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He was probably the only member in the audience who did not try to choose a seat near the stage at the 60th Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav. In fact, he sat very close to the 10x14ft LED screens, the glow from it bathing his face in flickering lights. While his right hand was busy in keeping taal with the ongoing performance, in his left hand he clutched a white walking stick. The 22-year-old Mahadev Gaikwad was visually-challenged.
Dressed in a pale cream shirt and grey pants, he sat slightly hunched and cross-legged, in the Bharatiya baithak area of the festival. With his head slightly cocked to one side, he listened to Kalapini Komkali's performance, mesmerised, his face breaking into smiles every now and then. At one point, when Komkali cracked a joke on stage, he burst into laughter, clapping his hands like a small child.
We walked to him and asked if we could take his picture. Smiling at our tentative direction, he acquiesced politely. After chatting for a few moments, he told us his story.
"I have been attending the Sawai Gandharva since I was in class 8 – almost for a decade now. The music and the energy here, communicates with me at so many levels," he said happily. A struggling Hindustani classical musician himself, Gaikwad is currently learning to play the harmonium along with his singing lessons. "There are a lot of good people who help me out. But now I don't want any more handouts," he says seriously.
Gaikwad has always been interested in music. He sings, plays the harmonium and also assists his teachers during classes. But he hasn't studied beyond Class 10, and that has always been his regret. Talking about his everyday challenges, Gaikwad seems resigned to the fact that he may never be able to see again. "I was born blind. At first, my parents took me to every hospital in Pune and Mumbai. Apparently I do not have the compete use of a muscle near my retina. That is the problem. There is no cure as of now, but I will keep on going to the hospitals every few years," he says optimistically.