Dharavi rocks!

Print edition : April 19, 2013

Dharavi Rocks at an event in Delhi, its first performance outside Mumbai. (From left) Geshan Sayed, Imtiyaz Shaikh, Hussain Shaikh, Bilal Shaikh, Rehman Abdul, Salman Ali, Abhijit Jejurikar (a Mumbai-based musician who teaches and practises with the band) and Nabi Ahmed (or Guddu, the band's lead singer). Photo: By Special Arrangement

Labourers sorting out recovered material in Dharavi slum, Mumbai's unofficial centre for recycling. Photo: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

A bird's-eye view of the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, routinely called the 'largest slum in Asia'. Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Abhijit Jejurikar, Salman Ali, Imtiaz Sheikh and Nabi Ahmed on their way to Delhi for a performance. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A music band based in Mumbai’s Dharavi is helping its members, mostly ragpickers from the slum, nurture their talent and aspire to a better future.

“ONE, two, three, four… Let’s go,” shouts 15-year-old Hussain Mohammed, a stack of buckets between his legs, drumsticks in both hands. The small tin shack explodes with drumbeats and musical noises emanating from an assortment of things like drum barrels, paint buckets, bottles, metal lids, wooden crates and sticks. The music is made by a motley group of boys from waste materials collected and brought to Dharavi slums, Mumbai’s unofficial centre for recycling.

Dharavi Rocks is the name of this extremely enjoyable junk band. All its 12 to 15 members are underprivileged children, mainly ragpickers who have no access to most of life’s comforts. Yet, from a tiny tin room above the Dharavi pipeline, this vibrant band has emerged and is becoming a significant and inspiring movement that encourages privileged schoolchildren to start their own junk bands and publicise the message of waste reuse and recycling.

Dharavi is routinely called the “largest slum in Asia”. Spanning approximately 175 hectares, it is located smack in the middle of Mumbai between the areas of Mahim and Sion and accommodates close to 6,00,000 people, according to government data. History documents it as a swamp that housed fisherfolk, but eventually it was filled up with land when the immigrant influx began. The slum is unique in that it is a maze of residential hutments; it also houses embroidery sweatshops, leather and tanning sheds and a huge potters’ enclave. The collection and recycling of waste has, however, become the predominant industry in Dharavi, providing lakhs with employment.

Band’s genesis

The band’s genesis can be traced to music workshops conducted by ACORN Foundation (India), a non-governmental organisation that works with ragpickers and in the field of waste collection and management. ACORN’s initial aim was to teach poor children a skill and give them opportunities for some recreational activities. The largely percussion band is a part of ACORN’s Dharavi Project, which was set up as a multimedia project that would utilise artists and social-impact programmes to change the living conditions of the over 1,00,000 ragpickers who segregate waste in and around the landfills of Mumbai. Many of them are underage, and the project helps organise academic classes and sports and other recreational activities for them.

“The Dharavi Project started in 2008 as a multimedia initiative which provides a platform to organise waste collectors, such as providing them with ID cards, giving them better access to waste, campaigning for waste segregation and providing a community centre,” says Vinod Shetty, a lawyer and the director of the foundation. “We have achieved this initial aim. The community centre, however, started attracting children from the slum. Our volunteers and well-wishers then came up with the idea of music, and we then took that forward. For the past two years, this has been very successful,” he says.

Shetty says the junk band attracts attention to ACORN’s core theme, which largely involves campaigning for better waste management in Mumbai. Making music out of junk is a novel idea and puts the focus on the project. In fact, it has been inspiring others. Schools such as the American School of Bombay and the German School have invited the Dharavi band to perform and have then gone on to create their own junk bands.

The music idea took off after ACORN partnered with Blue Frog, an innovative live music performance club in Mumbai, to start workshops for the children. Several well-known Indian musicians such as Mohan from the Pune-based rock band Agnee, Suneeta Rao and Shankar Mahadevan volunteered and trained the children. Visiting artists such as Stuart from the Mumbai-based band Something Relevant and the Boxettes have also conducted workshops, and this has given the band a level of professionalism, says Shetty.

Another huge push for the children came from Abhijeet Jejurikar and Ayush Shreshta, both local musicians, who spend several hours each week teaching and practising with the band. Done on a purely voluntary basis, the hands-on training from Jejurikar and Shreshta is crucial for the band’s performances.

“When I met all the kids for the first time in a Xavier College classroom, I had no words to express myself, I got so inspired listening to their stories and [seeing] the kind of talent these kids had. I made my decision then and there that I would put in all efforts to create a platform for all these kids where they can grow and earn proper respect in life because of who they are, what they believe in and the talent they have,” says Jejurikar, who is a bundle of positive energy constantly challenging the boys to do better.

He says the drumming helps children improve their concentration, coordination and teamwork. Additionally, this platform makes them dream and also nurtures their talents. Many of the boys aspire to join the entertainment industry.

Over the past few years, the children have been taught different techniques of drumming ranging from African rhythms to Indian percussion sounds. Although they imbibe the different forms, Dharavi Rocks has a distinct, highly entertaining sound quality that is now propelling it on to various stages within and outside Mumbai. In the past two years, the band has gone from strength to strength and is now performing at some of the city’s biggest events, including the annual Kala Ghoda festival and the upcoming bandstand revival event. It has just returned from an exciting tour of New Delhi—its first performance in a major metro other than Mumbai.

Drumming up a dream

It is 7 p.m. on a weekday. Boys of all sizes, and whose ages can be anywhere between seven and 19, are trooping into the small tin shack above the Dharavi water pipeline. Several boys have been hanging around the structure, which is the office of ACORN.

It takes the boys a little while to get warmed up. Most of them are playing, chatting, arguing, even getting into fist fights with each other while waiting for the bigger boys to come in to start. Then “Guddu”, the band’s 19-year-old lead singer, arrives and practice finally starts.

Buckets, barrels and shakers emerge. The boys pull out their drumsticks, which are perhaps the only formal musical equipment in the set-up. On Hussain’s count the drumsticks hit the “instruments” and the room reverberates with the rhythm of drumbeats. Not to be left out and since the music is so absorbing, some of the little boys find a few bottles and lids and start a clanging and banging that blends in happily with the drums. Within seconds they are lost in the music and are completely oblivious to the world.

Most band members sort waste and work in terribly harsh and dangerous circumstances. They work in the morning, go to school in the afternoons and end up at the ACORN centre in the evenings. Several of them live in Dharavi in huts along the pipeline. Sanitation and hygiene are negligible and typical of most slums; families of up to eight members live in tiny one-room shanties. Almost all the children’s parents are also waste collectors or work as garbage sorters.

“I used to be a tapori [good for nothing], just hanging around the basti [slum]. My elder brother used to beat me a lot and tell me to go to work. I would do some garbage sorting, mainly hospital waste, and earn Rs.10 for half day’s work,” says Guddu. “My mother knew Lakshmi Aunty [a social worker], who told her to send me to the ACORN centre as I love dancing and performing. Once I started coming here, I learnt to play music, sing and dance. They even helped me find a job in an office.”

Salman Ali is the other senior member of the band. He says he used to dance and sing at the basti weddings and other celebrations. “I used to work in the leather industry, earning about Rs.50 a day. Lakshmi Aunty saw me and told me to come to ACORN. Now I work in an office and get to dance and play music, which I love. My family has also accepted this.”

“I used to play football and some of my friends told me about this place. So I came. I love playing the drums and I love football. Here I can do both,” says Imtiaz Sheikh, a shy 14-year-old, also from Dharavi. “When we perform and the audience claps loudly or sings with us, I feel so happy that I have this in my life.”

“When the audience responds well and shows love and affection, the children get a huge boost of confidence. They are really very sincere and committed to their music. They do not have any agendas,” says Shetty. “They look at big musicians as role models and see what is possible to achieve. Similarly, the feedback from musicians is that they are inspired by the Dharavi kids as well.”

Hard lives

An issue that does come up is the work they have to do. Shetty says the families will not allow them to stop ragpicking; otherwise the family’s income will dwindle. He says it is fascinating to see how grounded the children are. For instance, quite recently the Bollywood hero Salman Khan twice hosted the band— once on a film set and once he took the boys for a film screening. “They enjoy the moment and then come back to their hard lives without ever complaining. That’s a lesson we have to take from them,” says Shetty.