It is a common sight in the local trains of Mumbai. Shabbily clad pre-adolescent boys and girls holding a mini harmonium, singing popular movie songs to earn their daily bread with respect. While their shrill vocals arouse only humour and are mostly a nuisance, their skills with the harmonium would match those of a professional.
For over a decade I have come across and observed the train singers of Mumbai, travelling mostly in the afternoon, trying to entertain and earn money. Most of them travel in pairs, comprising a small kid clad in rags who goes around asking for money, and an older companion, mostly a girl, who plays the harmonium and sings. They sing popular and 'hit' Hindi film songs doing the rounds at the time, as the pair travels up and down, boarding one compartment after another.
The first thing that strikes the passengers is their unusually shrill, nasal voice, with accentuated and prolonged vowels that makes their songs more comical than anything. Some of them, almost toddlers who could not even pronounce words like 'love' or 'affection', would try and sing love songs at the top of their voice! If one was not in awe and respect of their age and poverty, one would either laugh or ask them to shut up, or do both.
Yet, their skills on the keyboards are such as would take an adult nearly a year to master. For they play like masters, their fingers gliding over the keys without hesitation, and producing just the right, harmonious cords that match the song at perfect intervals. The timing, the ease, the combination of notes is such that this writer listened in pleasure and awe for as long as they sang and played, and yet could not unravel the way they could play such excellent accompanying music on their small harmoniums, even after having himself played this instrument in childhood. At such a young age, these kids can effortlessly make pleasant sounding cords fill up the gaps in the lyrics. It is this lack of effort in accomplishing a task that requires a good understanding of music that filled the writer with admiration, so much so that he was for once forced to donate some money toward a good cause.
The singers may appear to be a nuisance, with their shrill and unmelodius vocals, and who sometimes board early morning and late evening trains to travel with office goers, creating a disturbance that may not always be welcomed. Their skills however deserve praise and recognition.