Mumbai, Bollywood, Beggars and Muscians (Dallas Smith from India-Number 4)

Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, January 30, 2008

I’m still in the habit of calling Mumbai by its old British name, Bombay.  If New Delhi corresponds to Washington, DC, then Bombay is like a combination of LA and New York for India.  Calcutta would be a combination of Philadelphia and Newark.  Chenai (formerly Madras) would be Miami.  Kashmir is like Reno/Tahoe.

They say that there are between 15 and 20 million people in Bombay.  Nobody knows the exact number.  Throughout the day, the crowds feel like what Americans experience upon exiting a football stadium, or at the county fair, and yet these crowds are to be found seemingly everywhere all the time.  Driving back to the hotel after midnight, there is much more activity on the streets than in Delhi.  One important factor is that the climate is much warmer.  No one ever needs to build a fire to keep warm.  This is the coolest time of year, and the temperatures are still in the 80’s during the day.

Bombay is home to Bollywood, the world’s largest film production center.  (Indian movies, which are mostly musicals, are still the main entertainment for those who cannot afford television sets, which is well more than the population of the US.)  I’ve been told that Bombay contains Asia’s largest slum.  (Does an even larger slum somewhere in Africa keep Bombay from the world title in this catagory?)  Because the city is located on a peninsula jutting into the Indian ocean, there is no undeveloped land, and little room for new roads.  (Actually, there is one new road being built in the only possible location–a causeway over the water being built  to connect one part of the peninsula with another.)

The real estate prices are certainly higher than Reno’s in real dollars (not rupies), and are probably comparable to the Bay Area or New York’s prices.  If one is not a dot com millionaire, a famous movie star, or with some inherited wealth, there is simply no way for the average person to ever afford to buy property in the central city.  There are some impressive high-rise buildings, quite a few expensive hotels, but many poor people living in close proximity of each other.  There are many huts, shanties, and tents along the streets, home to millions of poor.  The poorest of all simply sleep on the sidewalk, or under a bridge, just like Reno’s homeless population, multiplied by a factor of millions.  One sees people bathing, cooking, sleeping, all in plain view next to the road.  I wonder how many people spend their whole lives there.

Beggars and the poor

One new variation this year among the beggars is the phenomenon of young girls running up to the taxi while it’s stopped at a crossing, and then doing backflips and cartwheels followed by a plea for money.  In fact, our Indian friends tell us that some beggars are organized into territories by Mafia-type bosses, who take the money that the girls collect.  The worst phenomenon is when young children are purposely mutilated, by amputating a limb in order to increase the sympathy factor in their begging.  We don’t give donations to these young healthy-looking girls.  However, late at night, we gave money to some truly pitiful beggars who spend their whole lives on the sidewalks, at the mercy of passers-by.

One new aspect of Bombay is the presence of a new fleet of garbage trucks.  They look just like the ones in Reno, and the streets of downtown Bombay are noticeably cleaner.  In previous years, one could find piles of garbage on the edge of the streets.  Nonetheless, I still saw a man digging through a garbage can, I assume, looking for something to eat.  It is sobering to be surrounded by such poverty while we are so incredibly rich, by comparison.  If you are not feeling it already, everyone reading this blog should take a second and give thanks for how lucky and blessed we all are!

The vibrant Bombay music scene

In playing at a new state of the art local jazz club, the Blue Frog, and in recording yesterday at an old friend’s studio, I was reminded that it is possible for a lucky few musicians to make a comfortable living playing jazz.  They can do this by producing music for Bollywood films, playing for the numerous lavish wedding celebrations, and developing their respective touring careers.  In 1982 and ’83, I spent approximately two months each year, performing with my friends and playing my Lyricon wind synthesizer on Hindi film soundtracks.  In dollars, I was making twice as much in Bombay as I could in California at that time.  (Okay…I wasn’t making that much in California.)  My Indian friends joked that I would move to India and vacation in California.  But then in 1984 I met Susan, and the plans changed…

The Blue Frog Jazz Club

Our Bombay performance was at a brand new (opened only a month ago) jazz club, with state of the art lighting and sound.  Mynta’s big bank gig in Bombay had been cancelled, so our manager had to scramble for a venue for us on short notice.  The club had been hired on that evening for a private function, to honor  French cinema and Franco-Indian film collaboration.  Luckily, Manish, our agent was able to engage Mynta as the entertainment.  As our third concert on the tour, we are starting to reach our previous levels of creative interaction and ensemble cohesion.  Therefore, we should be well-prepared and in top form for our Calcutta Jazz Festival performance tomorrow.

Our day in the recording studio

With no other formal engagement, we decided to spend our free day in Bombay in a recording studio.  Isn’t that how everyone spends their free days in an exotic place?  The studio belonged to an old friend of mine, Ranjit Barot, that I had played with in 1982-3 in India, and in Holland in 1984, under the band name Ji-Whiz.  We arrived early for the session, and Ranjit was in the middle of a rehearsal with his current band.  The players were absolutely top-notch, world-class.  They would be at home in New York or LA.  There was even a bansuri (bamboo flute) player in the group.  But as a sympathetic ear, I thought that he was never loud enough, compared to the electric guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums.

The musical content was a high energy techno-fusion genre, not unlike what we played in the 80’s.  Ranjit said that there had been a ten-year period when fusion was out of style, but that now the young people were embracing it again.  I think that in the Indian music market techno-fusion-jazz takes the place of hip-hop in the states as the preferred music of the younger generation.

Ranjit has constructed a studio with the latest equipment, speakers, mixers, computers, etc.  It was financed by his success as a music producer for Bollywood films.  I think the general market for music is simply larger and better financed in India than in the states.  They have a great sweetheart arrangement between the film and music industries:  The movies contain song and dance numbers.  Then the artists are able to use that promotion to boost their CD sales and live performances.  Our singer friend, Shankar Mahadevan, is a prime example of the success that is possible.

Then there is the classical circuit, which is well established.  Because classical concerts consist of only two or three musicians, they are much easier to stage than western classical concerts, which are thought of as being mainly symphonies or ballets.  (Western classical chamber music has never developed a significant audience.)  The fact that Mynta has had such great success here is a testament to the enthusiastic audiences.  We are optimistic about coming back on a yearly basis.  This would not be possible without the work of our Indian manager/agent, Manish.  He does a fantastic job of setting up all logistical arrangements, not to mention pitching the band to potential concert venues.

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