Just over four years ago, Benny used to eke out a living as a musician playing the guitar as a church choir member in Kochi once a week. Around the same time, Muthu, a flautist, made a living playing as an amateur artiste for different groups in Thrissur.
And in the case of Jaimon, a tabla player from Alappuzha, it was a story of late night functions playing for a small three-piece band and then catching public transport to somehow reach home and fall asleep.
Benny, Muthu and Jaimon are all visually challenged. Today the three of them play lobby music regularly in a five star hotel in Kochi earning decent salaries and enjoying amenities any five star hotel employee would enjoy.
And they make overseas trips as part of a six-member orchestra for instrumental concerts in which they play Malayalam, Tamil and Bollywood film numbers to Western classical, thanks to the efforts of a Kerala-based NGO, Society for the Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged (SRVC).
Called Heart 2 Heart, the six-piece band enthralled audiences in this west Asian metropolis in the course of a five-concert tour this week, sponsored by the Dubai-based Kimoha group of industries.
Apart from Benny, Muthu and Jaimon, the band comprises keyboardist Josey, who led the band on this trip, Ratheesh on the mridangam and percussions and Afzal as keyboard programmer.
"We at SRVC, in the course of our research, found that visually challenged people have some special talents which many normal sighted people don't have and which need to be recognised and developed," SRVC secretary Sunil Mathew told IANS here.
Mathew, an IT professional, was one of the founders of the Kalamassery, Kerala-based SRVC along with former pro vice-chancellor of Cochin University V.J. Pappu and a corporate executive M.C. Roy.
"Their (the visually challenged) sense of hearing is very strong. They are able to concentrate more on sound, speech and music since they are not distracted by vision," explained Mathew.
Which is why the idea of an orchestra comprising visually challenged artistes did not take long to come.
"The first initiative to form this orchestra came from (renowned playback singer) Usha Uthup and well-known Malayalam cine star Suresh Gopi in the course of a concert SRVC had organised in 2004," said Roy, who also accompanied the group here.
"Some of the top artistes from Kerala performed in the concert. It was at that concert that we announced our intention to form an orchestra comprising visually challenged artistes," Roy said.
He added that SRVC followed this up with a series of announcements across local radio stations inviting such artistes.
"Very soon we had over 70 visually challenged artistes with us. We then organised a workshop in January 2005 for grooming the potential members of the orchestra. We finalised the names of around 15 members of the orchestra after a final screening."
The orchestra was formally launched in July 2005 and two years later made its first overseas trip, performing in Muscat, Oman, in August 2007, as part of a series of events to raise funds for the victims of the Gonu cyclone that had hit the Omani coast.
The Dubai trip was their second overseas tour.
Apart from the Kimoha group's premises at Jebel Ali near here, the orchestra also performed at a concert organised by India's Consul General in Dubai Venu Rajamony, the Kimoha group's headquarters, a private concert at a restaurant here and the Winchester School.
Stating that the orchestra's artistes have honed their skills to the highest levels, Mathew said: "Producers of music videos or corporate films can now utilize the talents of our artiste."
Apart from hotels, the orchestra can also perform at small functions, he said.
But music is just one area the visually challenged can excel in.
"Due to their inability to make quick notes, they sharpen their memory out of necessity. While they are unable to compete with the sighted on job spheres involving mobility, they could easily handle jobs that are done in a static position or that involves limited mobility," he said.
"Using their superior listening skills and retention power, they are able to produce better results in certain fields of activity such as music, data entry, telemarketing, BPO jobs and medical transcription."
With their superior sense of taste, they can be good food tasters, tea tasters and wine tasters, he said, adding that assaying (fragrances, essential oils and extracts), counselling and physiotherapy are other areas where the talents of the visually challenged can be utilised.