Baluji now seeks to help other visually-impaired musicians through his Inner Vision Orchestra. Here he reflects on the beginning of his love of music, discovery of his talent, and advice for anyone wanting to work in music today.
Baluji Shrivastav, like most artists, didn’t arrive at success within the industry straight away. However, he did have an instinctive talent for music from a very young age. He grew up in India, and describes his journey towards first finding music and the part his blindness played in this… I’m a born musician, so when I was two years old, I could sing Bollywood songs. Then my mother gave me a harmonium to play and at the age of three I could play harmonium and sing popular religious songs. At that age I went on a train journey with my father and I sang a song which meant ‘God I could write you a letter, but I don’t know your address. I could cry in front of you but I don’t know where you live’. Everybody was so excited by my singing that they carried me from one end of the carriage to the other over their heads.
That day my father realised that I’m a great musician. He took me to a temple, because in his view a blind person should be spiritual – when sighted people meditate you are told to close your eyes and open your eyes to get into it. He said ‘your eyes are always closed, so you’re already halfway there’. At the temple they gave me a drum to play called mridangam which I played and they asked my father to let me live and learn music there, but my uncle suggested I go to a blind school. So I was sent 300 miles away to board at Gwalior blind school where I raised funds for the school by performing music. I won a golden cup for the school which was my first prize.
“when sighted people meditate you are told to close your eyes and open your eyes to get into it. He said ‘your eyes are always closed, so you’re already halfway there’”
Baluji describes a formative experience, in which he first came across the sitar and his first exposure to conducting orchestras as a child…. At the age of eight, I touched a beautiful instrument, I liked the carved flower designs on its body. I was fascinated. I asked the teacher to give it to me but he refused, saying ‘you’re too small and this instrument is very delicate.’ I cried and cried till he gave in. To his astonishment I immediately began to play tunes on it. He said ‘Wow! You are a brilliant musician- you can play anything!’ Then he asked me to help him by conducting the orchestra. So that was a blind conductor leading a blind orchestra which I did by designing my own sound cues for the music.
Baluji’s journey towards his life in the UK and the Inner Vision Orchestra began as he started teaching and travelling, eventually ending up in Europe where he met his wife Linda… I travelled all over India performing and I started teaching in a girl’s degree college in Agra. I also got a job in a music shop to demonstrate the instruments to the tourists who visited Agra (including George Harrison). That was how my journey from India to Europe began. I taught so many western people in India sitar, tabla, all sorts of things. One French man got interested and learned with me for four years living with my family in India, but he couldn’t stay longer due to visa issues, so he decided to send me a ticket to France so I could teach him there.
I had a fascinating time in Nice. In India there are lots of crowds and people talking to you, but in this village, I was alone in one room with my friend’s dog and he was in another room with his girlfriend. Unfortunately, the sitar became ignored as he had fallen in love. So I asked him to leave me in the town with my sitar and let me be independent. I met many new people and ended up travelling around France in a camper van with a couple who wanted to learn sitar. We would stop in various places and I would play concerts. Eventually I made my way to Paris.
The next part of Baluji’s journey took him to Paris… it was very lucky for me that I came to Paris. I met Linda through a mutual friend. She was a songwriter and wanted to learn Indian singing. She came to my house one evening and sang jazz with my sitar. She was very impressed that I could play whatever she sang, including modern jazz. Now she is the CEO of the Baluji Music Foundation which produces the Inner Vision Orchestra.
Baluji is a trailblazer in creating opportunities for people with disabilities in music. As well as the Inner Vision Orchestra as part of the Baluji Music Foundation, he is developing new technology for blind musicians to sight-read music. He sees there is still so much to be done to help the music industry become more inclusive for people with disabilities…. I think any partially-sighted person who is interested in music (they don’t have to be a great musician) can be a member of the Inner Vision Orchestra, as in my view music is everything- without music there is nothing. Sound was very important for me since I was born. I made the Inner Vision Orchestra because I felt that blind people weren’t promoted anywhere. These blind people were very good musicians but they didn’t know how to promote themselves.
Baluji still feels the differences in the opportunities in music for him in comparison to other artists, but believes that this shouldn’t put blind people off pursuing music.
Once we are accepted everywhere as much as sighted people, we won’t need to promote awareness any more through the Inner Vision Orchestra. And if that happens, and everybody can have the chance to play with artists like Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Annie Lennox and Boy George, I would be very happy. Everybody should be able to work hard and be awarded an OBE!
Baluji leaves us with some inspiring advice for anyone wanting to pursue music in any capacity… If you are blind, if you are disabled- aren’t you a musician first of all? If you are a musician and you are the best, nothing can stop you. If you are dedicated to your work, just continuously keep doing it, don’t keep any negative points that anybody has said. People have said to me ‘it’s a pity you are blind’ and I’ve said ‘no it’s a pity that you are blind too- because you can’t see what I can’. So this is my message to everyone: don’t lose your courage, believe in yourself, work hard and you will be where you want to be. Every day is a perfect goal- when you finish a day very happy, that is a perfect goal and you should wait for the next day to see what happens. As soon as you start in the morning, start positively and keep practicing – practicing is the most important.
“If you are blind, if you are disabled – aren’t you a musician first of all?”
Baluji Shrivastav’s new album, Voice of Flowers: Spring Ragas from India is released on March 26 (Arc/Naxos Music)