the concert, Sinimol, wearing a sparkling white salwar kameez, says, “I feel so nervous. Always, before a concert, I feel edgy.”
So, when she sings, is Sinimol aware of the audience? “When I perform in villages, the reaction is more spontaneous: there are lots of shouting and clapping,” she says. “In cities like Kochi, the audience is polite and only claps.”
Guitarist Benny says that he can gauge the quality of the appreciation by the intensity of the claps. “Sometimes, when the people are not excited, the clapping is low-key.”
In the meantime, numerous Malayalam and Hindi film songs are sung and then the young Anish comes to the stage. He does an extraordinarily accurate mimicry, with his mouth, lips and fingers, of jungle noises, car and train sounds, the commentary of Ravi Shastri, and the voices of film star Mamooty and Donald Duck. Jaleel, on the other hand, is more into satire. The audience is in splits.
“Overall, it is a scintillating performance,” says Dr. G.N. Ramesh, president of Rotary Club of Cochin Metropolis. True, indeed, but for some in the audience, there is a painful realisation: they are the ones who are visually challenged. They are blind to their own potential, and talents, taking everything for granted, while the ones on the stage have understood the beauty and poignancy of life, even though they have been deprived of the greatest gift of all: sight.
Looking to help the visually challenged
The Society for the Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged (SRVC) was formed in 2002 to empower the visually challenged (www.visuallychallenged.com). “We want to get jobs for our members,” says M.C. Roy, Head, Projects.
He says there is a software called Jaws (www.jaws.com), that when you hit the computer keys, the words can be heard in the ears. It is called a screen reader and costs Rs. 36,000.
Roy says this software will enable visually challenged people to work in offices. He goes on to enumerate the qualities of the visually challenged: they are able to concentrate more on sound and speech, because they are not distracted by vision. Since they are unable to take notes, he says, they have developed a sharp memory, superior listening skills and retention power.
“They can do very well in data entry, telemarketing, call centre jobs, medical transcription, food, tea and wine tasting, counseling, physiotherapy and music,” he says
Roy says the SRVC started the Heart2Heart orchestra, in 2005, in order to bring awareness of the visually challenged to the masses.
Says Usha Uthup, one of the patrons: “What I like about the SRVC is that they are focusing on what the visually challenged can do, and not on what they cannot do.” She says that what these people need is encouragement and inclusion, not pity or sympathy. “Vision without eyesight is more powerful than eyesight without vision,” she says. “You are confused? Think about it.”
(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express)