Reality on show

Print edition : April 23, 2010
in Kozhikode

Jeeva, one of the participants in VKC Street Light, uses a stringed instrument that he has improvised out of a coconut shell, a fishing line and goatskin. He calls it his "veena".-PHOTOGRAPHS" COURTESY NEWS VALUE

The story of Chaman Lal begins around the same time as the birth of the nation. Recording something in a register, a doctor in the Lal Darwaza area of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, told the infants mother that he was born in the year Gandhi got us freedom from the British. Chaman Lal inherited illiteracy, poverty and a nomadic way of life from his street-singer parents. When the streets they lived in seemed indifferent, they moved on. Like birds, Chaman Lal says before breaking into a song, Chal ud ja re panchhi ke ab yeh desh hua begaana (Go, fly away bird, now that this world has become strange), sung by Mohammad Rafi, his favourite singer. Without a home, without hope, the family drifted from place to place through Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka before pitching its tent in Kerala 35 years ago. By then, Chaman Lals parents were dead and he had found Kasturi, his accompanist and companion in life.

When the monsoons hit Kerala, the couple moved, like migratory birds, to neighbouring States, but they always returned to the place they called their home, Kozhikode. With each trip he realised how the cities on whose pavements he once slept had grown beyond recognition with wide, wide roads and big, big buildings. In economic terms, those were the fruits of liberalisation and reforms, the tangible proof of Indias change from a slow-growing past to that of a rapidly emerging future. But nothing changed for Chaman Lal except for the growing number of grey hairs on his head and the members in his family his son Kumar, daughter-in-law Rani, their children Sumitra and Ranjit, and nephew Babu, his wife and their three children. He still lived the life of a wanderer and dreamt of no more until one day the arc lights turned on him, thanks to a man called Sudheer Ambalappad, a writer, journalist, adman and aspiring film-maker.

The 100-episode VKC Street Light, produced by Sudheers News Value agency, featuring 17 street singers, including Chaman Lal, is making ripples in the social psyche of Malayalis in and outside Kerala. Jnanpith Award-winning writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair inaugurated it on June 2 last year and Carnatic musician V. Dakshinamoorthy was a guest of honour in the first episode.

At a time when reality shows have become the new chewing gum of the eye, Street Light telecast on Saturdays and Sundays on Indiavision, a Malayalam news channel turns the stereotypical notion of such shows on its head. The emotional hook of other shows, where one person walks away with a huge prize, often after a bitter contest, is absent here; all the 17 participants in Street Light will get a roof over their heads and an address, a necessary component for a sense of belonging in the world. Footwear manufacturer VKC group, founded by former Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator V.K.C. Mammed Koya, meets the production cost of the programme and Calicut Landmark Builders has offered to construct the houses. Official procedures to get the land registered in the names of the participants in the locations of their choice and other legal formalities for construction are under way. Plans are on for a mega event attended by many celebrities where the keys will be handed over.

Chitra Iyer, professional singer and anchor, says the idea of the real show, as conceived by Sudheer (right from striking out the I-T-Y from Reality in the title), was about showing the audiences in Kerala that good entertainment need not always be about glamour and glitz, but about real, raw talent, and that reality television does not always have to be about melodrama, tears and competition, but about fun and laughter and the simple triumphs of the man in the street.

Thankfully for Sudheer, she said, there were others who believed in his dream and came forward to help him realise it that of giving basic shelter to and an opportunity to showcase the talent of 17 deserving singing families for whom art is not merely a profession, but a way of life, a necessity, and a means of livelihood. This show is an example of what we can do as a community, as a country.

Chaman Lal on the set of VKC Street Light. With him are Jnanpith Award-winner M.T. Vasudevan Nair (extreme left), short story writer V.R. Sudheesh and director of the show Sudheer Ambalappad.-

For people like Pushpa, 22, the show is as much about the discovery of her latent talent (many have acknowledged the quality of her singing), and about her entry into a new social stage from the margins of society, as about getting a roof over her head. Pushpa and her siblings, poor as they were while their parents, both Kannadigas, were around, started to make a living out of singing on trains after they were orphaned. Ever since the age of six, she has been singing to the rhythm of two asbestos pieces she uses as clappers, her voice tearing through the din and bustle of a moving train. When Sudheer invited her to the show, she took it as yet another empty promise like the ones she got on her daily trips between Shoranur and Ernakulam. But now, Pushpa and her husband Rajesh, who live in Perumbavoor, have a dream for their three children, Manjula, Anjali and Ganesh. Pushpa says there is a marked change in peoples attitude towards her, be it of the police, who once harassed her, or the ticket examiner who threw her out of the train after snatching her purse. The society that once spurned her now gives her an occasional stage show.

Chaman Lal, too, has performed in a dozen programmes in the 10 months since Street Light began. The illiterate singer performed at Farook College in Kozhikode and got a garland of notes. That street musicians were being absorbed into the mainstream was further proven when they performed to a packed audience at the cultural evening of the Kerala School Kalolsavam, in Kozhikode in January.

The show, no doubt, is appealing to the sensibilities of an unlikely segment of viewers youngsters. Dhanya P.P., a teacher at Rajagiri Public School in Kalamassery, Ernakulam, was overwhelmed by the reaction of her students at a speaking contest in class on the relevance of reality shows in Kerala. Most children gave their thumbs up to the social commitment of the programme and found it awesome that each of the participants would get a prize unlike in other reality shows. Twice, Dhanya jotted down the address of the Indiavision channel and gave it to singers on trains.

The Television Audience Measurement (TAM) ratings for the programme would vouch for its popularity. According to the TAM rating in the period from September 6 to November 11, the channel had 45.7 per cent relative share of TV rating in comparison with programmes in the time slot from 8-25 to 8-55 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays on the other news channels. Significantly, 18 per cent of the people who viewed the programme (in cities with more than a million people) were in the 15-24 age group, and 11 per cent were in the 25-34 age group.

Guest after guest at the Street Light show were struck by the raw, unromanticised reality brought out by the programme. Nothing is unreal in it. Even the children in the title song, playing with cardboard houses, are the children of Chaman Lals family.

It just happened, perhaps as a counter to reality shows in the media or from my own experience in life, says Sudheer, who in his 34 years has swung between a life of want and wealth. But for a stroke of luck, he says, there were occasions when he might have been pushed into a life close to that on the streets. A bright young student, he earned while he learned, first as a waiter in Kalpaka Hotel in Kozhikode where he saw many masks slip, and later as a writer for journals. Before a short stint in mainstream media, Sudheer was involved for a while in grass-roots journalism, producing a monthly journal, News Value, where the Chelannoor block president was the Prime Minister and the panchayat president the Chief Minister for the sake of news in that locality. A telefilm he scripted for Doordarshan, Mahatma, opened new roads into the world of advertisements and telefilms. Once he got a pat on the shoulder from actor Rajnikanth, who had come to see the final print of his film Baba at Prasad Labs, Chennai, while Sudheer was there to colour-grade his ad films of Premier Grips and Chakkolas fairness oil.

Success provided the right atmosphere for the seed of the street-singer programme buried in his mind to germinate. When he explained the concept to his clients (he reluctantly calls them clients because his relationship with them goes beyond what the word implies), some agreed readily, some hesitantly, but none doubted his intentions. Sudheer is all praise for V.K.C. Mammed Koya for the implicit trust he placed in him. It often felt odd to be greeted with a song and a nudge when you were on the train. But after the show you let them be, says K. Arunkumar, managing director of Calicut Landmark Builders, who has joined hands with Sudheer to give the 17 snehaveedu (love homes). He says the initial scepticism has given way to joy after being a part of the show. Considering the real need of the participants, some of whom had large families, the plan for a one-room house has been altered to one with two bedrooms, a dining hall, a kitchen and even a work area.

Like the others in the show, Chaman Lals is a singing family, one for whom singing is a way of life rather than a profession. Here, in a Kozhikode street.-

Many others have pitched in with their mite: Silk Park has offered to give the participants dresses for the entire show and another two years beyond it. A hospital in Kozhikode has agreed to give all the participants health cards to avail themselves of free medical aid. Innumerable others call Sudheer every day to find out in what way they can be of use. His production team, led by the energetic Arun Subramonian, is thrilled about the project.

But Sudheer faces criticisms, too. Some ask him why not let free birds be. Others question him about bringing street singing to the confines of a studio. But it is the felt need of the poor that concerns him. That means a home for Chaman Lal, whose eyes turn moist when he says at least his children will get a house to live in where his granddaughter can live without fear. Or a home for Saraswati chechi (elder sister), who has had to shift from rented house to rented house as many as 60 times. As Naushad Chelannoor in Sudheers production team says, the security that a saksha (a large wooden bolt that slides into a socket) offers is irreplaceable.

A few months before his dream became a reality, incidentally the day before Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar, Sudheer brought the participants and the production team together for a camp at S.K. Pottekkat Samskarika Nilayam in Kozhikode. The venue could not have been more apt. Years ago, long before the advent of television in Kerala, Jnanpith Award winner S.K. Pottekkat sketched the lives of blind Murugan, Koonan (hunch-backed) Kanaran and others in his Oru Theruvinte Katha (Story of a Street) against the Dickensian setting of a street in Kozhikode.

Times have changed, the setting has changed. The real life that unfolds at Leela Theatre an erstwhile cinema that is used as the set of the programme at Vellimadukunnu is about the same hopelessness of the streets.

Indian cinema and television have portrayed the lives of street singers with great success, the inspiration for which may have come from many sources. But Street Light narrates the real stories of 17 people. These are tales of courage and fortitude and lessons in secularism. Regional barriers dissolve with the signature song, sung by Sankar Mahadevan and Ajay Gopalan in Hindi and Malayalam to Jassie Gifts tune.

Kunjavas story is an example of friendship that knows no barriers of religion. The 48-year-old from Tanoor in Malappuram district is singing for a house for Sugu, his friend of 25 years. Kunjavas wife, Razia, suffers from bouts of mental illness. He has debts to repay and his children are not yet independent. But this visually challenged man, who makes a living singing on the streets, says: I have a house even though it is not floored or plastered. But his [Sugus] need is greater than mine. Sugu has been accompanying visually challenged singers on his tabla for many years. His wife stays home to look after their daughter, who is confined to bed, and two sons.

V.K.C. Mammed Koya was one of those who came forward to help Sudheer realise his dream.-

Parijathan hails from Tharayilakkadu near Anandapuram in Thrissur. He lost his eyesight at 38, but begging was never an option for him and his visually challenged wife, Mallika. His dream was to complete the work on his half-finished house on the five cents of land allotted to Mallika by the panchayat. When things were about to work, Mallika was diagnosed with a kidney problem. He now sings to keep her alive. To a celebrity guest who asked him if he ever contemplated suicide, his stoic response was that life was worth living to one who loved it.

The show has other out-and-out street performers like Jeeva, who makes musical melodies from his stringed instrument, which he calls veena. A guest on the show named it viona. It is made of coconut shell, cycle cable, fishing line, bamboo pieces and goatskin. Jeeva, 22, belongs to a family of street acrobats. After his fathers death, the burden of supporting the family fell on his small shoulders. He lives in a makeshift tent in Kannur. Then there are others like Sasi, an exceptionally good singer who has done a Ganabhusanam course, and Veena, who hails from a family of musicians that fell into bad times. Veenas grandfather, Kumar Ustad, was a Hindustani classical musician; the legendary composer M.S. Baburaj, whose life would have been wasted on the streets but for kind souls, trained under him.

Visually challenged Sabu, 35, tried his hand at a small industry making candles and incense sticks. When he burnt his fingers in the business, he started selling lottery tickets to feed his wife Ajitha, whom he met at a training institute. Ajitha, who is a history graduate, also tried for many jobs but got none. Sabu had been singing in marketplaces for three years when Street Light happened. The couple has a daughter, Smera.

As a singer, as a person with some kind of job, I feel humbled after the experience of Street Light. It brought me uncomfortably close to lifes harsh realities, making me examine some of the things and people that we generally take for granted. This whole other view of life, of living for others, of giving to others, takes on a new meaning for me, says Chitra Iyer.

To many other guests on the show, the experience was a great leveller, a reminder to keep arrogance and pride in check. With many of them singing along with the participants, the static divide between street performers and stage performers, trained musician and untrained musician, has also got blurred in the studio.

Sudheer says his attempt is to hold a mirror up to society. But the reflections we see throw up many questions: the larger issue of homelessness in a country where there are two million homeless people (Census 2001), the lack of opportunities for the disabled, and the acceptance of street performance as an art. There is also the question of giving education to the children of a population in flux, and of sustaining their lives.

Before the new media shrank the world, traditional performers had their own place in the Indian cultural context. Gradually they came to be looked down upon as beggars and their art was considered inferior. The elitist media, too, were comfortably silent about the subaltern.

Sabu and Ajitha, both visually challenged, with their child Smera. Sabu has been singing in marketplaces for the past three years.-

But, as guests in one episode remarked, Sudheers has been a unique experiment where the mainstream media picked up stories from the thoroughfares, bazaars and streets in an attempt to give dignity to the lives of poor street singers. It was perhaps also unique to have politicians, film-makers, journalists and industrialists come together to support the cause of street singers who have kept rich traditions alive.

Keralas Industries Minister Elamaram Kareem, who came as a guest on the show, said the government would explore the possibility of giving street singers a platform to perform on the lines of the craft village concept developed for artisans to work and sell their wares.

Already there have been many initiatives to honour the achievements of the singers: they were given a chance to perform during the Onam celebrations by the Kozhikode District Tourism Promotion Council.

District Collector P.B. Salim said the Kozhikode beach would have permanent platforms for street singers to perform. Such initiatives could turn the attention of society on the Chaman Lals and Kunjavas waiting at thousands of street corners in the country.

As I take leave, I turn around to ask Chaman Lal, What do you know about Gandhi? I know him and his song Jana gana mana, he says without batting an eyelid. I do not correct him. There is a thread of unity in that song.

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