July 14, 2011

The Burden Of A Hundred Tunes

Street Vendors In Mumbai

Framed by arches of the David Sassoon Library across the street from where he stood facing the road, the flute player held fort with his tune on the pavement outside the Jehangir Art Gallery, an impromptu stage he chose to lend his burden of carrying a hundred unsung tunes on his shoulder.

Photo Flute Player On Mumbai Street
Circling around Mumbai’s celebrated Art Space, the pavement conducted the moving mass of Mumbai’s humanity along in choreographed chaos not unlike a river in spate breaching its banks to the terrifying scream of its intimidating silence wreaking unsuspected violence from the force of its unrelenting movement forward.

David Sassoon Library Kala Ghoda Mumbai
And like a hapless tree caught in the middle of a strengthening river, the street-side flautist stood alone among his tunes, gathering his melodies around him into embracing his isolation on a busy street.

Jehangir Art Gallery In Kala Ghoda
With the flute pressed to his lips, the flute player had emerged from the Pavement Art Gallery that runs along the length of the K. Dubash Street in the Kala Ghoda precinct, barely breaking his stride past framed paintings of hopeful artists mounted along the open stretch, scarcely interrupting his tune along the way, hoping to interest passersby into lending a home to his many flutes that jabbed the sky indignantly at the indignity of lacking embraces.

But then Yeh Tho Mumbai Hai Meri Jaan.

Street Flute Player In Mumbai
As his tunes flowed outward they wrapped around passing feet without managing to slow them down, lingered by conversations without succeeding in pausing them, floated alluringly past reading eyes with nary a glace gracing them, dodged impatient taxi drivers unmoved to the passing melody, stepped past speeding traffic, and circled around invisible wakes of passing humanity in the hope a tune would find a home in an earnest ear, and a flute, a new shoulder to lean against.

Time fled past. The day grew shorter by the minute. The melodies wound hopelessly by. And a not a single flute left his shoulder.

Selling Flutes On Street In Mumbai
The soulful melodies that issued forth from him thinned out before he let the flute drop, turning his head to scan passing humanity for passing interest. There was none.

Framed by the Bombay of yesterday, with time having chipped city sensibilities to the functional, the promise of possibilities the city once held out to street-side melodies had met their end in the reality of the irrelevance of the individual, and individuality.

Pavement Art Gallery In Kala Ghoda Mumbai
Turning on his heels he returned the way he had come, seeking deliverance for his flutes at another street corner.

The search for acceptance circles around without ever completing the circle.


Anuradha Shankar said...

Beautiful description! shall think of this every time i see these chaps now! my son sees them play all these tunes and always wants to buy one. and then he is surprised that its not all that easy to actually play a tune. the last time we saw one, i refused to buy him any more since we had too many flutes in the house already, so he asked the flute seller to teach him how to play! the fellow seemed so surprised, he simply smiled and walked away!

Connie said...

Very nice post. I really enjoyed reading this. The description was very lyrical, telling a story yet sounding like poetry. Great pictures too! Thank you for your visit and comment to my blog. Enjoy your day. :)

dr.antony said...

That was really touching,Anil.

Now a day we dont see these flute vendors in Kerala.I remember standing awe struck in front of these flute players as a child.I would beg and cry and my amma would give enought to buy the flute,and then the endless effort to bring some music out of the bamboo flute.
Times have changed.Children and adults alike,have an altogether different taste.If Lord Krishna himself would recite,there would be no listeners!

Lynn said...

He almost looks like a bagpiper with all his flutes. A wonderfully lyrical post, Anil P, with an especially wonderful title.

marja-leena said...

Beautiful title, descriptions and photos! I was going to ask why he carries so many flutes; the answer lay in the comments - he's a flute seller as well as player. I've never seen a sight like that - another marvel in India.

Aayushi Mehta said...

Loved this post. I remember seeing such flute sellers a couple of times. I must say your writing goes fabulously with your photos to create a magical story.

Riot Kitty said...

Another place I would like to visit.

Unknown said...

Makes me feel bad for them...but I am curious, did he not notice you clicking so many pics of his?

Nona said...

Nice pictures. Curious to know if you followed him around for a while to get all these pictures.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful writing and photos!

Anil P said...

Anu: Thank you. Nice to know this post heightens the state of flute vendors.

Many of the flute sellers, at least those I've come upon are Muslims from underprivileged backgrounds, and are likely to be migrants.

He must have been bewildered at being asked to teach the kid some skills at playing the flute. Sometimes they will not know how to react. Other times they're afraid of being penalised by policemen.

It's a tough business to make a living. And yes, it's saddening to see the efforts they put into selling flutes go in vain many a time because folks will not pause to have a look at the flutes.

If parents are about with their children visiting the place it might be a good idea to buy a flute or two to try some tunes back home.

Any support to appreciate or send some business their way is most welcome.

Daisy: Thank you. Glad to know you enjoyed reading the post.

Dr. Antony: Thank you. I always feel for the street vendors like this flute seller trying to make a honest living out of his skills at the flute. Many of them come from underprivileged backgrounds.

It's never easy to sell flutes on the streets. Hopefully children will evince interest in the tunes he plays on his flute and ask their parents to get them one to try at home.

A classmate of mine from Andhra Pradesh had amazing skills with the flute. Any tune he would hear anytime he would be faithfully reproduce on his flute.

I had tried learning to play the flute. I suppose I lacked the innate ability to get the hang of it and as well as the discipline to pursue it.

No wonder Lord Krishna said this is the Kalyug!

Lynn: Thank you. Yes, it looks like that at first glance.

Marja-Leena: Thank you. Outside the gate of the housing complex I once lived in, a flute seller would faithfully make his way each Sunday and play his flute for close to an hour and half, often waking many a resident to his soulful tunes rendered from classic songs from old Hindi films.

The few times he did not appear at the gate on Sunday I missed his tunes floating up the floors to my window. I'm sure many must have felt the same.

Those Sunday tunes lifted the mornings, ading a happy zip to the pace.

Aayushi Mehta: Thank you. I hope the flute sellers survive the 'all under one roof' braded outlets proliferating the neighbourhoods.

We could make do with some charm floating from the reeds at street corners.

Riot Kitty: You must.

Ritha Hegde: Maybe he did, maybe he did not. I had retained some distance between us, besides being in the crowd.

Nona: Thank you. Not much, maybe by a few lengths to get the angles of his arrival, departure.

Ladyfi: Thank you.

Insignia said...

Beautiful. this post would definitely flash before me whenever I see flute vendors. Recently, I posted a picture of a flute vendor; I thought about nagging my mom to buy them for me as a kid.

The way they effortlessly played the flute and the music that came out of it was mesmerizing.

Brilliant and touching post.

Tammie Lee said...

wonderful tale
awesome photos
and i love all those flutes

Rouchswalwe said...

In the recent move, I came across my old wooden flute. How I wish I could really play! Bittersweet are your thoughts in this post, Anil. We are so dependent on others for music it seems. Have we forgotten how to make our own?

Gauri Gharpure said...

snatches of poetry in the post. nice!

Coffee Messiah said...

A beautiful excursion through your writing -

By the way - why are they penalized if they were to teach somebody something simple right then and there?


Anil P said...

Insignia: Thank you. A pleasure to know you liked the post.

The flute sellers will typically play instrumental tunes of popular Bollywood songs, especially derived from old Hindi songs, or will play non-filmi tunes to attract the attention of passersby.

Tammie Lee: Thank you.

He had quite a few flutes bunched together, attached to a pole which he supported using a shoulder bag, so he would not have to carry the pole to which the flutes were attached.

Rouchswalwe: The wooden flute you mention must bring many a memorable memories floating forth. Maybe you could get back to making music from that flute.

That's right. Many of us have forgotten to make our own music, atleast those who had a knack for it and could have made their own music.

I assume it must have to do with priorities one has set oneself, with work and related matters taking urgency. With others it must have to do with 'progressing' in their life whatever that may be. And pursuits like making music are no longer in the "to do" list, with any inclination having dulled from a lack of priority for the same or from knowing it is no longer valued in the society one lives in. The reasons could vary.

My elder cousin-brother had handed down two of his flutes. When he was studying engineering he used to learn playing the flute from an elderly man in the evenings.

On vacation from school I would tag alongwith him, climbing the rickety stairs to the first floor home of the flute teacher, a Hindu living in a largely Sunni Muslim locality. I would find the human landscape of the Muslim locality very intriguing as compared to other localities I was familiar with. The language, the dressses, the make-up, the smell, the shops, the muzzein calling from the mosque, the livestock, the Urdu Medium schools all made for a rivetting viewing when the both of us would be about the neighbourhood.

A cousin-sister would later teach at one of the schools run by the Muslim Community not far from where the flute master lived.

I would try the Sa Re Ga Ma Pa on the flute my cousin-brother gave me, and cannot remember learning beyond it. I didn't have the innate feel for the flute.

Gauri Gharpure: Thank you.

Coffee Messiah: Thank you. In Anu's case I think it was more a case of the flute seller being startled at the request, with the reflexive action of moving away.

Other times, policemen might take them up for lack of vendor license and the like. But most often the policemen let them be, unless some of the corrupt policemen will "charge" them a hafta, a daily shakedown of sorts for operating in the stretch of their daily beat.

Likewise many policemen will not bother with these vendors in any way, leaving them to their own devices.

The flute sellers / vendors will function out of "their" areas so to speak, often resisting the entry of other flute sellers seeking business.

Nisha said...

Beautiful story, very nicely put. It forces us to think.

Rahul said...

very nice way of presenting a common poor people with photos . You explain in such a nice way to a flute seller of which no one is thinking . During reading the article my childhood memory popping up .i love to provide tuning throug flute in my childhood... rahul

Anonymous said...

Another wonderfully written post but sad. I wish that all his flutes find a home where they make children laugh and sing to their thrill.

Anil P said...

Nisha: Thanks.

Rahul: Thanks.

Lgsquirrel: Thank you. I hope he finds a home to all his flutes.

The flute has a religious connotation with Indians as well, more so with the Hindus, on account of Lord Krishna and Raas Leela.

The Basuri is an important component on the street so to speak.

On Krishna Janmasthami, at least here in Mumbai, every once in a while you'll see a child dressed up in the garb of Lord Krishna and holding a flute while his parents preen in the attention the child draws from passersby for his dress.

Red said...

beautifule pics...nice play of words. My daughter plays the violin and along the years we have collected a few unique musical objects, not necessarly instruments. I would love to meet your protagonist one day and buy one of his creations from him.

Ramya Ranganathan said...


Things change but he still has hopes of selling the flutes. This is what amazes me.

Great pics and great narration !

Grannymar said...

Another wonderful post showing a different element of life in India.

Anil P said...

Iengar Chick: Thank you. That's nice indeed.

Does violin figure as formal training in the sense with classes et all progressing through the years?

You might just be lucky and meet him if you're visiting the Kala Ghoda precinct in Bombay's Fort area.

Ramya Ranganathan: Thank you.

While there's hope there's a hope. Each marketing person needs to believe in this to survive.

Didn't someone once say Umeed Pe Duniya Kayam Hai.

Grannymar: Thank you.

marly youmans said...


Thanks for leaving me a note and so introducing me to your world... I've never been to India (made it as far as Thailand and Cambodia but no farther) and find these peeps into theatre and street life and more very interesting.

When I was a child in the South there were still vendors on the streets, but now one only sees them at fairs or occasionally at stalls in college towns...

The flute player and his troubles are quite real, but he's also suggestive. The whole idea of somebody attempting to add music to the blare of modern life is touching. Sometimes I feel rather like him--feel how mad it is to try and hawk books (particularly of poems) in the contemporary world!

Anil P said...

Marly youmans: Thank you. It's a pleasure to have you visit this place on the Web.

I believe Thailand and Cambodia share certain aspects of the street with India even if they do not share India's sheer diversity on the street, differing from region to region.

Luckily, the Indian street is vibrant with street vendors, hawking every imaginable thing at every imaginable event. The street sustains most of these vendors, inturn sustaining their familes.

The flute player wasn't having it easy at all. Like you said, he soothed the swirls of blaring horns and revving motors with mellifluous tunes from his flute.

In some ways we're all vendors, selling one thing or the other, sometimes tangible things, sometimes, the intangible.

Marly Youmans said...

I linked to this one and referred to it today--with my own tangible/intangible!

Anil P said...

Marly Youmans: Thanks for the mention. Just saw it.

The analogy you drew in your post between poetry and tunes from the flute, and the practitioners of both sailing in the same boat, is apt.

The rush of 'content traffic' and that of motor vehicles' is not dissimilar in the least, with each buffetting the poetry of tunes.

Balachandran V said...

Chanced upon your old post. Lyrical. I was struck by the fact that I too had similar thoughts, and that too, recently. Do read when you get time.