UNDER A DARKENING AUGUST SKY, in the red-light district of Kamathipura in Mumbai, I made my way past the run-down Alankar Theatre, past a clutch of men at an iron gate, and into a classroom on the ground floor of a building that houses Prerana, a non-profit that works with sex workers and their children. A guitarist tuned up in a corner, and a chart reading “I am powerful” hung on one wall. I sat on the floor with over three dozen children—toddlers in the front, teenagers at the back. After a few minutes, a five-member band took to the front of the room, introduced themselves as Pehli Baarish, and launched into song: ‘Ajeeb dastan hai yeh…’.
This was the band’s first performance. Prerana was an unusual choice of venue for a debut, but then this was an unusual band. Pehli Baarish—“first rain”—performs exclusively for disadvantaged and marginalised communities in Mumbai. At the Prerana show, the band’s lead singer, Ritika Sahni, said that Pehli Baarish wants to give its listeners the same elation they might feel at the arrival of the first shower of the monsoon. “These kids, senior citizens, cancer patients—they all are part of our society, yet invisible to us,” she explained to me later. Sahni said society’s neglect of such groups results in more than physical deprivation, and also limits their access to culture and entertainment. “Filling their living spaces with this entertaining vibe really matters, right?” she added. “It’s a way of making them feel a part of us, and help them forget their lives’ troubles.”
The ensemble began rehearsing in June, initially with just Sahni and Rohan Mehra, son of the late Bollywood actor Vinod Mehra and an aspiring actor himself. Sahni also has a connection to the film industry: she was a playback singer, and recorded the Bollywood hit ‘Tumse mili nazar’ in 2003, before shifting focus towards work for the rights of people with disabilities. She now produces music for children with special needs, holds workshops to educate companies on the needs of customers and employees with disabilities, and runs Trinayani, an NGO that operates a spa in north Mumbai staffed by blind people. Other band members, many of them blind, soon joined in to form an informal collective, and now the group’s line-up varies from one show to another (Mehra, for instance, hasn’t yet played a gig). Their performances are hosted by Kishore Gohil, head of the National Organisation of the Disabled Artists and a blind artist himself. But Sahni remains the band’s driving force, coordinating rehearsals, arranging shows and fine-tuning the playlist.