The Sound of Junk – Dharavi’s Rag Picking Children Are Making Music out of the Trash They Collect

Plastic drums, paint cans, buckets, glass bottles and throw away junk – what do you get when you bring all this together? “Music!” say the rag picking children of Mumbai’s Dharavi slum.

Every day, Mumbai sees – yet ignores – thousands of rag-pickers who go about collecting trash from beaches, railway platforms, and other public places. This huge mountain of trash is then brought to the slums, the unofficial recycling hubs of the city. The rag-pickers are doing Mumbai a huge service by collecting and segregating the city’s waste. Vinod Shetty, a labour lawyer in Mumbai, started noticing how these rag pickers worked – they are the most unrepresented labour force of the city, their working conditions are harsh and dangerous, and there are no labour laws to protect them. Moved by what he observed, Vinod decided to work for the betterment of the rag-picker community, which is at least 1 lakh strong. He founded Acorn Foundation in 2005 towards this vision.

Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, is home to a majority of these rag-pickers. Noticeably, a large number of them are children. Vinod wanted to bring some educational and recreational element into the lives of these children who, otherwise, lead very tough lives. That’s how ‘Dharavi Rocks’ was born, a cheerful and heartening initiative that makes music out of the very junk the children collect.

The typical blue drums that Mumbaikars use to store water, paint cans, sticks, glass bottles, metal caps, and what not – the children transform this junk into musical instruments.

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“The band brought together children who came in right from the streets. We have children who were drug addicts, who stole things, who ran away from their homes, etc. But deep within, they are simple fun-loving kids. We wanted Dharavi Rocks to become an educational platform for these children,” says Vinod.

In a tiny room in the Dharavi slums, some of these children started practising. The spirited junk percussion sounds attracted more children who joined in. Soon, Dharavi Rocks became a band of 20-25 children in the age group of 8 to 18.

The children would finish their daily rounds of garbage collection, or work at construction sites, and come running to the shanty room to make music that is fun and upbeat.

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They started learning together. They made their own musical instruments. Some of their innovations, like soft drink cans filled with rice grains, are very popular.

As they drummed and clinked on the things they collected through the day, they also started stealing the hearts of Mumbaikars. Abhijit Jejurikar, a young musician, was thrilled with Vinod’s efforts and joined the gang to train the children. Soon, the band of bacha log started performing on stage (50 plus events to date). Musicians from across the country and from abroad took time out to mentor the children.

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Sheetal Rathore, a 15-year-old drummer with the band, says, “Dharavi Rocks has helped me build my self-confidence. Going on stage was a great experience. We met so many stars like Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Katrina Kaif – they were all so encouraging and nice to us. We learnt our music from all the musicians who did workshops with us. Teachers like Suneeta Rao and Abhijit sir taught us discipline and patience. We owe all this to Vinod sir and Acorn Foundation who believed in us poor kids from Dharavi and gave us a new life and fame. I am now confident of securing admission in college and continuing my higher studies in economics.”

Vinod was insistent that the band would have a ‘floating team’. “As the children get older they take up jobs and leave the band, making way for the younger children. In this way we have been able to keep the children grounded in their fame and have been able to nurture the talent of more and more children.

“Through the band, the children have also become ambassadors who create awareness about recycling, reusing and better waste management in the city,” says Vinod.

Vinod Shetty with the children of Dharavi Rocks band

Vinod Shetty with the children of Dharavi Rocks band

Apart from the recreation the band provides the children, this musical platform is also where they overcome inhibitions, learn leadership skills, and learn to work as a team. ACORN takes interest in supporting the children in academics and sports. Indeed, there is a tremendous amount of positivity that emanates from the notes of the junk that is drummed and strummed under this unique and heart-warming initiative.

You can contact Dharavi Rocks at [email protected]

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