Indian Music Maestro, Baluji Shrivastav received an OBE for his Services to the Music Industry in the Queen’s 90th Birthday Honours list earlier this summer. The honour came in recognition of his work as a musician, instrumentalist and founder of the Inner Vision Orchestra – the UK’s only orchestra of blind and visually impaired musicians – formed as a project of the Baluji Music Foundation. Stephen Portlock asked the virtuoso multi-instrumentalist about his life and career.
The first time that I met Baluji Shrivastav was last year at a workshop on the Japanese Koto organised by RNIB. At the time I was struck just how effortlessly Baluji mastered this new instrument. This versatility appears to have been a common motif throughout his life. As a young boy, he confounded his teacher at Ajmer Blind School, Rajasthan after the latter had initially forbidden him from touching the sitar, warning that it was physically too large for him.
It could be argued that two other key words that defined Baluji’s early life were prejudice and discrimination, as became clear during the first twenty minutes of our hour-long interview when Baluji gave a lengthy if convoluted history of his life in India and France prior to his arrival in London. This discrimination included him being given the wrong exam papers and the devastating impact of subsequently being charged with big-headedness after he failed. Not born into a musical family, he was required to provide financial support through non-artistic endeavours such as typing but even there he had to overcome initial negative attitudes.
Blindness barred Baluji from the standard route forged by Indian classical music students, and so with no mentor, he was forced to teach himself. The happy result of this is that unlike many of his peers, he can play all types of music. He experiments with traditional forms, which may confound some purists but on the other hand, perusing reviews on Amazon of his album The Art of the Indian Dulruba, I got a sense of how versatile his music has become. One recalls: “From the beginning the listener is transported by the haunting quality of the Dulruba whose name literally means ‘heart strings’. Accompanied by the subtle tabla of Patho Mukherjee this album is like a mughal musical gem… containing Ragas to take you through the mood of the whole day and enhance every minute of it. Magic.”
Despite the barriers he’s faced in his life Baluji considers himself fortunate. As well as his solo work and collaborations with among others Stevie Wonder, Massive Attack and Andy Sheppard, he is actively involved in the British Paraorchestra and is one third of fusion ensemble Jazz Orient (also known as Re-orient), alongside his wife, vocalist Linda Shanovitch and keyboardist and guitarist Chris Conway.
Alongside their other musical projects, Baluji and Linda last year visited India and its 28 provinces, which as well as hosting many languages has a population of 15 million blind people. Their research and development project took them in search of other blind musicians. A part of the Reimagine India programme supported by the Arts Council and the British Council, their goal was to create an equivalent to the Inner Vision Orchestra – a pan-global group of blind musicians playing the sort of Turkish and Arabic music that Baluji first began to enjoy when travelling in taxis. They visited South India, Calcutta, Bangalore and Gujrat among other places. Baluji also met teachers at the two blind schools in India, which he had started.
The last two weeks were meant to be for rest, but news got around the moment Baluji played sitar on the beach, and so the couple went off to meet yet more blind musicians.
Baluji found that extreme poverty meant that many blind musicians learnt their instruments without proper music teachers, and that the schools had to make do with religious hymns and such like. Also, on occasion, the instruments had to be restored, restricting access. In the past it was much harder to get blind people into schools due to low expectations, and while that has improved, the focus is still geared towards commercial subjects such as computer skills.
Concerning the state of blind musicians in the UK, Baluji acknowledges that there is far more musical versatility than in the past. However, there is still the risk of them not being taken seriously and one goal of the Inner Vision Orchestra is to ensure that blind musicians are paid properly, as professional musicians.
Concerning future plans, Baluji and Linda are to return to India next year to bring together the blind musicians they have discovered and create the circumstances for them to perform. Furthermore, Baluji’s Urdu Opera, a collaboration with composer Dario Marianelli, has been performed in part as a research and development project but now they are looking for buyers for the full work.
Baluji has a busy schedule. He performed at the Brent Civic Centre on the 3rd September alongside the World Music Ensemble, and is due to improvise Indian and Arabic music with viola-player and percussionist Takashi Kikuchi at the Southbank Centre as part of the Unlimited festival on Friday 9 September. Takashi is a member of the aforementioned Inner Vision Orchestra and one piece to be performed at the Southbank Centre gig may be familiar to those who know the orchestra’s work.
They want to show that this type of spontaneous music does not need to be rehearsed. “It will not sound the same boring stuff all the time… We have no limitations. We have lots of freedom.”
Don’t miss Baluji Shrivastrav playing Friday 9 September, 1pm at the Southbank Centre as part of Unlimited Festival