“We are blind, but our talent is not,” Shivamallu replies politely when asked by an audience member about how he aced his skills on the keyboard.
The lead pianist, who also dubs as a singer at times, is part of a 15-member group who have struck the right ‘notes’ with their musical skills.
Be it the song from Dr Raj Kumar’s 1973 cult classic Gandhada Gudi or the latest numbers from Kannada, Hindi, Konkani, Tulu, Tamil and Marathi films, the Shree Sharada Andhara Geetha Gayana Kala Sangha (SSAGGKS) Trust creates quite an imitation of the original song along with its lyrics.
Be it Kadri Market or Kankanady bus stop or a local playground in Mangalore city, the number of regular listeners and fans in the area instantly swells as the group starts its performance.
Formed eight months ago, the musical ‘startup’ is the brainwave of five visually-impaired individuals, including a woman, who are professionally trained yet sparingly employed by orchestras in various parts of the state.
“Despite being professionals in music, people seemed to give us work out of sympathy rather than because of our talent. We didn’t want sympathy, we wanted to establish an identity of our own,” the Sangha President AN Yogish says.
Around June 2017, the members of the group decided to opt out of their respective orchestra bands and registered the SSAGGKS Trust at Sringeri in Chikmagalur district. Yogish and his wife Jyothi were joined by other visually impaired artistes like Manjunath, Krishna and Ramesh, who play instruments and are also vocal artistes.
Though initially the group wondered if their city-based audiences would appreciate their performances, their question was soon answered.
“We usually play in public areas such as bus stops, autorickshaw stands, road junctions and playgrounds. Our audience are passers-by or those waiting for public transport; sometimes even sports players from the nearby grounds seem to be amused by our talent, they come to us and extend their compliments,” Jyothi says.
Eventually, acting as their eyes and ears, the local autorickshaw drivers, small shop owners and coconut vendors kept the SSAGGKS troupe updated on the commuter footfall in their respective areas and the group would reach there to perform.
“All we have is a makeshift tarpaulin, two speakers and floodlights, and our artistes… we can set up anywhere and perform,” laughs Yogish.
As the troupe’s fame grew, it was joined by more visually impaired members. A silver-coloured box placed in front of their performance arena has a label in Kannada that reads: ‘We want opportunity, not sympathy. Encourage Divyanga artists.’
“People are free to chip in by putting their contributions in the box or else they can enjoy free music. We don’t mind. But we will definitely not beg from anyone,” the troupe is resolute on this.
When the group is not performing, they download songs on their mobile phones at their home in Padil and practise until they can sync the instruments with the singing.
Besides 10-15 regular locations in Mangalore city, over a period of time SSAGGKS has also received invitations to perform at weddings and other social gatherings. On an average, they perform at 5-15 such events on a monthly basis. Besides Karnataka, the performers have already travelled to Kerala as well.
The troupe is now composing original scores and wants to accomplish its dream project of directing music for a film.
“As a combined effort we want to direct music for a film, be it in any language. We are working on the songs and music, and we are certain to make it through,” Shivamallu says.
To enhance their talent pool, the group is in close contact with its alma mater M Krishna School for the Blind and Asha Kiran School for the Blind at Hassan.
“We have singers and all the necessary instruments, such as tabla, keyboard, dholak and tambourine for composing music. At present we are trying to accumulate Rs 50,000 so that we can procure a ‘Rhythm pad’ that would boost our performance. Once that is done and with a little more practice, we are on track to go ahead and offer our services to the film industry,” Shivamallu says.
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