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Authority Magazine - Baluji Shrivastav OBE and the IVO - five things needed to shine in the music industry - Nov 2020

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.

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Morley Radio Podcast on Waterloo Festivalcast featuring Kate and Baluji from the Inner Vision Orchestra

Festivalcast on Morley Radio #12: The Inner Vision Orchestra
Euchar Gravina, Artistic Director of the Waterloo Festival, speaks to Baluji Shrivastav OBE and local Kate Portal. Founder and member of the Inner Vision Orchestra, respectively, they talk about their journeys as blind musicians.
From childhood anecdotes to the challenges faced by blind musicians as they navigate a professional career in the arts, this chat explores the colourful life of Britain\'s only professional orchestra of blind musicians.

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BBC Online - Disabled musicians \\\'on a tightrope\\\'

Disabled musicians \'on a tightrope\'

Hirsz says her story is typical of disabled musicians, who have found themselves left high and dry by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Singer-songwriter Chloe Mogg, who has both fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, agrees the last six months have been \"really, really tough\".

\"The NHS is doing an amazing job at the moment but, especially with chronic fatigue syndrome, it seems like all the invisible illnesses have been pushed to the side,\" she says.

\"We\'re walking on a tightrope and we don\'t know if we\'re going to fall off at any stage.\"

But Mogg, like Hirsz, has approached the pandemic with imagination and resilience, channelling her energies into organising an online music and arts festival. 

Called The 7 Arts Still Exist, it highlights the work created by artists, designers, sculptors, writers, musicians, dancers and photographers during the pandemic. Mogg is already lining up its third event with her childhood friend Amy Crouch.

The musician says the pandemic has taught her to \"live more in the present moment\", even when \"it felt like I\'ve been put on pause\".

\"It\'s been tough for me and it\'s been tough for a lot of musician friends who have anxiety problems,\" she says. 

\"It\'s something we\'re learning to adapt to - but I don\'t feel like we should be needing to adapt. It\'s really, really tough.\"

For visually-impaired sitar player Baluji Shrivastav, adaptability has been the watchword for the last six months.

The 70-year-old, who has played with Oasis, Stevie Wonder, Massive Attack, Kylie Minogue and Coldplay, cannot travel during the pandemic, making it \"very difficult to perform anywhere\".

\"But we still meet sometimes,\" he says. \"We are allowed to meet six people in one place, and we have a garden so we rehearse there sometimes - but it will be difficult in the winter.\"

Shrivastav was appointed an OBE in 2016 for his services to music, after founding the Inner Vision Orchestra, whose players are all blind or partially-sighted.

He says live-streamed concerts are harder for blind musicians, because communication between players is reliant on physical proximity. Meeting up for socially-distanced concerts poses other problems.

\"Even if we can reach the venue without help, we need help within the venue itself,\" he says. \"It\'s a constant difficulty for visually-impaired people.

\"And, of course, financially, we are not earning at all.\"

\'Risk of invisibility\'

According to the UK Disability Arts Alliance #WeShallNotBeRemoved, the pandemic has had a particularly negative impact on disabled people working in the creative industries. 

In an open letter to the secretary of state for culture, Oliver Dowden MP, the alliance warned that \"many disabled artists are facing long term shielding, a total loss of income, compromised independent living and the risk of invisibility in wider society\".

Separately, the Audience Access Alliance - which represents 12 disability charities in the UK - says it is \"deeply concerned\" that disabled people will miss out on access to gigs, theatre and sport when venues reopen because of extra Covid-related precautions and restrictions.

\"If we want to \'build back better\', it\'s vital that we build back for all,\" the organisation wrote in an open letter to the live music industry earlier this month.

The fear for both organisations is that the progress made since the UK\'s equality act came into force 10 years ago will be lost.


Hirsz and Mogg both have horror stories about the discrimination they faced before Covid. 

One promoter refused to work with Idealistics because of Hirsz\'s condition. \"They said, \'You\'ve got all these [feeding] tubes and nobody wants to see that. You\'re just going to deter a crowd,\'\" she recalls.

Mogg was also berated by a promoter last year, after a flare-up of fibromyalgia forced her to pull out of a show.

\"He was like, \'You\'re a massive disappointment,\'\" she says. \"It was so embarrassing. I felt really ridiculed and ashamed of my illness, even though it\'s part of me.\"

Despite the challenges like those, Hirsz, Mogg and Shrivastav are determined to stay active throughout the pandemic.

The Idealistics have just released their new single Memory River (inspired, naturally, by the Manic Street Preachers), while Hirsz is working as an advocate for disability charity Attitude is Everything.

On Monday, Shrivastav\'s Inner Vision Orchestra launched their first studio album, Indian Classical Interactions - one of three records the musician recorded in the space of a week before lockdown earlier this year. A documentary about his life will also be screened at the Bloomsbury festival this weekend.

And Mogg is busy finalising the third edition of The 7 Arts Still Exist, which will feature country artists Katy Hurt and Roisin O\'Hagan.

In the meantime, she says its crucial that everyone looks out for the people around them, and asks for help when they need it.

\"Just be kind, be bold and, especially if you\'re suffering, talk to someone and tell them how you\'re feeling. Because they would rather hear it now than listen to your story at a funeral.\"

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Disability Arts Online, Sept 2020 - Baluji Shrivastav OBE ‘unlocking the mind’ during lockdown

Baluji Shrivastav OBE ‘unlocking the mind’ during lockdown

Musician and composer Baluji Shrivastrav OBE, talks with Natasha Sutton-Williams about his latest project Raaja-Ajaar commissioned by Unlimited and made in collaboration with poet Linda Shanson.

Baluji Shrivastav OBE is one of the most versatile Indian instrumentalists in modern history, excelling in sitar, surbahar, dilruba, pakhavaj and tabla. Established in the Hindustani classical tradition, Shrivastav composes for film, dance and theatre, blending the sounds of Western orchestras and Indian ensembles in his mellifluous work.

He’s been described by the Evening Standard as the “sitarist to the stars” and for good reason: Shrivastav has recorded with Massive Attack, Madness, Doves, Amorphous Androgynous, and performed with musical icons including Stevie Wonder. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he collaborated and performed with Coldplay for the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games. But it’s not all glitz and glam for Shrivastav; the majority of his work amounts to the forensic study and internalisation of different musical genres, and pure, hard graft.

“When I work with great musicians, I really learn from them. And I’ve learnt a lot! Indian music is melody music. We are rich in melody. Western music is harmony music. When you mix melody and harmony together it creates something wonderful. Bollywood is a modern example where the songs are full of melody and harmony. They have taken tunes from the West and adapted them for Indian music.”

Commissioned by Unlimited, Shrivastav’s latest project is a new composition that accompanies an original epic poem ‘Raaja-Ajaar’ – about self-discovery, with text written by his wife and collaborator Linda Shanson. Given these momentous times, the poem’s action is set in an abstracted place of withdrawal from the world.

“I composed pieces for the poem then invited musicians to perform them. I gave the performers guidelines and they played piano, guitar, mandolin, and cello. Linda narrates and also sings in some places. I’ve done a lot of work but there is so much more work to be done because it’s such an epic poem. My feeling was that this project was the best thing to do in lockdown because we have to really discover what’s happening with us. It’s the unlocking of the mind. We don’t know when it will end. We are discovering how to live without support.”

Championing the talent of disabled musicians is at the heart of Shrivastav’s work. In 2008 he and Shanson created the Baluji Music Foundation to encourage and recognise the achievements of blind and visually impaired musicians. As their main showcase project they founded the Inner Vision Orchestra, an ensemble made entirely of international blind and visually impaired musicians, who perform across the globe together. Shrivastav was awarded his OBE for his services to music and as founder of this seminal orchestra.

Shrivastav is one of the best-known Indian musicians out there. But how did his musical career begin? “I’m a born musician. When I was two years old, I used to sing Bollywood songs just by listening to the wind-up gramophone. I was blind at the age of eight months. My father was taking me everywhere to meet doctors. Finally, my father was told about a blind school in Gwalior in India. He took me there aged six to see how blind people study. The headmaster was so impressed with my singing and harmonium playing that he wanted me then and there! My father decided that when I turned ten l would enrol. But the headmaster said that in four years I could learn so much! “Why would you waste his four years?” I was immediately enrolled. I was 300 miles away from my home, learning all this music, playing in the blind school orchestra, which had about 28 performers. I was learning composition and then given the responsibility to compose for the orchestra.”

So when did Shrivastav discover India’s most illustrious instrument? “One day when I was playing banjo, my hand brushed against a beautiful instrument. I said to my teacher, “What is this instrument?” He said, “Oh, this is a really big instrument. You can’t play it because it’s very difficult.” I insisted because I liked its shape. I cried and cried and finally he gave it to me. As soon as I got it I started playing film songs and some of my compositions on it. My teacher was so happy that I had picked it up so naturally he said, “Anybody can play the banjo but the sitar is made for you.”

Shrivastav is not only a world-class musician and composer, but is also an inventor! He has designed a revolutionary new technology for blind and visually impaired musicians to sight-read music.

“As musicians we have to learn how to sight-read. That is very complicated for blind people. First we have to write music in Braille, then read it, learn it, memorise it and play it. So it’s very difficult! It’s not like sighted people who can just look at the music and play. I had a think about it and designed hands free Braille music. It works with vibrations being fed to your arms. Both arms receive a vibration: the vibrations pulsing down one arm gives you the tempo and rhythm, and the vibration down the other arms gives you the tone of the notes.”

Shrivastav continues: “At the moment, someone has to operate this device manually but I want it to be automatically operated. I want to incorporate a microphone in the machine, so when you say ‘page one, bar 28’ the machine is voice activated and takes you to that bar. In an orchestral setting it could be activated by the conductor. Everybody in the orchestra would have this equipment. In the rehearsal when the conductor shouts ‘bar 126’ the machine would automatically take every player to that bar. The machine is currently very good for rehearsals. But when you are learning music, practice takes such a long time. I’m thinking we should let children use this technology so they can learn music faster and more easily.”

It is clear that whatever Shrivastav puts his mind to, out comes sensual magic.

Look out for plans to perform Raaja-Ajaar next year when hopefully live performances will be happening everywhere once more!

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