Written by Dr Neeraja Raghavan on 16 January 2022
Shankar Mahadevan declares: “Talent can be born anywhere. So, music lessons should go everywhere.” Like so many other social programs of his Academy, the intent of the Inspire India Project (IIP), too, is inclusive and all-encompassing. While the goal (as always) is to create a social impact, this program serves to do this by inculcating values in the masses – through music.
If there is one festival in India which spreads joy among the masses, regardless of their economic status, it must be the Ganesha festival. This is an event which does not call for buying expensive gifts or performing elaborate practices at home. Instead, it is an occasion for residents of villages, apartment complexes and cities to gather together and celebrate the advent of the much-loved elephant God. Bringing communities together, it enables people to mingle and share their joy – with little focus (if any) on each individual’s socio-economic status.
In a similar way, could music bring people together? This was the question in the mind of the CEO and Founder of SMA, Sridhar Ranganathan.
And thus was born the IIP program of SMA.
What are your most frequent topics of conversation at home? When you sit together as a family for a meal, what – if anything – tends to draw in everyone’s attention, during a discussion? Chances are that it tends to vary. There isn’t any ONE attention puller, mostly.
Well, Shankar Mahadevan Academy (SMA) strives to bring a certain topic into your household conversations – and yes, you guessed it right! Music!
SMA’s Inspire India Project (IIP) aspires to make music a topic of household conversation at every home in the community. ‘Now why would they want that?’ you may well ask. Well, this idea came from two diagonally opposite scenarios: Classical Music was held captive by specific castes and subcastes, and Bollywood music has gained such strengths that it overshadows all other forms of beautiful Indian music - which exist in many forms outside Bollywood. It was time, SMA felt, to ensure that these precious art forms do not go extinct.
Families with a yellow or orange ration card can learn at Inspire India Centres for a nominal fee. Underprivileged students are offered the same programs that their more fortunate fraternity get to access – but at an extremely nominal annual fee of Rs 500/- per course. A donation of Rs 3500 helps the academy schedule classes for an entire year. The Academy raises funds to pay related teacher and technology expenses. Targeting school students as well as Senior Citizens, this program offers twelve-week-long courses, each of which culminates in a performance. The intention is not to churn out music professionals, but to get participants to experience the joy of performing after learning some music. A student can select any two of the courses offered, and thus engage with SMA for two full terms. [For advanced Hindustani and Carnatic Vocals courses and Teacher Training, auditioning is mandatory.]
If you walk into an IIP class, you could see any of these surprising sights: a visually challenged girl (Deeksha) confidently playing the piano, or housewives absorbed in playing the piano, or students of a government school in West India singing songs in French, Russian and Tamil! Deeksha’s teacher Chinmay devised a novel way of transacting the music lesson with her: instead of sharing the notation of the composition, which requires vision, (he recited the notation and she followed it as she heard him. [See text box for more on the innovative pedagogy that he employed.]
Initially, the IIP ran three centres in Mumbai and one in Bangalore. Since the onset of the pandemic, though, all classes are conducted online, through phones and tablets that the Academy provides children with. Efforts are underway to expand this program so that it has a far wider reach. Partnering with NGOs is helping SMA raise the funds to provide laptops for students to learn music, even as they use these devices to attend online school.
Before one can sing, though, shouldn’t one be well nourished? Yes, indeed! The program budget includes a glass of milk and biscuits before every class, thus providing a good incentive for the poorest of the poor to come to class. Further, the program has 4 performance events every year.
If you need convincing on how such a course can impart values, read these testimonies. Even teachers are learning some crucial lessons – and in a program where teachers are themselves learning, why won’t students also learn?
Sixteen-year-old Sanjana Ganesh is – no, not a student, but a teacher at IIP. Here is what she says: ‘Mahatma Gandhi once said: The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. I believe that this quote elegantly summarises my journey so far with the Inspire India Project. On the 1st of August 2020, I started teaching music to children through Shankar Mahadevan Academy’s IIP. I have been learning music for more than half my life, and music has helped me through tough times. It has helped me develop discipline, character and skills useful for many more processes and activities in life. This project has propelled me to learn so much not only about teaching, but also about myself.’
Chinmay Vaidya, who is a former student of DS High School, now teaches its students music through IIP. He even designed a curriculum – a long held dream of his – and helped some students secure admission in the Trinity College of Certification for a better future. He disarmingly declares that his students taught him perseverance and patience – two qualities that he lacked when he was a student! Now having gained them, this teacher thanks his students!
Debashree Dasgupta says that she has experienced giving and also learnt a lot – even as she imparted learning! As she met learners aged between 3 and 85 years, and saw the way that they were living their lives – despite numerous difficulties – she was inspired by their zeal to learn and the way that music has become such an integral aspect of their lives. ‘During lockdown,’ she says, ‘they kept asking when classes would resume. If one wants something, one can achieve it – IIP gives this platform! I am mesmerised and inspired by the IIP project.’
Archana Kamath Hegdekar acknowledges that this project brings the joy of music to ALL – across age, ability, gender and class. She cannot but be inspired by it. ‘Kids are so eager to learn, so disciplined – it is very fulfilling to teach them. We are touching so many lives – I am proud to be a part of this project!’ she says.
As for the students, their words are no less impactful:
Turshita Kamble says: ‘I've been learning singing at SMA for the last 2 years. I love listening to joyful music, as it makes me calm. The teachers in SMA helped me learn new songs and improve my voice. They even taught me other languages like Tamil, Russian, English, etc. At a school function, I sang a song that I had learnt at SMA - Chidiya Chali, and all the teachers in my school appreciated me and gave me their blessings. My confidence increased and I am not afraid to sing any more. Thank you, SMA!’
Manpreet Kaur lives in a gurdwara in Sion Sachkhand Darbar, where his father does Sewa. ‘Since childhood, I’ve been singing Kirtans and Shabads, my voice needed training and hence, I joined Hindustani vocal sessions at SMA two years ago and became a part of IIP. Earlier, I would find it very difficult to sing at Tar Saptaks, but after joining Hindustani vocals at SMA, my voice has improved considerably. Now I can sing well and I’m more confident, thanks to the opportunities given by SMA. I have done 2 studio recordings, which was my dream! I had never thought that I would be able to compose my own song. Recently, I won an award in an international competition conducted by Salesforce. Now I’m very confident – and this is all because of SMA and my teachers. Thank you so much for believing in me and giving me such opportunities!’
Avish Kumar, who is a student of IIP, says: ‘From childhood, I've been listening to melodies and poems sung by my mother. So I was always interested in music, and even wanted to learn more languages so as to sing songs in those languages fluently. Then one day, a school friend of mine told me about the IIP centre that had opened in our school and I decided to join it. It’s now been 3 years since I joined and it's been a wonderful experience for me. I can sing fluently in Japanese, Russian, Kashmiri and French. I’ve also had a chance to perform at a few events and it has given me the courage to sing in front of a crowd. Now I love to go for my class and learn new songs.’
Fifth grader Navin Digmohan, who goes to IES School in Dadar, has this to share: ‘I was very fond of practicing gymnastics but now I'm crazy about playing the piano. This interest arose because of my mother: once, she took me to a music show where I saw someone playing the guitar and I liked its movement. I asked my mother to enroll me in guitar classes. My mother had heard about the SMA centre in Sion from her friend and so, she took me there. But I was too young to learn the guitar so I enrolled for piano. At that time, I didn't like playing the piano, but slowly as I continued, I began to enjoy it and my love of the piano grew. Nowadays when I hear some songs, I like to hear piano songs. With the guidance of my Sir, I have been able to give the Trinity initial grade exam and I felt very happy. I will try to complete the other levels. Music has taught me patience and my love for music has increased. Earlier, I would skip the songs in the movies but now I enjoy hearing the music, this is all because of my Sir and SMA. Thank you!’
So there you have it: from IIP lessons, teachers and students have imbibed qualities like patience, self-confidence, perseverance, empathy and gratitude for all that one already has.
If this isn’t magical, then what is?
Now, how can you be a part of this inspiring initiative? With your help, we can spread Inspire India to newer places and benefit thousands of families more. Here is something you can do:
Let’s each do our bit to bring music into the hearts and conversations of households across India!
I started training Deeksha for Piano exams held by the Trinity College of London. I was curious to find out how she would remember the hand positions that are necessary to learn certain musical pieces.
So I took one song and broke the whole song into three pieces of music. And I taught her one pattern at a time, on either hand, according to the tune. As her classes progressed, her grasp of hand positions grew stronger. She could locate her hand position better, based on the placement of the black keys on the piano.
We worked next on the aspect of playing a piece or a short composition. Now, students with normal eyesight would understand how to play a piece because they can read the sheet notation and understand the melodic patterns. But for Deeksha, doing that was a challenge.
So I chose to recite to her a whole melodic pattern in the piece, instead of the individual notes. I instinctively felt that she would grasp the essence of music in the piece faster than the technicalities of learning to play it. It worked. And I’m happy to share that she has learnt two complete pieces for the Trinity Syllabus without opening her book. That is a great achievement by her!
Chinmay Vaidya, Teacher of Deeksha
I love teaching, learning, writing, music, children and philosophy.