This podcast is brought to you by BarrierBreak Solutions Private Limited and Score Foundation.
Hi, my name is George Abraham and welcome to this edition of Eyeway Conversations. My guest today is Ritika Sahni, a professional playback singer and a passionate disability campaigner. Hi, Ritika, welcome.
Thank you so much George. Happy to be part of Eyeway Conversations.
So tell us a little bit about your journey as a playback singer.
George, I was born in Kolkata, raised in Kolkata, and during my schooling, I had music as a subject. I continued to have music as a subject in my graduation. And then I did my masters in music. And as it happens, I met a composer in Kolkata while I was visiting a certain recording studio just to understand the dynamics of recording. And he happened to ask me whether I would like to assist him. And the one thing that I think, at the very outset, I would like to mention is that most of the stuff that I do in my life, or I have done is really something that I simply flow with the tide, I simply flow with the times and the way things happen. Whatever happens, I kind of don't really question it. And I kind of accept it with dignity and with integrity and go about it. And so I simply said yes to him. And that's really how my journey in the music business started. I worked with him for a couple of years in Kolkata, and very happy to say I produced my first Bengali album. So my first foray into professional music was with a Bengali album in Kolkata, an original album that was released with HMV and this is way back in the 90s quite obvious I was I am a Punjabi as you know, but I was singing Bengali songs. And I would have so many people asking me that, you know, you should really go and try and and try and sing in Hindi. But I was so happy just being in Bengal, I had done my masters in Bengali music and singing in Bengali. But it so happened that Sony Music started it's you know, Sony Music international started its business, or were about to start their business in India and were scouting for talent. And I happen to know about it and I auditioned for them. And to cut the story short, I did a couple of auditions I really had to do about four or five auditions for them and I was finally chosen by them to be their debut artists in the country and that's how I shifted to Bombay. The reason I'm telling you all this is because when you talk about playback singing you're talking about Bombay and the shift to Bombay happened due to the fact that I was signed on by Sony Music, I released my debut album in 2000 and as it happens once you're in Bombay, you are trying to experiment, you're trying to also meet music directors because finally you want to get that song in the film industry, this entertainment industry is very Bollywood oriented. And I did finally get a song which was a hit. I must tell you George, I know you love music, I know you love singing, so you know when I first sang for this film called Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon and the song was very popular, but I won't tell anybody that I had sung a song. I said no, let me first see my name on the screen because you know anything could happen, anything can happen you know. The song might not be liked finally, somebody else might dub over it. All these things continue to happen. So when I finally saw my name on the screen, I said all right, I have sung the song and I started telling everybody that you know, the song Tumse Mili Nazar, which is you know, which continues to be a very popular song, has been sung by me. It was a duet with Sonu Nigam. And that's how the journey really started. And after that, I sang for about about 12 films, in Bombay. In Kolkata, of course, I was singing in Bengali films and Bangladeshi films. I also did a very interesting Tamil song I must say when I went and in Chennai, while I was singing a Bollywood songs way back in 2000.
You have started a band and it's a kind of a unique band. Tell us a little bit about this band. What's the kind of music you play? Who are the kinds of artists who perform with you and what are the kind of shows you do?
Around 2010, I decided to give a break to my music and concentrate on the organization that I had set up because it was my organization, my baby, and I thought that I really, it really needed my support. That's all that I did. And in 2014, I started getting restless again, you know, with my, it's not that I wasn't singing, but I was, you know, consciously not seeking performances and shows and I was only concentrating on Trinayani. So in 2015, I suddenly realized that, you know, there were so many musicians around us with disabilities, skillful, professional, very talented. And I started a band I created a band in 2014, called Pehli Baarish and there is a reason why it was called Pehli Baarish. The intentions of starting the band was to get people to understand the fact that people with disabilities are not always at the receiving end of support, and takers, but were also contributing members and could contribute to the society because by that time, I had convinced a set of friends with musicians with visual impairment, that they could join Trinayani once a month, to do a show, professional show for other NGOs in the spirit of giving. So Pehli Baarish band every year would perform starting June, that's when the rains start in Mumbai. Starting June till December six shows we did for the for the next five years, performing for other NGOs, of working in any with any issue any cause, all in the spirit of giving. And I could see the perception changed while we were performing. Of course, the musicians are all from the Bollywood genre. So they will perform Bollywood. However, since I was there, and I was leading the band, I would like to sing Bengali songs and punjabi songs for so we would rehearse to be able to give the audiences the songs they required. And as luck would have it, I think because we we continually perform for three, four years, this is 2021. In 2019, I think 2018 I started receiving calls from people saying that, you know, do you perform professionally? I think instinctively my answer would have been no. But then I realized that why not you know, when when all of us are doing our bit, and these shows are happening every month, and we are happily performing for all our audiences, why shouldn't we say yes, and curate professional shows, and receive you know, monies for it, because it also looks into the livelihood of all our musicians. And that's how we started performing professionally. And I must say that we've, it's been good George, even during the pandemic. We performed for Walmart last December, we performed for Microsoft on the first of September. We have another show in October, 1st of October for Diageo. And another one on the 21st of October for Goldman Sachs. So I think, yes, I'm happy. And I must tell you, since most of these shows are to do with diversity and inclusion, it just sits so well with Trinayani's dream and the vision and mission of empowering our friends with disabilities. The show now comprises not only of visually impaired musicians, we have singers who are having different disabilities. We have a lovely singer who's on the autism spectrum. We have another singer who has Down syndrome. And I mean you would love to hear this. She has her own YouTube channel and her Sanskrit Academy. She has done her Master's in Sanskrit. So she joins us. We have a wheelchair user wonderful singer. And I always have a sign language interpreter, who joins us for two songs and interprets both the songs, the original sung and written by me, and she signs along with it. So I think it truly becomes a band showcasing equality, equity, inclusion and diversity.
How actually did you get interested in disability? You don't have any apparent disability yourself. Many of the people who work in the sector are people who have been touched by disability. What was your trigger?
As luck would have it, I volunteered for an organization in Kolkata, working with children with autism. And for six months, I worked in a class with children with autism. I was, I really had to do a lot of learning because that was the first time I was exposed to the world of people with, children with disabilities and here I was with, you know children behaving very differently. doing different things, and I was a teacher's aide. And that was an interesting experience. By the time I finished my graduation, I wanted to volunteer again. And this time I went back to the same Institute, they had shifted to another locality in Kolkata. And while I would travel and visit the place in that particular locality, on my way to that organization, I would see these young adults signing to each other. And now I know they were signing, because they will do not talk to each other, they were laughing, and they were hitting each other and, you know typical young boy behavior. And I was very fascinated by the way they were communicating. On another day, I saw them signing and communicating with each other. And then suddenly, I saw another lady, you know, coming out of a particular building, and they all kind of got, you know, they kept quiet. And I realized that, you know, she must be a teacher because they were all in uniform. And she asked them a question, and then they spoke to her. I was Wow, I said, I was really fascinated, because here, they were signing and then they were speaking. So as I said, it just intrigued me. And I walked into that building, went up to the school, and wanted to know more about what was happening, you know, what were they doing, and that's when I realized that it was a school for deaf children. And they were using what is known as total communication, where they were signing and using speech. And as I told you earlier, George, you know, really, I've never really planned anything, I just, I just told them, I said, I would like to learn, I would like to learn this language. And like any good leader, she immediately said, she said that you've done your graduation, haven't you? I said, Yes. She said, Would you like to do your B.Ed? And I said yes, because that's what I do is, I simply say yes to what life throws at me. And that's how I came to Bombay in 1990 to do my B.Ed in deaf education, at the Ali Yavar Jung National Institute for Hearing and Speech Disabilities. That's what it's called now, thankfully. Went back to Calcutta after that. And that was the deal. I started working with the Oral School for Deaf thrice a day. Because I did music, I used to teach music to deaf children to the younger children. And since I know Hindi very well, they wanted me to start a class, a session after school for children from the slum areas, teaching them in Hindi, and that's how I started working in the disability sector. And while I did this for three days a week, I also joined the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy, a premier organization in Kolkata twice a week, to work with children with multiple disabilities, deaf and, you know, cerebral palsy, deaf and blind. So that's how the career really started, George. My Master's really came after this. Surprisingly, I did my Masters, not because I wanted to become a professional singer. I did my masters in music, because I wanted to study more about how deaf children could be taught music. That's how my master's happened after my B.Ed. So that's how the journey started simply out of curiosity, out of the, I think the joy of being around children and adults, and seeing that perhaps what I was doing was making a difference. And that's how the journey really started. No personal reason, as you said.
You've done extensive work in the area of awareness and sensitizing and so on. And you worked extensively with children, school children, and students. Talk to us about this area of your work.
So George, I started Trinayani in 2006, because while I was, when I shifted to Bombay, and I was performing, I went all across the country and the world performing. There was always this intriguing factor, I would not see anyone with disabilities in the audience, never. And I would always wonder I said, that's not possible. Where are our friends with disabilities? And why aren't they there in the audience? And always in every show, in some way or the other, I would let the audience know that I was also working in the disability sector because I was I continued to, I never stopped working the sector even while I was performing and going about making music and albums of my own. And invariably, after every show, I would have people coming back to me saying that, you know, and these were people who are CEOs and colleagues of you know, the corporate shows that you know, my my son is disabled or my daughter's disabled, and I would say that why didn't you get them? This is a family show, why didn't you get them? And I realized that, I think while we were all as people, as special educators, as parents, physiotherapists, speech therapist, anybody was working in the disability sector, while we work towards empowering our children and getting them ready to go to regular schools and do jobs, until we had the non disabled people, that 90% of the non disabled people of our country aware about disability or aware about the abilities of people with disabilities, things were not going to change. And that's when I started Trinayani in 2006. And as all of us know, the change, if it can be initiated at a young age, then hopefully you will not, you will have citizens of this country, you will have these young children who will grow up to be good citizens aware of their responsibilities, And therefore I'm very passionate about talking to children. So as a consultant, and trainer in disability inclusion, I started curating workshops for the academic community. It was not easy, because initially in 2006, when I would go to a school and tell them that, you know, I would like to talk to your teachers or can I do a small session with your students, the first response, and the immediate response would be, but we don't have any children with disabilities, we don't need these workshops. They didn't even realize that the workshops were really to get the students who are not disabled aware of disabilities, but I must say things have changed. It's been so many years, 15 years that I've been doing this, as far as Trinayani is concerned, I've been in the sector for longer time. So what I do, George is, depending upon the age group that I'm speaking to the class, it's, I take a lot of effort in curating every session differently for the younger children. The one thing that I would love to tell you about is that having done these workshops for so many schools across the country, I finally managed to convince four Delhi Public schools in 2015. They have an annual theme, you know, I saw that every year, they would have an annual theme, and they would really go all out in celebrating the annual theme and everything they did in that entire year. And I convinced the the the owner of the schools, that to give me one year where I would talk about disability, and he agreed. So I curated this campaign called 'Celebrating Diversity- The Difference is in Knowing'. Wherein for an entire academic year four Delhi Public schools across Pune, Coimbatore, Patna and Ludhiana had disability awareness as their theme. And I would create disability awareness lessons which were infused in every subject, history, geography, robotics, sports, annual function, assemblies, everything they did, had a element of disability awareness in it. And I think that was, I think the first of its kind. And that really gave me a lot of confidence. Because there was nothing to fall back on. I was doing everything on my own. You know, as you're aware, we all talk about advocacy, we'd all talk about how awareness is the most important tool that can bring about change in any issue or cause, but I don't see a lot of people just doing awareness. And I must say, it's been a very difficult journey with Trinayani, because that's all that we do. Awareness and advocacy is also really not funded in this country, which is so welfare oriented, but this particular year, where we really did nothing, I did workshops for the ancillary staff, or their bus drivers, for the parents of persons with disabilities, for teachers, for their trustees, so I really took that opportunity of designing different kinds of sessions for different stakeholders. And it is during that one year, that we also designed a lot of games, you know, how else do you engage the academic community, young children, four year old, five year olds, 13 year olds 16 year olds, how do you engage them in understanding about diversity and difference, which is not boring, which is not, which is interactive, you know, just because we're talking about disability, it doesn't have to be boring. And because that's something that I've been very, very careful about curating interesting sessions, using the entertaining media of puppetry, dance, theater, music, games, literature, so that the academic community realizes that it's not, I mean, diversity is a very interesting and important part of our psyche of the human existence. And it is to be celebrated and disability is not always a disadvantage. It's a difference, but not always a disadvantage. So that is always the message that I like to give the academic community. And it's been an interesting journey, George. Lots to learn, lots to do, but an interesting journey.
You've also kind of written a poem, which has become part of the CBSE syllabus, would you like to read a few lines from that poem?
Yes, of course. The poem is called, 'I am special, so are you' and took me a couple of years to convince a CBSE to include this in the English communicative course of Class 10. I don't know whether it's still there. But it was there for at least four to five years. I am special, so are you. Imagine just how boring life would be if mother nature believed in uniformity. All living beings the same in color and shape, the ant and the ape, a leopard and a bear, a watermelon and a pear, the leaves in every tree, the fish in every sea. And hey, maybe even you and me, eeks! Wouldn't life be a shame, if everything looked, felt, smelled exactly the same? Thank God, we all have our own shapes and sizes, with different looks, talents, surprises. Each with a special strength, or a weakness, I guess that's what gives us our uniqueness.
Very, very impressive. So you've also done work with the Election Commission, and with the Census of India, would like to share some of those stories.
George, I didn't really work for the Census of India, I couldn't convince them. But I was very clear in 2011, that we needed to do a campaign to convince our friends with disabilities, that they should be forthright about being counted. Because we were aware of the fact that you know, once the census trainer would come to your house, the official, there were families who would not even mention names about their children with disabilities. And therefore we started on our own, we started a campaign called Count Me In and I think that was one campaign that really, really humbled me because the support we got from everyone was incredible. I had Radio Mirchi on board, translating our radio spot in the various languages that they operated in the country. We had the OOH media, who took our film, we had created the Count Me In film in English, Hindi and Marathi, and they showed it in all their screens. We had the INOX digital screen showing the film. We had CNN-IBN, we had at that point of time Sahara was there, they showed our film as a public service announcement. And that's when, you know, when I got so much support, and I managed to get hoardings across the country, that's when I actually took the campaign. And I was trying to convince the officials I said, you know, the campaign is ready. But if you take it up the reach increases. But no, I couldn't convince them. But I could convince the National Trust. And the National Trust then helped us a bit with the campaign. But the campaign was done completely by Trinayani, called the Count Me In campaign. And I was very keen, I'll be very honest, I was very keen about the 2021 census. And that's when I actually went to Delhi to meet the the main head at the Census, the office. But no, I really couldn't convince anybody. Remember George, I could have done a lot of work. But we are a very, very small organization, I almost I continue to run it single handedly. So I think to convince somebody to give you a big campaign, maybe they need to see a big office and a lot of people which I don't have. But as far as the Election Commission campaign is concerned, the electoral Election Commission, Officer Maharashtra got in touch with us saying that it was a mandate, that from the Election Commission of India, that the elections have to be accessible and inclusive and ethical. And they wanted us to partner with them to create...They'd got to know that we you know, we create films and we create interesting material. And they wanted us to create a brochure for the electoral officers of how they would go about behaving or interacting or keeping things in mind when disabled people come to work. And we convince them that we needed a brochure focused towards our friends with disabilities to convince them to come out and vote. So we called it the Think Ink campaign and it this was not done by me alone. This was something that I got another very important colleague of mine, Dr. Asmita Huddar from the Hashu Advani College of Special Education. So both of us together, created this campaign and we had the Think Ink film in Hindi, Marathi and Bengali and the brochure in three languages. And yes, I think that the campaign, the film was done well, it was an accessible campaign, it was captioned, there was sign language interpretation. And the Delhi office used it. So we're happy about that they actually used it in all their campaigns across the country.
You've done a varied range of work across the board when it comes to disability inclusion. The other interesting thing that you were telling me the other day was the games kit that you created to sensitize the mainstream towards disability. I think that's a very powerful idea. Why don't you tell us a little bit about that?
That's the most exciting thing. George, remember, I told you when I was doing this DPS campaign, so there was always this concern about how else can I engage students and teachers in a more interactive, engaging, fun manner. And that's where the seed of this game kit was sowed. I could not manage to do it during that one year, because when we got down to working on it, it took us three years of research and development because again, it's the first of its kind, if I may say anywhere, and there was nothing to fall back on. I didn't know, you know, how do you make these card games? Who prints these card games? And they were not going to be printed in bulk, the way you know, cards are printed. How do you go about it? By the time we were researching and creating the game kit, the new law came into force, you know, Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2016. So again, we relooked into the game kit to see that, you know, are we representing other disabilities within the game kit. So it's a big kit called Towards Inclusion. And it has six thrilling card game sets, which looks into various aspects of disability knowledge. It has a story cum workbook, and it has an answer booklet The last six months was devoted to the answer booklet because while the game kit was being developed, we did pilot studies across Bangalore, Calcutta and Mumbai, with various stakeholders, grandparents, teachers, principals, corporates, school students, and we would take in their suggestions. And we realized that some of them while they were playing this card, and you play this game, you play this game like any other game, George, you play to win. One is based on Bingo, one is based on Uno. And it's great fun when you actually play it because we have these lovely videos of people sending us videos and how they were playing and how they really, you know, shouting at each other. No, no, no, you cheated and all that happens. But some of them are interested in wanting to know more about what's written in the card. Right. And that's when we realized that Oh, so it will be incomplete if you don't have those explanations. And then we started working on this answer booklet, it's a 22 page booklet wherein every phrase, every word, every terminology, vocabulary in the card games, the six card games, explanation, four line explanation is given. So if you want to know more about Braille slate, a prosthetic device or Paralympics or Deaflympics, anything that you want to know, it's there in the answer booklet. So the Towards Inclusion game kit is a big box, it weighs two kgs, has six card game kits. The six games are, Say This Not That which talks about the language of disability. Hear Hear, which talks about interesting articles that you miss out on newspaper. So you have to match the articles to the headlines. Surprise Surprise, which is where you have to figure out which sentence is a fact or misconception. You have Do You Know, which is based on Uno which gives you information about 10 categories of disability knowledge. And then you have the Inclusion Bingo, which is played like Housie, and the most important called Barrier Begone wherein you have to match barriers to their solutions, the red cards to the green cards and the solutions will also have the explanation of the solutions within the card. So I'm really really very happy about this, George. This has been a long dream of mine to create a game kit to gamify this whole aspect of awareness. And again you will be very happy to know that thanks to the pandemic and lockdown, the digitization has started. So by another six months, the cards will be available to play online. And at that point of time I will make it available in Marathi, Hindi, Bengali and English. At least initially the first four languages will be available.
So Ritika, I can see that you have a lot to talk about. You love talking, I love talking and this conversation can keep going on and on but we'll have to close here. I'd like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me and speak on Eyeway Conversations. I wish you the very best in all your endeavors and look forward to being in touch.
Thank you so much. Thank you so, so much, George, for having me on your show.
This podcast was brought to you by BarrierBreak Solutions Private Limited and Score Foundation.