“Check. Check”

The mics were being tested.

Mr.Robin Balu reached the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited staff quarters on Swami Vivekananda road, Bangalore, in the nick of time. A friend of his who had asked for his help this one performance, was already on the stage, sound testing all the percussion instruments. On seeing Mr.Robin, the friend waved to the late comer. Robin smiled and waved too, hurrying up on the stage.

After formal handshakes with the other musicians,  Balu unpacked  his djembe and sat on a chair, positioning his instrument between his legs then playing it for sound check.

The living room on the first floor of the quarters which was now a  changing room  was growing warmer by the minute, filled with the fragrance of deodorant and a strange smell that comes from the ironed clothes that were being unfolded. The musicians changed into green and blue long kurtas draped long beaded necklaces around their necks and drew three white lines on their foreheads ending it with a small red bindi on the line in the middle

“This dress is very important for folk musicians,” Mr.Robin said. They were now ready. They walked out of the room toward the stage, greeted by the concert.

They were now ready. They walked out of the room towards the stage, greeted by the concert organizers, and Jambe, an internationally acclaimed percussionist, took a final look at the audience and sat on a chair behind his djembe.

” Ladies and gentleman we have today two folk groups from two different parts of India, Sachin Savera group and the Matribhoomi group, so can we please have a big round of applause,” said the anchor.
The audience obliged.

It has been more than three years that.

Mr.Robin Balu has been performing as  a full-time artist. His contribution to the art circuit in Bengaluru as a “protest artist,” has  not only made him  popular among other artists but also a regular performer. “I have played for three hours on the stage alone before”, said Mr.Robin Balu, who is now more popularly known as Balu Jambe due to his playing the djembe for the past ten years, doesn’t feel nervous any more.

His association with beats started at a very young age when he used to drum on steel plates  from 5th standard. His curiosity about percussion instruments once inspired him to ask to play his physical training teacher’s drum. When the teacher gave it to him, he played it so well that from that day on his teacher gave him the responsibility to play.

“Getting paid 40,000 rupees is for self-development and not a social development, how can I solve social problems?”

Despite such a small achievement at school, all was not well for him in his village Nallakhadrahalla in Chikbalapur district, Karnataka. Coming from a family of farmers, he was looked upon as an untouchable “Dalit.” It is not an identity that he is ashamed to accept: “I am a Dalit, I cannot forget my background and caste and if I forget then I am dead”, he said. His identity as a Dalit has never hindered his achievements, he said. As he came to be more known for his djembe, he was invited to perform in China, Belgium.

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Like many other artists, though, his career as a musician also began doing odd jobs in order to sustain himself and his art. In the beginning, communication was on  BMTC buses and calling through pay phones. After a while he took to driving cabs, for he already had the “knowledge of driving a tractor in my village,” he said, “ that actually  helped me get a driving license”, he added.

At that time, he used to stay in Banashankari in an apartment for a rent of Rs 2000 per month.  “I was getting paid 100 rupees per day”, he said. It wasn’t much money in a city like Bangalore, so to keep his expenses down he used to skip lunch or even breakfast so that he could save money for buying instruments. Even when he couldn’t afford instruments, he practised inside the cab, drumming on  the steering wheel of the Indica he used to drive. He also kept a smaller djembe always in the boot space of the car. This continued until he received an offer from an NGO to teach children drumming.

“They were paying me 4,000 rupees,” he said, but even that didn’t completely satisfy him.

“I am an artist, I like to play in the open in front of an audience.” He immediately decided to leave the job, even though he was being offered Rs. 20,000- 40,000. He wasn’t tempted: “Getting paid 40,000 rupees is for self-development and not a social development, how can I solve social problems?”

Around that time, he met John Devaraj, a famous sculptor, painter, and musician, popularly known for being the art director for the TV series “Malgudi Day’s.” He became Balu’s guru. It was also during this time that Balu joined in the revolutionary movements against caste injustice, oppression which by that time was becoming more and more apparent to him. He used to play his djembe for farmers in villages, alongside with other musicians, singers spreading messages and educating them.

Using folk music, and with the help of other folk musicians, Balu now only plays songs about a protest,  women’s empowerment, against child labour and environmental pollution, and other injustices about which he feels strongly.

He later on went to  form his own band, the Indian Folk Band, a 10-member ensemble of percussionists from diverse backgrounds. The band comprises of three women and seven men that included an NGO worker and a student pursuing a diploma in the theatre.

Many of the band members knew of Balu through the Bengaluru art circuit and expressed interest in working with him. “I was training in singing, when I heard of him I asked him if I could play with him to which he said yes, and I have been a part of this group since then,” said Soundarya, who has been a part of the group since last year and has been staying in  Hebbal house with other members of the band.

Balu’s sister Mrs.Nirmala Ravi Shastri, a member of another band BhumitaBaraga ( Relatives of the earth), that was formed in the year 2005. She used to sing with Balu till 2010 but now does not perform with him that often goes only when there is singing involved. On Balu, she said,”singing with the djembe, the effect of the folk is felt more.”

The chief minister of Karnataka Sidaramaiah also knows him, as an artist and that he has access to the Vidhan Soudha, despite not having a card still makes him smile whenever he recalls his performance inside the assembly “I have a lot of friends in the political sphere, but I don’t have any political inclinations,” Balu said. “See, politicians have a warranty but an artist has no warranty, I can play all my life and then pass on my teachings to someone else.”   The only other profession that comes close, he said, is journalism because “journalists and artists are always thinking about social issues, unlike politicians, who are always thinking about the next election”, he said.

But Balu is still struggling to make his ends meet, by doing shows like the one he was performing today.

Robin Balu (left) with his guru John Devraj

Robin Balu (left) with his guru John Devraj

Back in the stage at HAL

The flames of the bonfire were burning high in the function that was organized by the All the audiences were also starting to get warm  as the waiters started pouring in whiskeys, pakoras, chicken, vegetable were being served to the veteran government officials, and on the stage, Balu sat on the same chair for the next one and half hours. It was a function on the occasion of the Holi. And Balu was invited by his friend from another group to play with them to which he agreed very easily, for a reason. While going up on stage he said , “This sort of commercial performances is needed in order to pay for my house bills, my petrol bills, to fill my stomach.”

SUTANU GUHA