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Regular commuters on Mumbai’s western suburban line are so used to the distinct music of sirens and brakes, whining rails and the impatient rhythm of announcers counting off the stations at which fast trains will not stop, that the everyday symphony of the railway station fades into a routine, almost comforting white noise. But for the last fortnight, at three large, busy stops on the western line, something has been interrupting these sounds.

It is actual music, selected, organized and presented live by performers working with the National Streets for Performing Arts (NSPA), an organization run by non-profit Help Your NGO, both ideas of Mumbai-based Ajit Dayal, chairman of Quantum, an asset management company. Every week, NSPA programmes 12 concerts, each an hour long, morning and evening, on Mondays at Churchgate, Wednesdays at Borivali and Saturdays at Bandra.

On the go: Folk musician Dhammarakshit Ranadive. Photo: Anisha George.
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On the go: Folk musician Dhammarakshit Ranadive. Photo: Anisha George.

The idea that some of the most crowded railway stations in the city could double up as performance venues—for classical and folk music, played without mics and amplifiers, at that—intuitively surprises most people who know what these places are like at peak hours. But when Dayal walked into the offices of the Western Railway’s Mumbai division at Churchgate station, he says that almost everyone he met immediately agreed that he was on to a great idea. Last week, the Government Railway Police publicly expressed reservations about the concerts happening in stations at peak hours. The NSPA team says they managed to clear their reservations in a day, thanks to how supportive railway officials and police were once they heard about the idea.

Earlier this year, Dayal and his team walked through railway stations on the western line, tracking the flow of people from platform to outdoors, and discovered that in spite of how packed these stations are, there are always pockets of dead space—like the foyer across the ticket counters at Churchgate, or the large, sunlit hallway under the façade of Bandra station, tucked just around a corner from the rush at the ticket counters. “We did our homework before taking our plans to the railway officials, so they knew we were serious," Dayal says.

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Listeners at Churchgate station. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

At 5.30 in the evening, the shoeshiners who sit under the arches of Bandra station’s western entrance had stopped the knock-knock of their brushes against wood, and were packing up for the day. Ramaswamy and Dakshinamurthy, together with NSPA coordinators Anisha George and Shrishti Iyer, folded down a tarpaulin sheet in one corner of the foyer and set up standees bearing the insignia of the Western Railway and NSPA, bearing well-meaning commuter advice like “KEEP THE STATION CLEAN" and “PLEASE DO NOT CROSS THE TRACKS". Without announcements or invitation, they sat down and began to play.

The sound was soft, drowning under the crash of noise from the autorickshaw stand and impromptu clothing market just outside. At first, the T-shirt salesmen and newspaper hawkers peered in, drawn by the melody but unwilling to leave their stalls. Then travellers passing through paused, did a double-take and started to inch closer, many clearly unsure if they were allowed to stand around and listen. A diverse crowd gathered: young girls with open wonder on their faces, office-goers and labourers, wearing identical looks of mild guilt on their faces as they slowed down to peer at the musicians, and children who had to be drawn away by reluctant mothers.

Vishwanath Ramaswamy, or Mukund, (on violin) and K. Dakshinamurthy at Bandra station. Photo. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.
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Vishwanath Ramaswamy, or Mukund, (on violin) and K. Dakshinamurthy at Bandra station. Photo. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

“At nukkad nataks (in street theatre), you usually have people going around with a tambourine, inviting audiences to gather the crowd," says George, NSPA’s project coordinator. “We don’t do that. This is a transit point and people are busy. So we’ll wait for the music to attract the people."

This Saturday, Ramaswamy and Dakshinamurthy are followed by young singer Neeraj Arya (each NSPA gig lasts an hour). The sound of a human voice rises faintly above the din outside the station, and crowds which have so far been drifting in tentatively pick up the sound and stride in purposefully. “We know you’re all busy and running to catch trains," Arya says to his audience. “This is for you, because it is evening, you are tired, and you can listen as you’re passing by." Soon, his audience is clapping and singing along to a Kabir composition especially apt for the occasion, Zara halke gaadi haanko (Take the cart slowly).

Arya’s surprise moment comes just as he explains the context of Ma Rewa, the famous Indian Ocean song about the Narmada river. On the sound of the first chords, a strong, well-pitched voice launches into the opening lines of the song with him. It is a commuter, backpack heavy on his shoulders. “Sing, sing," he tells the delighted Arya. “I’ll provide backup."

“The engagement from the audience is so charming," George says. At the opening concert, at which a number of brass instrumentalists came together to play jazz, old Hindi film song tunes and pop, the sound of seven or eight horns in concert filled the station, and people came running as they recognized the sounds of “Eena Meena Deeka" and the national anthem.

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K.K. Singh (on tabla) and Smit Dharia at Borivali station . Photo: Anisha George.

Arya’s concert ends on a high in the humid darkness of an October night. On Monday morning at 9, in Churchgate station’s large hallway, when singer Pratyul Joshi launches into his set of folk and pop songs, it feels like the counters have been reset to zero. Here, the only noise to be heard is from the muffled slap of commuters’ shoes against the white floor, all in step with one another. This is tense, tightly-scheduled commuter country, and it must be one of the toughest crowds in Mumbai.

Then, “One second," says a man on his mobile phone and rings off, diverted by the tenor of Joshi’s voice, raised in a cover of Bandeya, the Bulleh Shah poem most recently made famous by Pakistani band Soch’s arrangement. He detaches himself from the endless stream of travellers to peer at Joshi. Soon, more and more office-goers slope towards him, curious. Everyone leaves with a smile on their face.

“The money is not an issue," says Dayal, who funds the project himself at the moment, although he says he will explore other sources of funding when it expands. “The musicians are important. The listeners are important. We didn’t want to impose something on people that they didn’t want. Now it’s up to them to tell us what they like and what they want to hear more of."

For concert venues and schedules, visit Nspa.in.

supriya.n@livemint.com

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