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August 22, 2011

Singing on the Rails

City Journal: (Mumbai, India)

Dhondiram Pujari doesn't show the grumpiness expected of a typical Mumbaikar on his way to work. He jokes and indulges in loud banter, actually looking forward to the oppressive hour-long journey in a Mumbai local train.

And it's not just him. Around 30 of his fellow travelers in compartment No 2 of the 5.52am Thane-Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus Slow are set for the 34km trip. As the train enters Mulund two minutes after leaving Thane, the chatter and repartee grow louder as a stream of office-goers gushes in and occupies the few vacant seats and small empty spaces.

And then it begins. A venerable man with milky white hair, a little stoop and a vermillion mark on his forehead, breaks into an incantation, quickly joined by a chorus.

The 600-odd singing groups on the Mumbai suburban railway system - carrying around seven million people every day - are the best example of Mumbaikars' tenacity, need to belong, craving for affordable recreation and remarkable ability to 'adjust'.
"Some people play cards. Some sleep. Some play mischief standing at the exit. We do something better. We sing songs," Pujari said.

His fellow team member Dattaram Sawant has a more philosophical take. "We spend a lot of time together - an average 2.5 hours a day. We forget our grief, problems and frustrations and share our joys and sorrows through this kind of singing," Sawant said. According to historian and social observer Aroon Tikekar, president of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, this phenomenon has been in existence at least since the 1970s. It has now begun to mutate.

"It was most prominent in the Deccan Queen (that connects Mumbai to Pune). I believe it is a tension-reducing activity. People are looking for ways to escape the tedium, their frustrations and the stress of traveling in Mumbai,' Tikekar said.
"Earlier it was just bhajans. Even that is changing now. There are groups singing vintage Bollywood songs, pop songs and even Marathi bhaavgeet (light songs)," he added. Read more.

Traveling India by train 35 years ago was one of the most grueling yet fascinating experiences of my life. These singing groups might of helped make the rides bearable.

Posted by acapnews at August 22, 2011 9:47 PM

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