The Pious ‘Stringer’ – A Rustic Musician on the streets of Mumbai
In a sea of Mumbai’s multitudinous humanity, it becomes difficult to look upon one among thousands with any great degree of interest. Individuals, however peculiar in form, are all one or all nothing, depending purely on perspective when observing a horde. But on occasion, every once in a while, you see a sight that draws you in. It need not be something startling or wondrous. Yet, its distinct incongruity emerges from the crowd and perks your curiosity.
Not long ago, a fascinating sight caught my gaze. He was an old man, dressed in saffron. It was a colour of religious devotion but not quite that shade of dark orange. He carried with him a two-stringed veena, which seemed to be his sole possession. His chosen spot of rest was the signal next to the Bombay High Court. It was to be a busy day for me but I halted in my steps. I wanted to know more about this man. I wanted to know his story.
He rose to his spindly legs, walking into a lane. I followed and watched as he helped himself to a glass of cutting chai. He seemed amiable and kind. Essentially, approachable. I smiled at him. He regarded him with a curious glance. I broached my questions cautiously, only later introducing myself as a media student. Something about the word ‘media’ (note how far-reaching are its connotations) caused him to believe that I was a journalist. An impromptu photo-op convinced him that he was going to appear in a local newspaper. This was a declaration he began to make to every passerby that walked past. I did not have the heart to burst the proverbial bubble of his joy. Deeply flattered that he was, Ram Ghorpe (as was his name), spoke a little about himself.
He hails from Pune. Or somewhere from around there (he seemed unsure and merely gave a head-shaking grunt on being asked again). “Travelling musicians like him are called ‘varkaris’,” a female cowherd helpfully offered. She was seated nearby (and is also present in the background of the picture above), interpreting the musician’s yokel dialect for me.
“Where did you get your veena from?” I asked.
Ghorpe said something in reply which sounded like “Pandharpur”. An enquiring look at the cowherd confirmed what I had heard. Pandharpur is a small pilgrimage town located in the Solapur district of Maharashtra. The Vithoba temple attracts countless devotees during the Pandharpur yatra during spring. I am aware of this, as my house help is unwavering in her devotion and her annual visit to the holy spot.
Ghorpe has no family, explained the girl, and therefore travels freely through villages. He sings bhajans and kirtans (religious songs) as he wanders. “Money is not important for me,” he said. The cowherd elaborated further on his drifting. “He says he sings devotional songs for any religion. Devotion matters to him, not God.”
“That is a very big thing to say,” I smiled.
I am not sure if he knew that there was more where my admiration came from.
“I taught myself to play the veena,” he said with pride.
“Are you trained in singing bhajans?” I persisted.
“No!” he exclaimed, more proudly still. “I sing anyway I fancy! I sing anything!”
On my insistence, he sang a few strains on his veena. The notes were discordant at the edges. I believed his claims of self-tutoring. His scraggly hands strung the veena as his untrained voice made by-standers out of passersby. Some handed him loose change. I gave him a fifty-rupee note for questions answered and services rendered.
Before I turned away, he proudly displayed the ‘tulsi mala’ he wore around his neck. It was made of seeds from the tulsi plant, a mark of religious belief. I thanked for his patience and left to catch the Virar Fast home. And all the while, I could not help but marvel over the rustic musician’s belief. An untrained villager survived on the basis of an unacquired skill, a two-stringed veena and a single octave voice.
He lived on the pennies of his listeners and the mercy of the One above. Either way, the Lord Almighty works in strange ways, with stranger people as his conduit. And some, like Ghorpe, were a living example of faith and devotion.
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