Every morning, 72-year-old Swapan Sett wakes up and plays the violin at a street corner. The cities change every month, but Sett’s routine and costume don’t. Dressed in a loose white kurta pyjama and, depending on the city and season, a cardigan, the violinist has been spotted by residents in Jaipur, Delhi, Mussoorie, Dehradun, Hyderabad and Mumbai over the past few years.
Buskers – usually musicians, but also dancers, poets, mimes and magicians, who perform at street corners and public places for gratuities – have a long and venerable history in the world of performing arts. In India, though, it is not a common occupation for middle-class, English speakers. Street performances here occasionally include street theatre, or a rare flash mob, but in most parts of the country, they are restricted to the very poor, those literally singing for their supper. The musical and dance performances of these buskers are almost never recognised as a form of art.
Swapan Sett has never let any of this stop him. Travelling the length and breadth of the country over the last fourteen years with his violin, Sett has performed wherever he is invited, wherever he can afford to travel or, simply, wherever he wants to, in order to raise money for his wife Poornima, who was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2002.
The response to his performances vary, from silent, mesmerised audiences to loud, enthusiastic cheering. Street hawkers have frequently told Sett they are amazed at how easily his music attracts crowds. He has received requests to perform from restaurateurs all over the country.
“I am a painter, sculptor and violinist,” he said. “I work sincerely and honestly to earn money for the treatment of my wife. A lot of prestigious hotels have asked me to play for them.”
Poornima’s condition has improved since Sett first began busking. In the past year, he has managed to raise over Rs 3,00,000, through a crowdfunding site and is frequently noticed and written about in nearly every city he visits. Even those who do not know the heart-breaking reason for his performances are spell-bound by his music. At present, Poornima is almost completely cancer-free, but the two still travel to Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital from Kolkata for check-ups, and the medical bills are still considerable.
“The money which I earn is spent just as quickly,” Sett said, over the phone. “Doctors have asked me to continue with her medication. And, how can I stop providing for my own wife?”
Sett trained as a violinist at Kolkata’s Oriental Seminary. The couple has a daughter who helps out financially whenever possible.
“But I prefer earning myself,” Sett said. “Till the time I can play, I will.”
Sett carries a set of recorded CDs of his music, wherever he plays. The CD features 25 tracks, with over an hour of playtime, recorded by Sett at Kolkata’s Raga Studio. Subani Saxena, who purchased one of Sett’s CDs in Jaipur five years ago, said she still loves listening to it for the haunting quality of the music.
“You fall in love with it even more after you hear how hard he works to provide a steady source of income for his wife,” Saxena said.
But, according to Sett, nothing compares with the thrill of performing live.
“I believe that live performance is more valuable than a recorded audio CD,” he said. “Recorded music just sounds mechanical.”
Recently, the septuagenarian’s musical abilities went viral once again, when Sett was performing at New Delhi’s Connaught Place. A Facebook post by a former aide of the late President Abdul J Kalam was accompanied by a heartfelt note requesting the public to help raise money for Poornima’s medical bills.
“Can we make it viral for his efforts to save his love of life?” Singh wrote. The Facebook post was shared over 37,000 times, with hundreds of comments requesting for Sett’s bank account details.
Sett has grown accustomed to the waves of social media acclaim. Fame does not interest him, he said.
“It doesn’t affect me. I don’t want to become a Tata or Birla in one day. I create art for art’s sake.”