Baluji Shrivastav on inner vision and the will to support blind musicians, internationally

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Following his return from India, where Indian born multi-instrumentalist Baluji Shrivastav and his orchestra performed Antardrishti – a reworking of the 11th chapter from the Hindu epic text Bhagavad Gita – James Zatka-Haas spoke with the virtuoso blind musician about this seminal musical journey. Antardrishti was commissioned by Unlimited (delivered by Shape and Artsadmin), celebrating the work of disabled artists.

poster image of an indian classical dancer on stage under the title of the performance, Antardrishti - also written in braille

Poster for Antardrishti

Baluji Shrivastav is both inescapably charming and fervently driven by his passion for music; music as something we can use to tell stories, form bonds with our communities, to deliver new and powerful messages; things that stretch beyond the realms of musicianship and composition. The renowned sitar master’s Inner Vision Orchestra, made up of blind musicians is rooted in this belief, and uses it as a guiding principle in bringing people from around the world together.

Baluji’s music is first for the emotions and second for the intellect, with a child-like curiosity underpinning it all. I asked him about his inspiration for the show, and he found the story – where the Hindu god Krishna gives inner vision to the blind king Dhritarashtra  – to be incredibly relevant today. “It’s important that we remember those traditions” claims Baluji “because they can help blind and sighted people improve their lives today.”

Antardrishti is a push towards empowerment rather than dependence. It claims inner vision as something separate from sight. It’s an exploration of the self, of the internal rather than external world, something that, regardless of ability, we all have the capacity to utilise. In that way, stories from the past naturally “live forever” for Baluji, because of their ability to affect human perception, generations after they were conceived. These traditions lend themselves to a “host of reinterpretations; understood in different ways and worked through with different emotions”. Often this can imbue them with a deeper meaning.

Three blind musicians, dressed in white sit on a stage with their instruments while four classical Indian dancers dressed in brightly coloured costumes stand, posing behind them

Raju Maurya, Baluji Shrivastrav and Ghow Ratnarajah on stage with members of the Arunima Kumar Dance Company.

To achieve this, it was essential that the show developed cross culturally. The Inner Vision Orchestra was founded in 2012, made up of musicians from around the world. How they got there, however, was a voyage in and of itself:

“We found musicians for Inner Vision initially through RNIB (Royal National Institute for Blind People) meetings and the street”. Linda Shanson introduced him to musicians through networking. “It was difficult from the beginning’, reflects Baluji “some were not interested and others lacked confidence.”

Oud player Ziad Sinno was approached by Linda and Baluji on their way to an exhibition: “We started talking and found that he is an oud player. After the exhibition he invited us back to his place and he played for us. He sounded great so I asked him to join Inner Vision but he initially said no. After asking him why he replied that his oud was such a delicate instrument and couldn’t go anywhere.” Ever the motivating man, Baluji said “take your oud, put it on your back and follow me.” That thrust of motivational power had Ziad joining the orchestra.

“Blind people can be very good musicians but they have no confidence, no way to communicate. That is the whole idea of Inner Vision, to be able to give everyone some confidence. The Inner Vision format is very different from any other orchestra. I designed the format so that each blind person can come on stage and tell their story – to share where they come from and what they do.”

A dark sepia image showing the silhouettes of musicians and dancers performing on stage in a dramatic pose

The Inner Vision Orchestra with the Arunima Kumar Dance Company, perform Antardrishti

Off the back of an International Award from Unlimited, the commissioning programme for disabled artists, Baluji traveled to India to find guest musicians for the project. With such fond memories of working in tourist shops in Agra – where he played a variety of instruments for foreigners – this gathering of musicians could be spoken of as a musical journey back to his roots; something which resounds joyfully in the music itself.

India, being such a vast continent, with many languages, Baluji and Linda ensured that the performers felt comfortable communicating: “Linda has made sure that those people won’t have any difficulties. She asked everyone to bring someone with them to speak the same language.”

A blind musician dressed in white poses with his sitar

Blind virtuoso musician Baluji Shrivastrav pictured with sitar

This worked surprisingly well, ensuring everyone had a support network they could fall back on when language became an issue. The majority of the musicians spoke Hindi, and when it was known that one could only speak Tamil, the team quickly found a translator: “Ghow Ratnarajah came from Sri Lanka and there was a husband / wife couple who spoke Gujarati. But we found ways to communicate. We managed very well. They were all extremely happy to perform in Britain.”

With such a diverse set of backgrounds, comprising different languages and musical educations, it was essential that a more universal way of communicating was found. “Technology helped us” Baluji tells me “we sent them YouTube links and – given how Indians are expert computer users – we had no problem with sharing musical ideas.”

Technology is pertinent here. For the show, Baluji enlisted the help of Addictive TV – an electronic musical duo specialising in audio and visual sampling. Together they bridged the gap between traditional Indian classical music and more contemporary forms of musical expression.

“Addictive TV got sounds from the street and recorded musicians separately. After they edited the sounds, we (Inner Vision) had to figure out what sounds they were and how we could interact with them. In the beginning, people were trying to do too much. It sounded messy. I told everyone to do as little as possible. Only interrupt Addictive TV when you feel like you need to present something.”

In the end this sense of everyone being in it together blossomed, allowing the international flavour of the piece to shine through. This International flavour is something Baluji wants to develop in the future. “For Inner Vision I don’t want it to just be a collaboration between UK and India, more like UK / Bosnia, UK / Iran. Make it universal. That way we can have more musical traditions!”

It’s that universality that makes Baluji so magnetic as a person and a performer. It is evident that the man’s love for music isn’t restricted to any specific cultural traditions, but is instead based on something that crosses borders, regardless of ability, language or cultural background. Antardrishti is finished now so Baluji can focus on his workshops at Rich Mix, Shoreditch, but ultimately for Baluji music will never die: “It begins with your mother’s heartbeat in her womb and continues after you’re gone.” He’s positive that there is much more music in him yet.

For more details of the work of the Baluji Music Foundation and the Inner Vision Orchestra visit http://balujimusicfoundation.org