In a small lane in Goregaon, Mumbai — which you are likely to miss unless you’re looking out for it — you’ll notice a fleet of rickshaws. The drivers hang around. While some chat, a couple swig beer in the middle of the day (they just ended the night shift).
The rickshaws stand in front of a shack that has audio equipments strewn around the entrance: speakers, music players, base-treble equalisers. Sitting amidst the paraphernalia is Pappu bhai. This shack, which Pappu bhai has been operating from since 1994, is the headquarter of what he calls his “mono-poli”. He started working as a 15-year-old, installing audio systems in auto rickshaws. Five years later, he decided he wanted to be his own boss.
Spend an hour with Pappu bhai, and you’ll notice the word monopoly (“mono-poli”) is dropped in conversation far too often. The “music-system-in-rickshaw” business has been his domain for two decades, and even though the demand is flagging now, Pappu bhai insists his “mono-poli” remains intact while the man himself waxes nostalgic. “There was a time I was installing music systems in at least three to four rickshaws everyday,” he remembers.
“My 11 employees would work through the night to meet the demand. Each system would cost anything between Rs4,000 to Rs15,000. Making upwards of Rs30,000 a day wasn’t a joke in the ’90s. Over 70% of the rickshaws around town got audio systems installed by me.” How did he manage to attract the clientèle? Pat comes the reply: “Mono-poli”. Obviously.
The rickshaw audio business itself, though, isn’t robust. “The mobile phone killed music in rickshaws,” says Pappu bhai. “In the old days, passengers would look for rickshaws with a music system because the music would act as entertainment while they travelled from one point to another. Now, most people have music on their phones, or want to make calls while travelling. The music is a disturbance rather than amusement.”
Earlier, rickshaws would play anything from the latest hits to “RD Burman song” cassettes. The music was further classified into dance music, disco music (think Mithun Chakraborty), “jhankaar beats” and “only beats”. Many rickshaw-wallahs, says Pappu bhai, preferred the beats of songs to the songs themselves. So he would ensure the bass would be high enough to dull down the vocals almost entirely and the vehicle would throb with “only beats”. The other popular genre was “sad songs”, a collection of songs that would reflect the pain of the heartbroken and would “always strike a chord with the passenger.”
“Imagine this,” Pappu bhai says. “A man gets into a rickshaw at Malad. He has to travel to Bandra. It’s a 40-minute rickshaw ride or longer if you get stuck in traffic. Then the sad songs begin one after the other: ‘Tera gham agar na hota, sharaab main na peeta’ (Dil Hai Betaab), then ‘Mujhe peena ka shauq nahi’ (Coolie), followed by ‘Matlabi hai log yahaan par matlabi zamaana’ (Begaana), and then ‘Main tera shahar chhod jaunga’ (Nazrana). Customer mood main aa jata tha (The customer would be transfixed).”
These days, Pappu bhai says he is happy if he gets seven to eight rickshaws to work on in a month. This keeps his three remaining employees busy. With a portion of the earnings, Pappu bhai runs a few community newspapers in Marathi and Hindi, of which 1,000 copies are distributed to locals every fortnight. It costs Pappu bhai around Rs12,000 to bring out the newspapers every month, and he charges nothing for it. He describes it as “social service.” Keeping up with the times, a part of the audio shop has been converted into a computer gaming zone. He also has an audio equipment store in Dahisar and occasionally, a contract to set up music systems in private cars come along.
Today’s rickshaw-wallahs, says Pappu bhai disapprovingly, are all about the “sound” — they want the vocal element dumbed down. The equipment has undergone change too. The cassette player has been replaced with the USB box with a slot for a pen drive. The rest of the sound system remains roughly the same. In between, there was a short phase when music CDs played, but it went out of fashion quickly because the cost was high and uneven roads made the rickshaws jump, damaging the CD lens in the process. The USB era, though, has the rickshaw-wallahs happy.
Noor Mohamed, one of Pappu bhai’s clients, uses a 4GB pen drive in his rickshaw, and it’s loaded with about 800 songs. “It costs only Rs150, and it has qawalis, Bollywood and bhajans,” he says proudly. Mohamed says most passengers ask him to switch off the music, choosing instead to tune in on their phones. But he has a couple of regular passengers who travel with him everyday only because of the music that plays in his vehicle. “One of them goes all the way to Mumbra, another to Dahisar. These are long journeys, and they want the music to play throughout.”
Pappu bhai, meanwhile, isn’t too bothered by the slump in business. “See, audio in rickshaws may have gone out of fashion completely, but music never will,” he says. “It has a never-ending shelf life.”