sbcltr meets Abhijit Jejurikar, the man who brought music to India’s biggest slum

As we walk across the busy streets of Dharavi and move further into the alleys, in search of the members of Dharavi Rocks—a band that uses recycled products as drums for creating music, the smell of meat is overwhelming. It is mixed with a leathery stench that is reserved for the dingiest bylanes of the city. Piss and sewage are everywhere in these shadow lined dark spaces that get narrower, to a point where people can’t cross each other without getting in the way. Then suddenly when your senses are just starting to get accustomed to the irreverent squalor, there is an opening in this maze like structure and we are with the band members we seek, child residents, turned musicians who earlier did odd jobs such as rag picking around Mumbai.

They are practicing music around a man who is sitting in the centre and appears to be conducting them. It is a large band, more than 50 children in the age group of 8-18 years that includes both, girls and boys. No struggling band, this. The members of this band are bonafide stars who have more than 150 gigs to their credit, including stints with Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, NH7 weekender fest and Karsh Kale collective. These children from a slum have also done a show at the World’s richest house ever built, popularly known as Antilla of Reliance industries.

Abhijeet Jejurikar, is the man at the centre of this band, both literally and figuratively. This thirty-two-year-old self-taught musician, gives music classes to these children and likes to call himself a volunteer of Dharavi Rocks. In reality, he is the curator of the group and has been pivotal in changing their life.  “For me, this is a way of giving back to society. I believe in work-life balance and I believe that one can give back simply by contributing anything they are good at. In my case, it has been music that I have been most passionate about.” As we stand and listen in on the practice session, Jejukar talks of raw talent and his belief how greatness emerges from real struggle. “The elite attain whatever they do because of the privileges they are born into,” he shrugs, saying that raw talent grows out of ghettos and dissatisfaction. The ever smiling, energetic Jejukar is an inspiration to many corporate slaves of today who only believe in arm chair activism and often criticise their own peer group with a sense of duty.

With no strict background of music in the family, Jejurikar says he got inspired by his grandmother who used to play harmonium at religious gatherings. His music induction started early in school, and he loved to get a chance to play at school functions. Early exposure to performances escalated his energy on stage and passion for music. He remembers, that on his first day of his graduation, he took a Bongo to his college and started playing it in a German language class, “everybody started to dance,” he laughs. He was told to leave the class, but not before getting an entry into the college band. “My seniors asked me to join the college band for inter college competition and for my first gig, I asked everybody who I knew to come and see me playing, I invited everyone. Although, my role was just to play the tambourine, but I was so happy that I was playing with the band and it happened on the first day of my college,” he laughs. Post winning the competition, he ended up forming a band with those college seniors, it was called Juvenile and Delinquets. It was then that he decided to commit his life time to music

After joining that band, he started following global music and considers himself lucky that he has been a part of more than 10 bands that have helped him learn a lot about the subject. He was also a part of several hard rock bands and has more than 200 gigs to his credit. His band Vertigo, for which he was the backing vocalist, as well as the keyboardist, won the I-rocks in 2005. “Winning I-rock with Vertigo was an awe inspiring moment. We came as underdogs and when we won it, we couldn’t believe it because there were so many great bands performing with us. It was unbelievable”.

Later in 2006, he moved to Bombay from Pune to work with Essar Steel and that is when he really started to miss his music. In 2008, he moved back to Pune and joined Taal inc. Taal inc was among the first percussion only bands in India that performed at various Drum circles with dhols, djembes etc. Till then, Jejurikar had worked as a vocalist, guitarist and keyboard player musically. At Taal Inc he fell in love with percussion.

In 2012, He joined The Accorn Foundation as a volunteer to work with the children of Dharavi as a music instructor. He remembers, that his first meeting with the kids was a bit nasty as they weren’t sure who he was as their concept of music was influenced purely by Bollywood and artists such as Arijeet Singh etc. “I started singing and that is when they gained confidence that yes, I know music.With Dharavi being one of the biggest recycle hubs of India, we thought, why not use recycle drums and make instruments out of it to teach these kids.” It started with 10-12 children, with an aim to help them cope with worldly problems by concentrating on music. It also gave them an opportunity to learn music, an art form that they could not generally afford to study or practice. They picked up so fast, that in two years, they started collaborating with artists like Agnee, Remo, Papon, Indian Ocean, African drummers etc.

Jejurikar says that it was very cumbersome to motivate the children initially, as their families never supported the endeavor and just wanted them to start working. “I told them, that if they practice properly, they would have mobile phones and would fly everywhere to perform. I said it to motivate them while eating ice cream” he smiles, “soon enough Dharavi gained popularity among the audience and we got a call to perform in Delhi. The band was provided with air tickets. When I informed the kids about it, they got sad because they said they don’t have passports. I laughed and told them they didn’t need passports for Delhi.” Today, they do more than 3-4 gigs a month across India.

When we asked about the change that Dharavi rocks has brought in the children’s lives, Jejurikar says that, after performing at Radio stations, sitting with Amitabh Bachchan, playing with Salman Khan, going to Antialla to perform at MAMI festival, being greeted by Neeta Ambani and Katrina Kaif, the kids have gained lot of confidence. “They are not scared of talking to someone unknown or going on stage alone and performing. It has boosted their confidence manifolds, but sometimes this success goes over your head. So I keep telling them to keep their head low and work hard.”

Last year Jejurikar quit his marketing job with The Economic Times and joined Ink Talks that does talks and presents underground talent to the world, “with my new job, I am able to manage work life even better and devote time to Dharavi rocks.” For instance, right now, he is focused on taking Dharavi rocks international and is looking for partners who are interested in opening similar models around the country. “There are many Shivamanis and Rehmans in the ghettos but because of lack of resources their talent is not able to see the light of the day.”

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