Baluji Shrivastav has played on Top of the Pops five times, accompanied Stevie Wonder in Hyde Park and, in 2012, performed with Coldplay at the Paralympics closing ceremony. You can hear his sitar clearly in Massive Attack’s famous song Teardrop, and he has recorded with many other acts, including Annie Lennox, Oasis and Kaiser Chiefs.
In 2010 Baluji (known by his first name alone) set up the Inner Vision Orchestra, – specifically to give paid work to fellow blind musicians, and partly because he wanted to address some of the confidence problems suffered by others in his position. They perform regularly together and now, he says, members are getting further professional jobs as solo musicians.
One of Baluji’s aims was to show the world that the ensemble can play music better than many sighted people – he says you have to be very good to get where his orchestra has got to.
“Inner Vision members can play in sync successfully without relying on eye contact or even a conductor,” he says. It’s a skill which impresses sighted musicians, for whom a visual connection is crucial to get their cues. “As we have been practising more and more together, our understanding [of one another] is developing further and further.” They remember the order of play and if in doubt Baluji leads. Rather than rely on a conductor, one musician starts each piece and the rest follow his or her tempo. “I don’t say anything about what instruments there are or what a musician is going to play. They have to tell their own story.”
Baluji’s story is itself extraordinary. Born with sight in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, he was diagnosed with glaucoma at eight months old. At the time, a neighbour told his mother she had been able to cure her own eight children of the same eye condition with her homemade opium-based remedy, and wanted to try it on Baluji.
“She put the medicine inside my eyelid and bandaged my eyes for three days,” he says. “But when the bandage was taken off, there was a lump in it. My mother asked what the lump in the bandage was, and the neighbour told her ‘it’s dirt, throw it away’.” But the lump was in fact Baluji’s eye and with the other one also damaged, he went blind soon afterwards.
Baluji says his mother realised he was a “born musician” when he started singing at 18 months old. She taught him to play the harmonium, an organ-like wind-powered keyboard used in Indian music.
Baluji was educated at the Ajmer Blind School for boys 300 miles away in Rajasthan. His musical ability quickly shone through – but most of the instruments at the school were made from pumpkin and were incredibly delicate, so children were only allowed to play them in moderation. Baluji was desperate to play more and one day he happened upon a sitar. Despite protestations from his teacher that the instrument was too big for such a small boy of eight, he started to play and immediately picked out a number of tunes. He fell in love, and never looked back.
I see lots of blind people who don’t have any confidence.”
By the age of 10, Baluji was conducting his first non-sighted orchestra at his school, featuring more than 80 musicians. He had to find a way of doing it in a non-visual way and hit on the idea of using a xylophone where each note he played conveyed a pre-arranged instruction.
The emerging virtuoso went on to gain two music-related degrees but when his family lost their lettings business he put his work on hold to help them. So they could continue to earn a living, he taught them to weave cane chairs, a skill he had learned at the blind school. In his 20s, Baluji did a masters degree in sitar before moving to France and then later to the UK.
While he says the attitude to blindness in Asia is not good, it was the negativity from his family and community that spurred him on to, in his words, “show them that being blind is not a curse but a boon”. He believes he wouldn’t have fulfilled his musical potential, pushed himself forward or gained such positive attention if he hadn’t lost his sight.
In contrast to the positive spirit he forged in northern India, Baluji is concerned by the attitude of some blind people in the UK. “I see lots of blind people here who don’t have any confidence,” he says. Though many might disagree with his assessment, he thinks they may have become a bit “lazy” because they receive “too many benefits and comforts”.
A recent tour has taken the Inner Vision orchestra to small venues all over England by minibus and public transport. This can present logistical challenges, says Baluji says. The musicians have had problems with taxi drivers refusing to take their guide dogs, and one dog’s tail got caught in a taxi door when it closed.
But assistance is necessary for Inner Vision members to be able to work optimally and each person has different needs. “Some of our musicians were born blind but some went blind at a later age and need more help,” says Baluji. “We need volunteers to take care of them and to look after guide dogs while their owners are on stage performing.”