It’s less frightening if you remember that the audience want to be pleased by your performance. That’s why they have come out to the gig and bought a ticket. Make them feel part of your performance.
As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Baluji Shiravastav about his own music career and his Inner Vision Orchestra, which he founded in and is the UK’s only orchestra of blind musicians.
Baluji Shrivastav OBE is an internationally acclaimed blind Indian musician, composer and teacher. He is a prolific artist in his own right and has worked with stars including Stevie Wonder, Annie Lennox and Shakira.
He is also the founder of The Inner Vision Orchestra, the only professional orchestra of blind musicians. He founded it in 2012 with his wife Linda Shanson, also a musician, in response to the difficulties he experienced in establishing his musical career despite his talent. Baluji wanted to help other blind musicians overcome discrimination. They play Indian folk, classical and a range of genres from around the world.
They are based in London but have toured around the world. This year they were poised for their biggest ever tour, Inner Vision 2020, which was cancelled because of lockdown, so they’ve instead hosted a series of solo concerts called Inner Vision Concert Series on Youtube.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in the village of Usmanpur in Uttar Pradesh India. My mother was a young teenager. In the monsoon season the roads through the village became clogged with mud so that when I got an eye infection from the dirt the bullock cart that was to take us to the doctor got stuck in the mud. One of the neighbours offered to cure me but the mixture she put in my eyes blinded me instead. Many years later I met that neigbour and I touched her feet out of respect and thanked her because being blind set me on the path to become a musician and travel the world.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
From then on, sound became my medium of expression and music my second nature. At that time a blind person in India could become a holy person, a beggar or a musician. My father trained me in meditation and Sanskrit but I was destined to become a musician, performing and teaching from a very young age. I was sent to blind school 300 miles from our home and when I was 8, I touched a beautifully tactile instrument and cried untill I was allowed to play it. The teacher relented and as soon as I picked it up I started to play a tune. That was the sitar and since then we are together!
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I had a friend in India who was a theatre director and I was with him when his lighting engineer didn’t show up. He was desperate as the show was soon to begin, so he taught me all the cues and showed me which switches to press to operate the lights. No one in the audience could guess that the lighting engineer that night was blind!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was hired to play at a birthday party in London and decided to play an arrangement of a Western song I had heard in one of the music shops in India as I thought it suited the mood of the event. The tabla player who was accompanying me on the drums became very excited and I asked him why he was suddenly playing so loud.
He said, “Paul McCartney is dancing to our music”. I said, “who is Paul McCartney?” and he said, “The Beatles” and I said, “Oh” because at that time I had no idea about these things. Then Paul came up and said to me, “I like your Norwegian Wood”, which was the name of that song, but to me it was just a lovely tune I picked up. I thought he was referring to the wooden stage I was sitting on! I learned to listen to more pop music!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The pandemic has restricted the live performance aspect of my work which I love the best. I feel complete when I am performing before a crowd. I am using this time to focus on my practice and to listen to all sorts of music. I am making lots of plans for the future, such as working on the music for an amazing epic poem my wife has written. I am also thinking about new compositions I would like to be commissioned to write for different kinds of vocal styles and instruments. I am also keeping the Inner Vision Orchestra motivated and working on a new repetoire with them over the internet.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
Film and TV have a powerful influence on the way we think. Film and TV both entertain and educate us and influence our understanding about people who are different to us or lead different kinds of lives.
If film and TV limit who is represented on screen they miss out some powerful stories, but also the groups that are excluded become marginalized and their voices are not heard and there is less empathy for them in society. This can lead to division and prejudice based on ignorance which limits the opportunities for society to benefit from the contribution that different kinds of people have to offer.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. When you make up a song, you actually own it. It’s called copyright and when someone says it’s their song and makes lots of money from it, it’s called STEALING!
2.When you are invited to stay in someone’s house and you are blind you need to know HOW TO CLEAN THE BATH.
3. Musicians need to ask for payment otherwise you don’t get any.
4. I wish someone had told me that when you direct music for theatre you can call yourself a MUSICAL DIRECTOR MD because in India I was never taught that these roles existed.
5. When I first came to Europe people would offer me food and in India it is considered greedy to say yes, so I said ‘no thanks’. As a result I soon weighed 45kilos! Say YES!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
1. Be confident but not overconfident.
2. In the rehearsal, I tell musicians a wrong note may be a mistake but on the stage there is no such thing as a wrong note! Play on and smile — it’s an improvisation!
3. Before going on stage , and in the interval find a peaceful space and be still. Meditation and concentration are key.
4. It’s less frightening if you remember that the audience want to be pleased by your performance. That’s why they have come out to the gig and bought a ticket. Make them feel part of your performance.
5. Listen to yourself and to the other musicians, and feel the music.
6. You and the audience are one. Love yourself love the audience.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Sound beacons at all traffic lights, with different kinds of sounds, so that blind people can cross the road and know where they are. Also please let buses announce when they arrive what number bus they are so I don’t get on the wrong bus!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Undoubtedly my wife, who discovered me in Paris when I had had all my money stolen. I was trying to earn enough to buy a ticket back to India. She was in Paris studying at ecole Jaques Lecoq and she wanted to learn Indian singing. We both had friends who were part of the Living Theatre of New York working in Paris at the time, and they introduced us. She came to visit me and sang with my sitar. I say it was love at first bite! She opened my mind to thinking in new ways about life and music and that ultimately you make your own happiness!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Don’t be quick to judge others, people don’t always mean what they say!
I have learnt that the hard way as I don’t see people’s faces and body language and the non-verbal signals. But I hear so many people spending much energy making assumptions about people on appearances. Of course I have also been at the receiving end of quick judgements because I have been poor, a foreigner and blind.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Stevie Wonder! I did play with him at Hard Rock Calling in Hyde Park but it was difficult to get to chat as there were so many people around us. I love to talk to him about what we could do to help blind musicians in the music business, about technology, about music, about life, about food!
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!