The children of a top Bollywood playback singer are taking the power of song to South Indian schools of all economic brackets
SaPa's pitch-perfect programme makes music in Indian schools fun
It’s about 10am on a breezy Tuesday, and pupils in a government-run school in Bangalore are rushing back to their classrooms after the school assembly. Looking bright in navy blue tunics or trousers, teamed with a light blue shirt, the 13-year-olds of eighth grade are excited about their music class. In their hustle to take their seats first, a few knock into each other. But they are soon settled, and impatiently wait to receive a copy of the music book being distributed by a student. A few begin to rehearse what they learnt from last week’s class in pairs. A moment later, their music teacher, Gayathri Prakash, enters the room and switches on soft, instrumental background music. Prakash is a Carnatic singer by profession, and a music educator trained by the Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts (SaPa), the institution that runs weekly music classes here, at Geddalahalli Government School.
SaPa, which was launched in 2007 as an academy to train children in Indian and Western classical music, is helmed by sibling musicians – Ambi and Bindu Subramaniam. Four years ago, to reach out to more than just the handful of children attending the academy, SaPa expanded its music education programme to private and government-run, as well as those for underprivileged kids. Geddalahalli Government School in Bangalore is one of the institutions catering to underserved children in the city, where preschoolers to ninth graders receive musical education, called SaPa in Schools, with no cost to the school or kids.
At the school, Prakash begins her music class with a vocal warm-up. The room lights up with 30 confident voices singing in pitch. Prakash then moves to their first activity of the day. “How many pulses per beat are in tha kit tha?” she asks. “Three, ma’am,” the class of 30 replies in unison. “And how many in tha ka di mi?” “Four,” they scream. “Then how many times should the two beats be sung to land up together,” Gayathri asks. The kids quickly do the mental calculations. “Tha kit tha should be sung four times and tha ka di mi, thrice, to end up at the same time,” the kids say.
She divides the class into two and assigns them a beat each. Both groups sing their beat together and loudly, three and four times respectively, to prove their point.
Without her students’ knowledge, Prakash introduced the mathematical concept of deriving patterns. “In the music class, they are challenged, not forced, to do these calculations, so they do it without their usual fear of math,” she explains.
Math is not a subject that’s taught creatively in schools, notes Bindu Subramaniam. “We are taught to be right all the time, so we forget to look at better ways to solve a problem,” she says. “If we can get the concept in, and get the kids to be creative about it, that’s enough of a foundation to be built for both music and math.” Finding parallels between music and other subjects is just one of the unique parts of SaPa in Schools. The programme emerged from Subramaniam’s dream to provide a comprehensive education, which could not only creatively teach music and communicate a deep passion for it, but also give an extra dimension to the world of the children due to the with the conversations it initiates.
“The most important thing for us is that kids should have fun,” she says. “As long as they only know that they learnt a cool song and don’t worry about the nine languages or three pulses per beat they also learnt, our purpose is served.”
A vocalist, pianist and songwriter, Subramaniam has grown up in the lap of the country’s best artists - her father, L Subramaniam, is an accomplished violinist and her mother, Kavita Krishnamurthy, a top Bollywood playback singer, whose songs are mimed by actors. Being a doctoral student of music, she is aware of studies that support how music helps build social skills, promotes teamwork, communication and reduces aggression among kids. She always wanted to take these benefits to every child, irrespective of their capacity to pay for it.
Before launching SaPa in Schools in 2014, Subramaniam started to give wings to her dream by working with 15 orphanage children, where she conducted music lessons. “When we started, we found that everyone was so involved in taking care of the kids’ needs that nobody looked at them as talented and worthy individuals,” she recalls. Introducing a creative component in their lives shot up the children’s self-worth. Each time she visited, the kids told Subramaniam, “Akka [elder sister], look, I can sing this song really well” or “Akka, l can dance on this number.”
That was when Subramaniam decided she should scale up by connecting with schools. Today, SaPa in Schools reaches 20,000 children in 40 schools in southern India, with 8,000 of the pupils from underprivileged backgrounds.
During her reconnaissance of educational institutions, Subramaniam found that Indian schools don’t have a music curriculum at all. They just have guidelines. “Most of the time, schools try and find a teacher who teaches what she knows.” A methodology is completely non-existent. Wherever music education exists in schools, it is run with the aim of getting children on stage for annual days or other events. “I noticed that schools don’t value music education,” she says.
SaPa had to fill these gaps so that schools and parents could take music education seriously, and so that the kids would be happy in the process. “We work hard to establish legitimacy for music education in schools.”
A curriculum was created and books were printed keeping the level of children in mind. Apart from learning Indian classical music, each grade has a global music component wherein they learn songs from 15 different countries such as Benin, Kenya, Latin America, and many more, in the language that they were written. “We look at music as a tool to build on ideas of tolerance and stamp out racism before it comes.”
A theme also runs across the music class every year: while Grade 1 learns about the solar system through a funny song written by a SaPa student, Grade 2 discusses ways to solve a problem in a non-violent manner, through their social change theme. In Grade 3, the concept of immigration is introduced through an Italian song about the life of an immigrant. “Slowly, we also introduce the concept of a refugee and how we could become more sensitive towards them.”
Music and spirituality is introduced to Grade 4 by disconnecting it with religion but showing its roots in spirituality. Students of Grade 5 learn math with music, while the connection between physics and music is established in Grade 6. For instance, the variation of pitch and sound levels are extrapolated from the demonstration of the violin and double bass. The double bass, which is six feet tall, has a deep tone, while the violin, which is smaller, is higher pitched. “Kids take no time to pick this concept,” Subramaniam says.
Workshops are held twice a year with musicians from across the globe. “We want kids to interact with musicians and learn from them. Where else would they get this opportunity?” she asks. This has helped in building a tolerance for cultures among kids. “If you can create a positive experience around another culture, it doesn’t feel ‘other’ and a child is less likely to approach it with distrust, hate or fear, later in life.”
Rama, the principal at Geddalahalli Government School, says that she has found that her students focus better and have even picked up values from their music teachers, ever since SaPa launched their programme six months ago. A lot of them come from very poor families where the parents are daily wagers. Some live with a single parent and come with emotional baggage. “In such a scenario, music helps them calm down and perform better in school,” Rama says.
However, the students of Grade 8 don’t think beyond their day. “Music lessons make us happy. The rest of the day goes well,” they say.