In May 2015, PRATYek, an NGO that operates out of the premises of St. Columba’s School in Central Delhi, invited us a to conduct a Three-day Naadyatra workshop with about 30 slum children under them. Volunteers from PRATYek work on projects to provide education, promote and spread education including the establishment and management of schools, colleges, orphanages and technical schools, undertake, facilitate, and promote activities, programmes relating to the relief of the poor, the marginalized, to empower the poor, underprivileged, marginalized persons; promote, facilitate programmes and activities that lead to socio-economic development and to create impact against structures of injustices etc.
It has been our endeavour at naadyatra Foundation, to use sound (naad) as a medium to discover ourselves and understand life. We have named our Foundation, naadyatra, because ‘discovering ourselves’ is a beautiful journey. We have been organising 3-5 day music retreats for music lovers for the past 4 years. We were very excited at Pratyek’s invitation to do the same work with children in the age group of 6 years – 16 years.
As we watched the children come into the Workshop room at Pratyek's centre in St. Columba's School on the morning of 25th May, 2015, we were really excited at what we were about to do with these children. Sanjeevji and I had discussed a loose structure for the workshop which included an introduction to the basics of Indian music, and an introduction to listening to Indian music. The children looked nervous but happy to meet us and immediately surrounded us and started bombarding us with questions. Knowing that the workshop had something to do with music, some of them ran around us singing hit bollywood songs, hoping to impress us.
Once the introductions finished and we started to introduce the music and what to expect from the workshop, we realised that it was not going to be an easy task to get the job done. While the children were endearing and loving, they had a restless energy around them. They would not sit still. They would laugh and talk randomly. They poked fun at each other and also hit each other. They just did not listen!
Within 10 minutes, I was exhausted telling them to sit still and keep quiet. Nevertheless we decided to resume the workshop. We put on the Tanpura and demonstrated how to sing ‘Sa’ . We asked them to reproduce the sound one by one with an intention to match it to the Tanpura. Our attempts to get them to listen and reproduce were disastrous. Just as one of them would attempt to sing, the rest of the group would snigger, make faces, make strange sounds and laugh. It was so distracting and embarrassing that the person singing would stop and just sit down. We observed it was because they had no confidence in themselves, they had low self esteem. And it was that that made them pull others down around them.
We realised then that till the time we did not settle their restless energy and get them to settle the noise around them and in them, they would not be able to listen to us or the music. In short, our beautifully planned workshop needed to be trashed!! But now what?
Sanjeevji and I took a few minutes to regroup and discuss the revised modus operandi. We knew the power of Indian music and trusted it completely. Our decision was quick and mutual. We decided that instead of teaching them to sing, we would change our approach and get them to only listen to the music. We had realised that the one key thing missing for these children was the skill of ‘listening’. If in our 3-day naadyatra for them, the children left having learnt how much they do not listen and how they could listen, our job would be done! Learning to listen would also help build their confidence and self esteem because they would be able to see how much people around them actually cared for them. They would be able to listen to their appreciation and encouragement also.
We made them sit comfortably (or lie down), close their eyes, draw or paint if they wanted and just listen. Sanjeevji would sing an Alaap for 10-15 minutes. We would then have them sing any sound that came to them from what they had heard......the results got better and better.
From time to time, we would stop the music and talk to them about the importance of discipline and listening. We discussed how much they probably do not listen to the key people in their lives- their parents, their siblings, their teachers and friends. We made them understand what it meant to ‘grant listening’ to someone. We made them experience the power of listening to someone and had them experience being heard. We were clear if they started to listen to us and the music for just three days, it would make a big difference to the way they listened to their parents, teachers, friends, others in their life. We shared with them about listening being the foundation of all learning. We shared stories, anecdotes and our personal experiences with them. They asked us all kinds of questions – if we listen to others, should not the others listen to us too? Do only children need to listen? How do we make someone listen when they do not? etc. – we knew we had struck a chord with them!
We followed the same structure even on the Second Day. We had planned that if we see hints of boredom, we would improvise and do something else. But we did not need change our plan because they continued to remain engaged. They had actually started to enjoy the music. They also seemed more comfortable with themselves, with each other and even with us. Some of them swayed to the music while others rapped their fingers giving rhythm to the music. There was much less restlessness. Even the conversations that they had with us in the breaks were more meaningful.
On the third day of NaadYatra, we introduced them to the Pakhawaj (a percussion instrument). We made them learn some simple beats and play with the beats. The results of getting them to sing were getting better.
In the evening, we presented a 20 minute long Dhrupad recital. The way the children listened was magical. Even some of the volunteers came to listen to the music. For the children, it was their first experience of a musical performance. It was amazing to see the same set of children who could not sit still for even a minute on the first day, sit calmly and absorb the music as though they were in a deep trance. By then, even our attempts at getting them to sing were bringing unimaginable results. They could hear the Tanpura and match their voice to it. They had actually learnt to listen!!
We ended the Workshop by getting them to write for us how naadyatra had impacted them. We got comments like – “I loved the music. It put me to sleep. I felt I was sleeping on my mother’s lap.”, “I had never heard this kind of music. But it was very peaceful. I liked it”. Reading these comments made us smile – we had done our job!
We requested the Pratyek Team to ongoingly expose them to 15 minutes of music everyday just to quieten and settle them. Their first tryst with Indian classical music defintely seems to have left a positive impact as did our interaction with them, on us! It moved us so deeply that we have added a new project, ‘Naadyatra Gyanalaya’ to our Foundation’s work. This experience made us realise that even though not every child will become a musician but learning Indian music can influence and impact one’s personality and view of life. Through our Gyanalaya initiative, we intend to reach more and more underprivileged children and use music as a means of bringing in a sustainable positive change in their lives. Thereby impacting the society at large.