Sunday, September 09, 2012

A Doraemon Ektara

An Ektara is a single-sting intrument that has numerous variations in India. One that is commonly seen in rural North India is fashioned out of bamboo-sticks , a clay pot and some paper and is played like a violin.

One of the proponents of this Ektara, has been a permanent fixture at Dilli Haat for the past eight years, filling shopping arcades with melodies from the latest Indi-pop, and selling his wares out of a wicker basket. Yesterday, for the first time, I got a chance to listen to the man and the efforts of his family to make a living out of street-music.

Ram Bhaj Singh comes from a family of musicians from rural Panipat in Haryana. It was his uncle, an elderly gentleman frequently seen in a white turban and kurta-pyjama, who first ventured towards Dilli Haat and positioned himself outside the gates, amongst the vendors who cannot afford to pay a 'tax' to the local authorities. According to Singh, it was one of officials within Dilli Haat, a manager named Sridhar, who first gave him the opportunity to step within the gated complex.

The deal was simple and straightforward. For a payment of Rs.150 per day, he could sell his wares to the tourists and foodies who stepped into the Haat all day. Since he free to set differential pricing for foreign tourists and Indian customers, the word soon got around that he was making a killing. The sale of just one ektara to a foreigner was enough to pay the day's rent. The entire community of musicians then turned up at the Singh household in Panipat to negotiate a division of spoils.

A deal was negotiated. Eight musicians from the community would take turns to sell their wares throughout the day for the same daily rent. It continued to be an excellent arrangement for many years until 2010 when there was a change of guard at Dilli Haat and Sridhar's replacement decided to maximize revenue by increasing the rent from roving musicians from Rs.150 to Rs.350 per day.

Unwilling to shell out nearly Rs.50 per head, the community first stayed off the Haat for two months. When the new manager refused to relent, the entire community turned up at the residence of Shiela Dixit, the Chief Minister of Delhi. About twenty of them would wait for days with their ektara baskets until the CM's office relented and a telephone call went out to the Haat office. The old daily rent was to continue but, in exchange, the Singhs agreed to forego the differencial pricing strategy. Prices were fixed- Rs.50 for the small ektara and Rs. 100 for a bigger one.

So as to make up for the loss of foreign-tourist revenue, the Singhs now try to increase the sale-volumes by bringing in better designs; pitching in bits of of English and by brining in more contemporary designs aimed at the kids.

Topping this list of new designs was the current favorite on children's TV, Doraemon, and tune that topped the charts - Kolaveri Di.

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