Thursday 3 November 2022

Antakshari In The Metro- Singing Songs for Safe Spaces


We had played Antakshari in the metro before the lockdowns, but since we were going out and playing again after a gap of two years, there was a sense of nervousness, excitement, butterflies in the stomach. Almost like the kind you get before a stage show. This was kind of like a show- wasn't it? Where we were the actors, the metro was our stage, the commuters our audience, and the game of antakshari our chosen script for the show. But unlike most shows, there was going to be great scope for improvisations, for audience interactions and for all kinds of unforeseen setbacks!

What if the commuters didnt sing with us? What if they asked us to 'keep it low'? Or worse, what if someone shouted at us and said they were having an important conversation on the phone?

With excitement, nervousness and hope for the best, I picked up my ukelele and my scarf. I was wearing a noodle strap dress you see. And it was only natural to carry a scarf 'just in case'. But I thought about it and kept the scarf at home and proudly wore my noodle strap dress and ventured out. My neighbour Charu joined me, it was going to be her first time. 

We reached the Versova Metro Station and met with our co-conspirators- Heena, Bharati. Deepesh, Vipin, Nishant, Satchit and Bhushan. Satchit has been a vociferous cheerleader, participant and ambassador for loitering. So it was great to have him again. We bought return tickets for Ghatkopar and got on the next metro train. 

There were about 40-50 people sitting in the compartment that we got on. As we had planned, the men went on one side and the women on the other, and we began playing amongst ourselves, quite loudly though. Some curious commuters looked up from their phones- yes, almost all the commuters either had their eyes glued to their phones screens or had headphones on. I think they wanted to be sure that what they saw and heard was actually true- that a bunch of people were playing antakshari in the metro!

What followed were shy smiles, a few toothy smiles and some hums. Thats the power of antakshari- nostalgia, bollywood, childhood, play- it can be a heady mix and quite irresistible!

The next couple of hours went by in a blink of an eye- or atleast thats what it felt like. From Versova to Ghatkopar and from Ghatkopar to Versova- a commute that takes roughly one hour forty minutes. How many people joined us in the singing ? Its tough to say because so many got on, so many got off, so many joined mid song, so many just hummed softly, others whispered song names in their friends' ears because they knew a song but didnt want to sing. 

As always, the women were more forthcoming in the singing than the men. Different Song with the same starting letter would erupt from different corners of the metro and then, without leading or directing, one would be chosen by the community and sung for atleast a minute, before passing the last letter to the other team to sing. 

I still remember the aged Uncle and Aunty who got on the metro, seated themselves and almost immediately started singing with us, as if they were planted actors who had just entered stage. Aunty wore a beautiful silk orange sari and knew about ten thousand songs- all old, beautiful, classical based film songs. Uncle smiled proudly each time aunty sang a new song with gusto and perfect note. I remember Disha, a young law student who got on and excitedly enquired "are we playing antakshari?" and as soon as we nodded, she joined in as a girl on a mission- coming up with new, unique songs and singing the whole chorus in her loud, beautiful voice. Disha lives in Ghatkopar but when we got off at Ghatkopar she asked "Are you all going to be singing all the way back to versova too?" and we said yes. She immediately called up her mom and said "Ma, I reached ghatkopar but a bunch of people on the train were singing and playing antakshari so I am going to join them and go to versova and then will catch the metro again to Ghatkopar". I dont know what her mom said to her, but I can only imagine the surprise and confusion she muct have felt. Disha is now on the Why Loiter group and is going to join us again. 

A young man, a film school student, sang with us all the way and joined us on our ride back as well. "What you all doing when you get done with the antakshari?", he asked. "Get some chai at the tapri", we replied. "Okay, am coming along." We chatted about the beauty and miracle that is human interaction. Such a simple game had led to so many human interactions that otherwise would have been completely missed. 

Our little 'show' had been a great success, with astounding audience interaction and reviews. 

One middle aged lady who had been singing with us whispered in my ear- "Just for five minutes, I felt alive again."

These childhood games that were based on the pure joy of play, music and banter are slowly being overtaken by devices and gadgets. And how does playing antakshari on a metro make public spaces safe for women? Well, when people sing together, play together, smile at each other and share common joy, it brings a sense of community, chips away 'suspicion of the other' and makes us look out for each other- doesnt it? Thats exactly what the objective of our 'show' was and I think we were successful. 

Our antakshari videos went viral, several media houses reshared them and the next time I was getting on the metro with my ukelele the gaurd asked me "Hope you are not planning to sing on the metro. There have been people getting on, singing and creating utter chaos!"

What scares the individualistic, capitalistic and consumerist culture more than anything?- people getting together to create a community that finds joy in games that are free of cost!