Tag Archives: storyteller

2021: A year of Love, Labour and Loss

Love is a mystery. Love is unitive. Love is how we connect as human beings with one another and with the whole universe together. Love is how we learn, become better, and make the world a better place to live for us and others. Love needs freedom to breathe, equality to thrive, and openness to flow and grow. Love is personal, political, philosophical, sexual, social, historical, metaphysical, transcendental, et al. Sadly, we have only one word to describe such a complex emotion. The ancient Greeks had six different words, but even that’s not enough. 2021 taught me new ways to describe the complexity of love and its various hues. Love lost on many counts, but it miraculously sprang on a few occasions like a phoenix. My LOVE vocabulary was defined and redefined by people who touched my life one way or another this year.

shillpi a singh

LOVE IS STORY: Jameel Gulrays

The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories, said American writer Mary Catherine Bateson, and Mumbai-based septuagenarian adman Jameel Gulrays couldn’t agree more with her. After spending more than five decades in the advertising world, working on popular brands, and teaching the nuances of this profession as a faculty member at leading institutions, Gulrays turned a new leaf and dedicated himself to work on his passion project – Katha Kathan. It was kindled by his earnest desire to preserve Urdu, and other Indian languages, promote and popularise them so that these aren’t reduced to mere dialects but live on to tell tales and regale the younger generations. He, along with his band of storytellers, has been pursuing the idea zealously since then.   

Early years

He was born with a silver spoon to Abid Gulrays in Bombay (as Mumbai was known then) on November 5, 1949. His father was multitalented – satirist, poet, and columnist par excellence – who also wrote songs for Hindi films in the 40s and 50s. Reminiscing his lyricist father, he says, “Surajmukhi released in 1950 had two memorable songs – suniye huzoor husn ka charcha na kijiye and husn ka guroor hai ye buri baat hai. The latter sung by Lata Mangeshkar was a blazing hit.” His father has 20 songs and ghazals to his credit as a lyricist. 

(from left to right) Abid Gulrays with Durga Khote, Ayaz Peerbhoy, and O.N. Verma, while recording a radio programme “Sanforized Ke Mehmaan”. 

At one point time, Abid Sahab was also associated with the newspaper, Inquilab. His satirical poems titled Baatein were a popular feature of the newspaper. He wrote these poems daily under the pseudonym, Cigarette Baaz. He also wrote a column, Tazyane, and it was so popular among the readers that many of them bought the newspaper just to read his piece. He used the pseudonym Phool Phenk, which came from Gulraiz. He wrote many columns under different names. He moved on from Inqilab to edit Mosavvir following a tiff with the management at the newspaper. Babu Rao Patel owned the publication Mosavvir, a popular film magazine, and at one point in time, it was edited by none other than Saadat Hasan Manto.

A poster of film Surajmukhi.

“I still fondly remember what he told me in my growing-up years, though I lost him quite early on at eight, these lessons have become the guiding principles of my life. He used to tell me that ‘should anyone move one step towards you, you should take ten steps forward and meet him/ her. If someone takes one step away, you move 10 miles away’. He always urged me to do my job without expecting anything in return, as expectations always hurt. Another invaluable lesson was around money. It is inconsequential, so don’t give importance to it; it can’t buy happiness.”    

But destiny had other plans. Gulrays’ father was fond of horse racing, and in one such race, he lost his entire fortune. He couldn’t cope with the humungous loss, and unable to bear it, he passed away soon after. It was the beginning of a long period of misery for the family. They were forced to move out of their plush bungalow in Mahim and settle in the predominantly Muslim locality, Bhendi Bazaar. The little boy was just eight then. Due to financial constraints, he was enrolled in an Urdu medium school – Bandra Urdu High School (now Bandra Urdu High School & Junior College Of Science, Commerce and MCVC). “In hindsight, I think, it was all a part of God’s plan. I loved reading Urdu and Persian literature during my early years in school and college, and these stories stayed on with me forever. Perhaps, I was destined to take on the arduous job of saving the language and its literature one day,” he says, with a deep sense of satisfaction.  

The badge of his Bandra Urdu High School carried three words – Azm (determination), Koshish (efforts) and Imaandari (honesty) and these values have stood him in good stead all through. 

Ad-ding on to life 

The loss of the breadwinner took a toll on his mother. She couldn’t live for long in penury, fell ill, and eventually passed away. “Her death shattered me completely as she was my biggest pillar of strength,” he says with moist eyes. His voice chokes on the mere mention of his parents, both of whom he lost early on in life. 

Gulrays shared his mother’s photo on her birth anniversary on June 6. She passed away when he was 18.

He was eighteen and barely in the first year of college then, but he had to fend for himself and also look after his family that included two younger brothers. He desperately started looking for a job to make ends meet. Circumstances forced him to leave his place in Bhendi Bazaar and relocate to a far-off suburb Malvani. “The nearest station was Naigaon, and I had to walk for an hour to take a local train. It was an underdeveloped area then, and hardly any buses used to ply there. Come rain or hail, I had no choice but to keep marching on, both literally and metaphorically,” he says. 

Advertising legend Ayaz Peerbhoy, who was his father’s friend, came forward to help and hired him for his agency. The remuneration was meagre, but it was something he badly needed, and he gladly took up this offer. In those days, the advertising world was dominated by English-speaking people, and anyone who didn’t know the language had little or no chance of survival. His ability not to give up came in handy and has stood him in good stead throughout. He not only learned English but mastered it. Later in his life, he set up an advertising agency and had the top-notch brand as his clients, and gave some memorable advertising campaigns in his five-decade-long career.

A new chapter 

He is an avid reader, and loves to spend hours immersed in the world of words. The library at his house in Khar, Mumbai, has an enviable collection of Urdu literature. One day, while sitting in his room, immersed in one of Manto’s stories, it dawned upon him that after his demise, his treasure trove will be in a shambles. “A raddi wala (ragpicker) will come and collect these books and sell it to a kabadi wala (junk dealer), who will sell it to vendors. Manto will be served on a plate of bhelpuri, Chugtai will be wrapped in paan, and Krishan Chander will be wrapped on vada pavs,” he rued. The thought shook him no end, and he decided to tell those tales, some well-known, others not so known, and many of them unheard, unread, and unknown, for the benefit of the younger generation. His passion for preserving Urdu and other Indian languages and the earnest desire to promote and popularise them for the younger generation led him to pursue the idea zealously. 

His undying love for stories that gave birth to Katha Kathan, a virtual repository of gems from Indian languages, relayed through his online social media channels on YouTube and Soundcloud – and relived through his offline storytelling sessions, a regular feature before the lockdown.  

A virtual Baithak with Team Katha Kathan in progress.

To start with, he started recording masterpieces from Urdu literature and releasing them on his YouTube channel. “One day, people might not be able to read these tales as they would no longer know the script. If these pieces are recorded and preserved, they would still be able to listen to them, whenever and wherever, and this, in a way, will preserve the treasure trove of stories for posterity,” he recounts. Initially, Gulrays thought of focussing only on Urdu literature, but once he exchanged the idea with others, he realised that the fate of other Indian languages is no different, so he widened his scope and included other “gems” of Indian literature, and featured stories in vernacular languages too.

Katha Kathan was started in 2015, and to date, he has recorded more than two thousand stories for his online platforms. It is a passion project funded by his selfless desire, and in all these six years, he has made humungous investments in terms of his money, time and energy, without taking a penny from any outsider. The growth and reach of the Katha Kathan project are purely organic, be it the views or the subscribers. The numbers only show the depth of his involvement and the widespread reach of his movement to keep Urdu and other Indian languages alive.  

Praiseworthy efforts

His honest endeavours have been suitably rewarded, and the former adman is now known as a connoisseur of the Urdu language, and his quintessential storytelling has won him many ardent fans and followers, and they range from celebrities to ordinary people. His popularity cuts across geographical, social, and linguistic barriers. People across the globe closely follow his work. Renowned actor Naseeruddin Shah has joined hands with him and is a regular in all Katha Kathan events. It is their shared love for Urdu that has kindled their camaraderie and friendship.  

Jameel Gulrays and actor Naseeruddin Shah pose against the Wall of Fame featuring literary giants from Urdu and other Indian languages. “Our relationship is based on mutual respect for each other’s work,” he says.

Sharing an anecdote, he says, “It so happened that I was recording Ismat Apa’s stories and releasing them on my YouTube channel, one after the other. I noticed that someone called Naseeruddin Shah would invariably comment and praise my work on these uploads. At first, I thought this must be some imposter. Why would someone of Naseeruddin Shah’s stature stop by at my YouTube channel, appreciate my work and care to comment? I wondered.” After the fifth story, he received a message that he (Naseeruddin) is coming to Delhi and would like to meet Gulrays. The actor thought that Gulrays is Delhi-based. Gulrays informed him that he lives in Mumbai, and they met, discussed the stories; Shah staged those as “Aurat, Aurat, Aurat,” and it was well-received by the audience. The actor, in his magnanimity, mentioned Gulrays’ name and his contribution in every interview that he gave after his play’s astounding success. “I sometimes wonder how come a genuine soul like him still exists in this world. He never declined his invite to any Katha Kathan show,” he says. Today, the actor is relearning Urdu, and calls Gulrays whenever he comes across a difficult word or sentence. Their relationship is based on mutual respect for each other’s work. “I have also benefited immensely from this partnership, and Naseeruddin Shah has always obliged my request for the interviews. Karwan-e-Mohabbat, with which I am associated, has gained a lot from these interviews,” he says.

Minding the language

These days, filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj and his singer wife Rekha Bharadwaj are taking lessons in Ghalib from the connoisseur of the Urdu language. “There are two interesting anecdotes about Ghalib. One is that “if it wasn’t for many of Ghalib’s “shrah” (explanation of Ghalib by many scholars), he would have been very easy to understand. And the second one is that Ghalib is perhaps the only poet in the world whose work, if you can’t decipher, gives you double the pleasure,” says Gulrays. He thinks that if one has to understand Ghalib, one has to view his poetry through the prism of mysticism. “Ghalib himself declares in one of his couplets that he would have been considered a “Sufi” if it wasn’t for his drinking habits. Jameel insists that any effort to understand Ghalib must be made in this direction if we truly want to decipher his work,” he adds. One of his explanations has impressed Gulzar so much that he has expressed his desire to meet him. 

Katha Kathan celebrates the works of Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand, Sahir Ludhianvi, Krishen Chander, Ismat Chugtai, and many others, but the celebrated and controversial writer Manto remains Gulrays’ all-time favorite. “Manto continues to be misunderstood despite finding new admirers decades after his death because most people haven’t really read his work in totality. They read six or eight of his stories and dub him an obscene or a dark writer. He is neither, and there is a lot of it that needs to be explored to understand Manto’s body of work better,” he adds.

Jameel Gulrays is not just an individual but an institution.

Taking a walk down the memory lane, he recounts how his childhood home – his lavish bungalow in Mahim – had a portion of it rented out to Shyam, a popular actor in those days, by his father to tide over the financial crunch. Shyam and Manto were best of friends, and Manto often dropped in to see Shyam. It seems like a connection established by the umbilical cord, and Gulrays holds the prolific writer in high regard. “Why Manto decided to migrate to Pakistan is a question still debated by many. He was miserable there, as some of his letters reveal. Perhaps, he took that decision because of an incident involving his friend Shyam. Riots had hit both sides of the border. Shyam had some relatives in Lahore, and he was anxious about their safety and wellbeing in such troubled times. One day, news came that one of them had been killed, and in an inebriated state, he told Manto that he could kill him one of these days. Regaining his sobriety, he apologised, but Manto was so shaken up that he decided to leave India. The interesting bit is Shyam went to see him off at the dock, where they drank together for the last time,” recounts Gulrays.

Lifelong mission

Now, in his twilight days, Gulrays could ill afford to bask in the glory days and live off comfortably. Not someone to sit on his laurels, he has been working for the Indian languages and literature because, as he says, “Languages are our homes, and we must protect them.” 

He rues how the millennials are losing touch with their mother tongue. “If they don’t prefer to communicate in their mother tongue, eventually they would lose touch and forget to read and write in that language. Once that happens, it would spell the death knell for these languages,” says Gulrays, explaining the real reason behind his passion project – the need to preserve these languages so that they don’t up remain a dialect for future generations.    

To listen to stories, follow Jameel Gulrays on YouTube and Soundcloud.

Gulrays is not just an individual but an institution. So many people claim to love Urdu, but there is no one like him. He remains one among the few sincere and selfless soldiers of the language who has been single-handedly working on this mission, regardless of the bouquet or brickbats that could come his way.

A Baithak of Katha Kathan is a must on the first Saturday of every month. During the pandemic, it has moved to a virtual platform. Earlier, it was held at his home, where stories flowed along with a generous helping of snacks and beverages. These days, he has started using Clubhouse to his advantage and hosts a dramatised storytelling session with Katha Kathan Team at 10.30 pm every Sunday. These virtual sessions see story lovers from across the world in attendance. 

Katha Kathan’s Jashn-e-Manto featuring actor Naseeruddin Shah.

Bushra Rahman, an eminent Urdu novelist across the border, once sent a message praising his style. Shah, when asked, ‘why we don’t a Zia Mohyeddin here?’ had once famously quipped, “You haven’t heard of Jameel Gulrays.” Shah’s statement sums up the sentiments of his ardent admirers, who come from across the world, belong to different age groups, and speak different languages. The common thread binding them all is their love for stories in Urdu and other Indian languages. And the tribe is growing every day. 

Team Katha Kathan with Jameel Gulrays.

A devoted Urdu lover, he has a team of young volunteers growing under his tutelage at Katha Kathan to keep the love for languages and stories alight. He quotes a couplet of Majrooh Sultanpuri in the parting, and that succinctly sums up his illustrious journey.  

“Maiñ akelā hī chalā thā jānib-e-manzil magar 
log saath aate ga.e aur kārvāñ bantā gayā.”

The power of a glance has been so much abused in love stories, that it has come to be disbelieved in. Few people dare now to say that two beings have fallen in love because they have looked at each other. Yet it is in this way that love begins, and in this way only.

victor hugo

2021: A year of Love, Labour and Loss

Love is a mystery. Love is unitive. Love is how we connect as human beings with one another and with the whole universe together. Love is how we learn, how we become better, and make the world a better place to live, for us and others. Love needs freedom to breathe, equality to thrive, and openness to flow and grow. Love is personal, political, sexual, philosophical, social, historical, metaphysical, transcendental, et al. Sadly, we have only one word to describe an emotion so complex. The ancient Greeks had six different words, but even that’s not enough. 2021 taught me new ways to describe the complexity of love and its various hues. Love lost on many counts, but like a phoenix, it miraculously sprang on a few occasions. My vocabulary of LOVE was defined and redefined by people who touched my life one way or another this year.

Shillpi A Singh

LOVE IS MUSIC: The Busking Man

“If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

William Shakespeare

If life is a song, then love is music for Debojyoti Nath, aka The Busking Man. Nath wears many hats. He is a singer-songwriter, busker, life-skills educator, storyteller, and Musart Brigade’s founder. In a heartwarming chat, he takes us along his eventful journey, and gives us a sneak peek into what music means to him… it is love and peace.  

Would you please tell me something about your initial years and initiation into the world of music?

I was born in a small jungle town of Umrongshu in Assam and moved to Shillong a few years later. It was there where my love for music took birth. Being in Shillong, you couldn’t escape music. I would go to the tiny shacks for some tea and momos in the mornings and evenings and invariably find western rock, pop, and folk music playing all day. I started being a part of our school musicals in class four and did it every year.  

I had a very musical family growing up. My father was Indian classical, my mother was Rabindra sangeet, and both my sisters were classically trained pianists. So there was music everywhere. My sister tried to teach me the piano, but I found it intimidating because of a deep-rooted fear of maths. I grew fond of the guitar instead and eventually learnt how to play it by myself. I loved to sing and play the guitar. And after winning the solo singer prize in Class 10, I felt like I made it!

Then I studied in Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, and all these places impacted me and the kind of music I listened to or sang. 

Since I was 16 years old, I always dreamt of putting out my album containing my original songs. Nearly two decades later, I fulfilled that dream when I released my album Rolling On under The Busking Man’s name in January 2021. When the album was out on all the major streaming platforms, I felt like I did justice to my life and dreams. And no matter how long it took, I am glad I never gave up on myself.

How did busking happen? When and where did it all start? What was the trigger to embark on this nationwide journey? 

My journey as a busker began after a massive internal frustration of not being able to do my bit to promote Peace and Love in a world filled with hate and wars and violence and brutal rapes, and mindless violence. After the Nirbhaya case that rattled the nation, I was quickly filled with the undying need to do my bit to spread the message of peace and love through music. I was working for the media industry then, and I also got to see the madness of media and how quickly a tragedy became fodder for the media. Being completely disillusioned and disheartened by it all, I was dying to take a stand for myself, if not for what was happening around me. 

Having studied and been inspired by iconic movements like John Lennon’s Bed-In for Peace, the Woodstock concert, the Vietnam protest movement, I knew I wanted to go out there in the masses and sing songs of love and peace. Also, I was 29 going to turn 30, and I wanted to do something for myself that made me happy and content as a human being. 

Music is Love and Peace: The Busking Man

So one fine, chilly Sunday morning in October of 2014, I painted a couple of placards with the words Peace and Love and headed over to Connaught Place in Delhi. I hovered around to find a suitable spot, and once I did, I busked my heart out. It was the most incredible feeling ever. Initially, people gave me funny stares, but gradually people stood and heard the songs I was singing and even started donating in my little box.

Literally, two weeks later, one evening after coming back from a frustrating day at work, I almost instantly decided to quit my job and busk around the nation. I wanted to busk in all the 29 states of India and spread the message of Peace and Love through Music. I tried to busk in all the state capitals and other cities as well. I pulled out a map of India from the internet and plotted my journey. That was all that I had planned.

I decided to start my audacious journey on the 1st of January 2015 from Kolkata and reach back home on the 17th of July on my birthday as I turned 30. I wanted to turn 30 on a train back home, and that’s exactly how it happened. 

And so I did. I became the first busker and musician in India to have busked in all the 29 states of India and 36 cities over seven months. It was life-altering. It was my moment of self-actualization. I took trains and buses and shared taxis and even walked. I couch-surfed and also took shelter in a café in the hills. My friends spread the word, and through these connections, I always found a place to stay or find support. I gave up the little savings I had and used whatever I earned on the streets to travel. Later I also ran a crowdfunding campaign to fund a major half of my travels. On average, I would make about 800–1500 a day just by playing on the streets. The earnings from the streets would be more than enough to help me get three meals a day and even shelter in places where I had no contacts. People were extremely generous towards me as well. It was all like a dream.

You have performed abroad as well. How was it different from the Indian performances?

My busking performances aboard were more novelty and tributes than a complete busking set. I played my original song on the hallowed grounds of Woodstock at minus 14 degrees because I just had to. I also performed in New York at the Lennon memorial in Central Park. 

These were more for myself as I played in some of the most iconic spots in music history and that in itself was a big deal for me.

What has been the most memorable busking experience? And why? 

This is a tough one to answer. To date, every place that I have busked is super special to me. But if I had to answer, it has to be the first time I ever busked in my life in Delhi. I chose that because it is where everything started. That one and half hours of busking changed everything for me. It gave me a new identity as The Busking Man, it gave me direction for my future, and it was instrumental in helping me take control of my life and focus on the things I wanted to do. 

How was the crowd experience? Did you feel let down anytime? 

The crowd experience was magical. For me, it was the crowd experience that made everything worthwhile. An artist is nothing without an audience. People gave me love, and I will always be grateful for that. 

Every place I went to and performed, at least one or two people would stay till the end to have a conversation, and those conversations are priceless. Those conversations made me a more empathetic human being. They would share their life story and how they wish they could do something else from what they were doing. I met people from all classes, religions and economic backgrounds, and it helped me understand people a little better. Everyone has a story to tell, and I was all ears for every one of them.

What stood out at the forefront of my busking journey was the power of music. Music was the key. It did not matter what genre it belonged to or what state I was in. I truly understood the power of music by being on the streets in all the 29 states of India. Wherever I went, people understood music, even if it was not in a language they understood or spoke.  

Initially, I would only sing in English and literally, in the second city I went to, Jaipur, I was standing in front of the Hawa Mahal and singing English songs. People loved the music but did not connect to the words. I sang about people and love and non-violence, but no one could understand. So I instantly composed a Hindi song called Nafaratey Bhulao Yaar, that said everything I stood up for. It was just a couple of lines. And as I sang it, I could see the people instantly understanding the words, and they had smiles on their faces. So I made it a point to include multiple languages whenever I sang. I sang, mimicked or tried to sing songs in Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, Bengali, Khasi, Assamese, Nepali and Spanish. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Lucknow and Jaipur to Shillong, Manipur and Nagaland, no matter where I performed, people danced and enjoyed themselves with this odd guy singing on the streets with his guitar.

No matter what genre I sang, I made sure I sang songs that would make people dance or groove or casually headbang or bob their heads and tap their feet. Every day was a performance. I did not want to be meek in my performance. I wanted it to be explosive and joyful, and thought-provoking. Even though technically it was a ticketless concert, I did not take it lightly or take it for granted. I gave it my all, and the audience gave me theirs. All I wanted to do was spread love and music and make someone’s day a little happier and brighter. And invariably, they would give me back all the love tenfold. It was a win-win for me wherever I went. 

I never felt let down in all these years. On the contrary, I have only received more love and care and compassion. I feel I let myself down if I don’t give my 100 per cent in the performances. 

How is busking different and the same as doing a live gig in a ticketed event? 

Busking is vastly different from doing a live gig as a ticketed event. It’s almost at the other end of the spectrum. When someone busks, no person is obligated to stop and stand a listen to your music. If they find you and your music appealing, you might gather up a crowd.

Also, no one is obligated to pay you for the music or your performance. It usually depends on the kindness and generosity of people. 

Coming to the logistics, I have never busked using a microphone or a PA system. So I had to be louder than the traffic or the hustle and bustle to be even heard. It’s great that I am generally loud when I sing, but I also had to maintain my voice and fitness to do so day after day for seven months while travelling. 

Busking also eliminates any boundaries of privilege. Everyone has access to a busker, just like radio. It is free and your choice whether to listen or not.

The Busking Man and his journey

You have beautifully documented your busking journey on the website. Do you intend to bring out a memoir? 

Thank you so much. It took a long while to do that, but I am delighted I did. I put the entire journey as posts on my Instagram. Photo memoirs with stories. I made the whole thing during the pandemic. I have always wanted to write a memoir and put it out but lacked confidence initially as a storyteller. But having made this photo memoir and having received positive feedback, I can see there is a possibility to pen down a memoir. https://www.thebuskingman.com/

You are a busker, teacher, coach or musician-singer-songwriter. Which role seems easier? 

At many levels, all these are very closely interconnected. Having developed a love for music led me to become a musician. Being a musician helped me become a busker, being a busker helped me become a singer-songwriter, which led me to become a teacher eventually. 

So it is pretty easy for me to switch between any of these roles as I am deeply passionate about each one of them. 

Being a musician and a music and arts educator are two roles I love.

What do you do as a corporate music wellness coach? 

As a corporate music wellness coach, I conduct various workshops based on the preferred modules that I have created. The wellness organization Good Lives have tied up with me to conduct workshops as well. I usually work around three main umbrellas — music wellness, mindfulness and expressive arts and lastly, sound therapy. I have developed modules based on each one of these comprising of various activities and instruction based tasks.

Please tell us briefly about Musart Brigade? How did it happen? Why is it Musart and not Mozart?  

Musart is an amalgamation of music and art. Musart Brigade happened when I lost my job from the NGO I used to teach the children of South Delhi Govt. schools. It was in the middle of the pandemic, and I was quite heartbroken. But instead of being sad and dejected, I took this as an opportunity to start something of my own and take my love for teaching a little further. 

So I teamed up with one of my colleagues from the same NGO we taught together. And after a lot of brainstorming, we came up with the teaching initiative called Musart Brigade.

Since taking physical classes was not possible as every school was shut for the pandemic, we decided to start giving online classes. My friend parted ways a little later, and I continued with the Musart classes. And now Musart has completed a year this November, and I can proudly say that Musart has reached close to 500 online classes and collectively will have done over 20 workshops, big and small.

How do you see busking gaining popularity in the age of social media? 

Busking is super popular in the western and Latin American countries like America, Europe, UK, Australia, Brazil, Argentina etc. Some of today’s most prominent musicians started as buskers such as Ed Sheeran. And now, with social media, a lot of buskers have gained a significant fan following. It is a brilliant exposure and also free marketing for buskers. 

In India, it is a whole different story. Busking is something that is very, very niche but slowly picking up some steam. 

The Busking Man is music personified.

What are the legalities of busking? 

What is interesting is that busking abroad has a well-controlled and regulated system. There are unions for buskers where every busker is auditioned and then assigned a spot in the city. For buskers, finding that perfect spot for busking is vital. 

But in India, we are still far from having a body that regulates and encourages busking. When I started out busking, I did not need any permission. I also made sure I did not have any logistics that would require me to take prior permission. I always sang and played the guitar without any amplification. 

But suppose a busker decided to go busking with some PA. In that case, it is always wise to check and ask around with the local authorities, police or the district municipality to avoid any kind of legal or police confrontation.    

What is the future of busking in India? 

I think the future of busking in India looks promising as new buskers come popping up in street corners and perform. I still keep receiving emails and messages from young buskers and musicians asking me about my experience and how to start busking. 

Receiving these makes me happy, and I hope more artists, musicians, dancers, painters, theatre artists make the streets their stage and brighten up people’s lives. 

How often do you see buskers in India? 

When I started, there were hardly any buskers I encountered during my travels, except for Mumbai, where I performed with two other buskers. But through the years, I saw a lot more buskers on the streets. 

Busking in India has always been there in the forms of nukkad natak, and in local trains or our dingy street corners, we mostly never called them buskers. We mostly called them beggars. I used to wonder how there could be privilege or class in busking till I started busking myself. I am privileged who can busk for music and passion and the pure love of it. For many people, busking is the only way to make a living for themselves or their families.

But if I ever encounter a busker, I sure do stop and listen to their performance and put some money in their hats or boxes. I know it can make their day.

Would you like to comment on Shakeel, who recently gathered ample funds for his music school by busking in Mumbai? Or Varun Dagar, who went on to taste fame by participating in the dance reality show?

Shakeel and Varun are doing something very inspiring, and their art is taking them to the next level of their lives. Doing your art for a cause is something to be appreciated. Busking in itself, I feel, is already a way of giving back to society. And when someone does it for a good cause, it doubles up the satisfaction. 

I hope more people, young and old, get inspired by people like Shakeel and Varun and spread the joy of music and the arts in every street.

HE IS MUSIC.
MUSIC IS LOVE.
LOVE IS PEACE.

The keeper of languages

Jameel Gulrays, former adman and an avid literary enthusiast started a storytelling movement – Katha Kathan – with other like-minded storytellers to read aloud stories from Urdu and other Indian languages. These stories are released on his YouTube and podcast channels and also on Clubhouse. Together, these raconteurs hope to preserve these languages from becoming dialects and keep the storytelling tradition alive for the younger generations.

Abdullah Zakaria

Mumbai, June 20, 2021: The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories, said American writer Mary Catherine Bateson, and Mumbai-based septuagenarian adman Jameel Gulrays couldn’t agree more with her. After spending more than five decades in the advertising world, working on popular brands, and teaching the nuances of this profession as a faculty member at leading institutions, Gulrays turned a new leaf and dedicated himself to work on his passion project – Katha Kathan. It was kindled by his earnest desire to preserve Urdu, and other Indian languages, promote and popularise them so that these aren’t reduced to mere dialects but live on to tell tales and regale the younger generations. He, along with his band of storytellers, has been pursuing the idea zealously since then.   

Early years

He was born with a silver spoon to Abid Gulrays in Bombay (as Mumbai was known then) on November 5, 1949. His father was multitalented – satirist, poet, and columnist par excellence – who also wrote songs for Hindi films in the 40s and 50s. Reminiscing his lyricist father, he says, “Surajmukhi released in 1950 had two memorable songs – suniye huzoor husn ka charcha na kijiye and husn ka guroor hai ye buri baat hai. The latter sung by Lata Mangeshkar was a blazing hit.” His father has 20 songs and ghazals to his credit as a lyricist. 

(from left to right) Abid Gulrays with Durga Khote, Ayaz Peerbhoy, and O.N. Verma, while recording a radio programme “Sanforized Ke Mehmaan”. 

At one point time, Abid Sahab was also associated with the newspaper, Inquilab. His satirical poems titled Baatein were a popular feature of the newspaper. He wrote these poems daily under the pseudonym, Cigarette Baaz. He also wrote a column, Tazyane, and it was so popular among the readers that many of them bought the newspaper just to read his piece. He used the pseudonym Phool Phenk, which came from Gulraiz. He wrote many columns under different names. He moved on from Inqilab to edit Mosavvir following a tiff with the management at the newspaper. Babu Rao Patel owned the publication Mosavvir, a popular film magazine, and at one point in time, it was edited by none other than Saadat Hasan Manto.

A poster of film Surajmukhi.

“I still fondly remember what he told me in my growing-up years, though I lost him quite early on at eight, these lessons have become the guiding principles of my life. He used to tell me that ‘should anyone move one step towards you, you should take ten steps forward and meet him/ her. If someone takes one step away, you move 10 miles away’. He always urged me to do my job without expecting anything in return, as expectations always hurt. Another invaluable lesson was around money. It is inconsequential, so don’t give importance to it; it can’t buy happiness.”    

But destiny had other plans. Gulrays’ father was fond of horse racing, and in one such race, he lost his entire fortune. He couldn’t cope with the humungous loss, and unable to bear it, he passed away soon after. It was the beginning of a long period of misery for the family. They were forced to move out of their plush bungalow in Mahim and settle in the predominantly Muslim locality, Bhendi Bazaar. The little boy was just eight then. Due to financial constraints, he was enrolled in an Urdu medium school – Bandra Urdu High School (now Bandra Urdu High School & Junior College Of Science, Commerce and MCVC). “In hindsight, I think, it was all a part of God’s plan. I loved reading Urdu and Persian literature during my early years in school and college, and these stories stayed on with me forever. Perhaps, I was destined to take on the arduous job of saving the language and its literature one day,” he says, with a deep sense of satisfaction.  

The badge of his Bandra Urdu High School carried three words – Azm (determination), Koshish (efforts) and Imaandari (honesty) and these values have stood him in good stead all through. 

Ad-ding on to life 

The loss of the breadwinner took a toll on his mother. She couldn’t live for long in penury, fell ill, and eventually passed away. “Her death shattered me completely as she was my biggest pillar of strength,” he says with moist eyes. His voice chokes on the mere mention of his parents, both of whom he lost early on in life. 

Gulrays shared his mother’s photo on her birth anniversary on June 6. She passed away when he was 18.

He was eighteen and barely in the first year of college then, but he had to fend for himself and also look after his family that included two younger brothers. He desperately started looking for a job to make ends meet. Circumstances forced him to leave his place in Bhendi Bazaar and relocate to a far-off suburb Malvani. “The nearest station was Naigaon, and I had to walk for an hour to take a local train. It was an underdeveloped area then, and hardly any buses used to ply there. Come rain or hail, I had no choice but to keep marching on, both literally and metaphorically,” he says. 

Advertising legend Ayaz Peerbhoy, who was his father’s friend, came forward to help and hired him for his agency. The remuneration was meagre, but it was something he badly needed, and he gladly took up this offer. In those days, the advertising world was dominated by English-speaking people, and anyone who didn’t know the language had little or no chance of survival. His ability not to give up came in handy and has stood him in good stead throughout. He not only learned English but mastered it. Later in his life, he set up an advertising agency and had the top-notch brand as his clients, and gave some memorable advertising campaigns in his five-decade-long career.

A new chapter 

He is an avid reader, and loves to spend hours immersed in the world of words. The library at his house in Khar, Mumbai, has an enviable collection of Urdu literature. One day, while sitting in his room, immersed in one of Manto’s stories, it dawned upon him that after his demise, his treasure trove will be in a shambles. “A raddi wala (ragpicker) will come and collect these books and sell it to a kabadi wala (junk dealer), who will sell it to vendors. Manto will be served on a plate of bhelpuri, Chugtai will be wrapped in paan, and Krishan Chander will be wrapped on vada pavs,” he rued. The thought shook him no end, and he decided to tell those tales, some well-known, others not so known, and many of them unheard, unread, and unknown, for the benefit of the younger generation. His passion for preserving Urdu and other Indian languages and the earnest desire to promote and popularise them for the younger generation led him to pursue the idea zealously. 

His undying love for stories that gave birth to Katha Kathan, a virtual repository of gems from Indian languages, relayed through his online social media channels on YouTube and Soundcloud – and relived through his offline storytelling sessions, a regular feature before the lockdown.  

A virtual Baithak with Team Katha Kathan in progress.

To start with, he started recording masterpieces from Urdu literature and releasing them on his YouTube channel. “One day, people might not be able to read these tales as they would no longer know the script. If these pieces are recorded and preserved, they would still be able to listen to them, whenever and wherever, and this, in a way, will preserve the treasure trove of stories for posterity,” he recounts. Initially, Gulrays thought of focussing only on Urdu literature, but once he exchanged the idea with others, he realised that the fate of other Indian languages is no different, so he widened his scope and included other “gems” of Indian literature, and featured stories in vernacular languages too.

Katha Kathan was started in 2015, and to date, he has recorded more than two thousand stories for his online platforms. It is a passion project funded by his selfless desire, and in all these six years, he has made humungous investments in terms of his money, time and energy, without taking a penny from any outsider. The growth and reach of the Katha Kathan project are purely organic, be it the views or the subscribers. The numbers only show the depth of his involvement and the widespread reach of his movement to keep Urdu and other Indian languages alive.  

Praiseworthy efforts

His honest endeavours have been suitably rewarded, and the former adman is now known as a connoisseur of the Urdu language, and his quintessential storytelling has won him many ardent fans and followers, and they range from celebrities to ordinary people. His popularity cuts across geographical, social, and linguistic barriers. People across the globe closely follow his work. Renowned actor Naseeruddin Shah has joined hands with him and is a regular in all Katha Kathan events. It is their shared love for Urdu that has kindled their camaraderie and friendship.  

Jameel Gulrays and actor Naseeruddin Shah pose against the Wall of Fame featuring literary giants from Urdu and other Indian languages. “Our relationship is based on mutual respect for each other’s work,” he says.

Sharing an anecdote, he says, “It so happened that I was recording Ismat Apa’s stories and releasing them on my YouTube channel, one after the other. I noticed that someone called Naseeruddin Shah would invariably comment and praise my work on these uploads. At first, I thought this must be some imposter. Why would someone of Naseeruddin Shah’s stature stop by at my YouTube channel, appreciate my work and care to comment? I wondered.” After the fifth story, he received a message that he (Naseeruddin) is coming to Delhi and would like to meet Gulrays. The actor thought that Gulrays is Delhi-based. Gulrays informed him that he lives in Mumbai, and they met, discussed the stories; Shah staged those as “Aurat, Aurat, Aurat,” and it was well-received by the audience. The actor, in his magnanimity, mentioned Gulrays’ name and his contribution in every interview that he gave after his play’s astounding success. “I sometimes wonder how come a genuine soul like him still exists in this world. He never declined his invite to any Katha Kathan show,” he says. Today, the actor is relearning Urdu, and calls Gulrays whenever he comes across a difficult word or sentence. Their relationship is based on mutual respect for each other’s work. “I have also benefited immensely from this partnership, and Naseeruddin Shah has always obliged my request for the interviews. Karwan-e-Mohabbat, with which I am associated, has gained a lot from these interviews,” he says.

Minding the language

These days, filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj and his singer wife Rekha Bharadwaj are taking lessons in Ghalib from the connoisseur of the Urdu language. “There are two interesting anecdotes about Ghalib. One is that “if it wasn’t for many of Ghalib’s “shrah” (explanation of Ghalib by many scholars), he would have been very easy to understand. And the second one is that Ghalib is perhaps the only poet in the world whose work, if you can’t decipher, gives you double the pleasure,” says Gulrays. He thinks that if one has to understand Ghalib, one has to view his poetry through the prism of mysticism. “Ghalib himself declares in one of his couplets that he would have been considered a “Sufi” if it wasn’t for his drinking habits. Jameel insists that an effort to understand Ghalib must be made in this direction if we truly want to decipher his work,” he adds. One of his explanations has impressed Gulzar so much that he has expressed his desire to meet him. 

Katha Kathan celebrates the works of Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand, Sahir Ludhianvi, Krishen Chander, Ismat Chugtai, and many others, but the celebrated and controversial writer Manto remains Gulrays’ all-time favorite. “Manto continues to be misunderstood despite finding new admirers decades after his death because most people haven’t really read his work in totality. They read six or eight of his stories and dub him an obscene or a dark writer. He is neither, and there is a lot of it that needs to be explored to understand Manto’s body of work better,” he adds.

Jameel Gulrays is not just an individual but an institution.

Taking a walk down the memory lane, he recounts how his childhood home – his lavish bungalow in Mahim – had a portion of it rented out to Shyam, a popular actor in those days, by his father to tide over the financial crunch. Shyam and Manto were best of friends, and Manto often dropped in to see Shyam. It seems like a connection established by the umbilical cord, and Gulrays holds the prolific writer in high regards. “Why Manto decided to migrate to Pakistan is a question still debated by many. He was miserable there, as some of his letters reveal. Perhaps, he took that decision because of an incident involving his friend Shyam. Riots had hit both sides of the border. Shyam had some relatives in Lahore, and he was anxious about their safety and wellbeing in such troubled times. One day, news came that one of them had been killed, and in an inebriated state, he told Manto that he could kill him one of these days. Regaining his sobriety, he apologised, but Manto was so shaken up that he decided to leave India. The interesting bit is Shyam went to see him off at the dock, where they drank together for the last time,” recounts Gulrays.

Lifelong mission

Now, in his twilight days, Gulrays could ill afford to bask in the glory days and live off comfortably. Not someone to sit on his laurels, he has been working for the Indian languages and literature because, as he says, “Languages are our homes, and we must protect them.” 

He rues how the millennials are losing touch with their mother tongue. “If they don’t prefer to communicate in their mother tongue, eventually they would lose touch and forget to read and write in that language. Once that happens, it would spell the death knell for these languages,” says Gulrays, explaining the real reason behind his passion project – the need to preserve these languages so that they don’t up remain a dialect for future generations.    

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxwkaqhlLvBs-5kgKQXNnOQ

To listen to stories, follow Jameel Gulrays on YouTube and Soundcloud.

Gulrays is not just an individual but an institution. So many people claim to love Urdu, but there is no one like him. He remains one among the few sincere and selfless soldiers of the language who has been single-handedly working on this mission, regardless of the bouquet or brickbats that could come his way.

A Baithak of Katha Kathan is a must on the first Saturday of every month. During the pandemic, it has moved to a virtual platform. Earlier, it was held at his home, where stories flowed along with a generous helping of snacks and beverages. These days, he has started using Clubhouse to his advantage and hosts a dramatised storytelling session with Katha Kathan Team at 10.30 pm every Sunday. These virtual sessions see story lovers from across the world in attendance. 

Katha Kathan’s Jashn-e-Manto featuring actor Naseeruddin Shah.

Bushra Rahman, an eminent Urdu novelist across the border, once sent a message praising his style. Shah, when asked, ‘why we don’t a Zia Mohyeddin here?’ had once famously quipped, “You haven’t heard of Jameel Gulrays.” Shah’s statement sums up the sentiments of his ardent admirers, who come from across the world, belong to different age groups, and speak different languages. The common thread binding them all is their love for stories in Urdu and other Indian languages. And the tribe is growing every day. 

Team Katha Kathan with Jameel Gulrays.

A devoted Urdu lover, he has a team of young volunteers growing under his tutelage at Katha Kathan to keep the love for languages and stories alight. He quotes a couplet of Majrooh Sultanpuri in the parting, and that succinctly sums up his illustrious journey.  

“Maiñ akelā hī chalā thā jānib-e-manzil magar 
log saath aate ga.e aur kārvāñ bantā gayā.”