Sharing Music with Special Children

In an exclusive interview for The Alternative with Preeti Mohan, Academy Award nominee Bombay Jayashri talks about a cause close to her heart.
The experience of sharing music with children of Autism is very special.

Like the famous lyricist, poet and director Gulzar saab wrote…

 “Ik jahan aur bhi hain is jahan mein” (there is another world in this world)…

There are people who make you realize the irrelevance of preparing for an interview. Such is the expanse of their world view, and their ability to help you connect with their experience, that the questions you had disappear. Bombay Jayashri is one of them. In the midst of a busy schedule with newspapers chasing her for a quote on her Oscar nomination, when I rang her to request her to speak about her work with music and autism, she readily agreed. Much like her music – which to me has always represented a complete union of the mind, heart and soul, a perfect blend of technique and aestheticism – her narration of her experiences with autistic children enlightened and moved me.

Sitting in the drawing room in her house in Chennai, our conversation began, of children, of our ideas of normalcy and inclusiveness, and of the immense potential of music as a shared human experience.

How did you begin working with autistic children? What experience led you to it?

A few instances in my life when I’ve met children with autism and Down’s Syndrome made an impact on me. One distinct experience I recall was this kid who had apparently been naturally attracted to a song of mine. The first time I was in the same room as him, he instantly ran to me and gave me a tight hug! I didn’t even know then that he was autistic. As you might know, autistic children take a while to connect, to make eye contact. This child didn’t wait for his parents to tell him who I was, to direct him to me. I then learnt that he had seen my picture on the cover of the album he listened to quite often. His mother said he tended to listen to my music more often than any other music.

What impact did it have on you?

I was surprised, and it made me think. What is it about the music that affected the child? Could his listening to me often be explained by the repetitive patterns they say autistic children display? I would remember the kid very often, and think to myself: I should find the time to sing to him!

Any other experiences you recall?

Yes, I also remember this kid who attended a concert of mine. After the concert, he came up to me with his mother. Without looking up at me he said, “the Begada was wrong”! I was startled, and perhaps a little upset. Where had I gone wrong! His mother was deeply apologetic. She explained to me that he was autistic, and would listen to my music continuously. She sweetly suggested that the Begada I sang on stage might have been slightly different from the version he’d heard on the recording. Apparently, he would wake up every morning and listen to the music for hours together; nothing or no one could disturb him. I remember thinking – can we not lose ourselves more often like that?

How did you start working with autistic children?

An autistic kid who is close to my family is part of a school for special children; they’d invited me to perform for the kids. The teachers would tell me that the kids were much calmer during the musical session – they would pay attention, and not be restless. One thing led to another, and the sessions became regular. A student of mine, Abhinaya, who had observed the experience, asked me if we could try this with more children. I then remembered my Guru often telling me, there’s so much more to life and the world than music concerts, it’s important to have a range of experiences. We began this initiative which has been running for 2 years now. We visit schools for special children and even their homes. What we realized was that parents of these kinds are under immense pressure – to find a more ‘normal’ life for their children.

In a sense, it is a search for acceptance and the familiar? 

Yes, you could say that. It also stems from a deep sense of insecurity about the future of the child. Who will take care of the child after our time? This leads to a form of goal-orientation. The yardsticks of a ‘normal’ life become relevant. You see a lot of anxious parents trying to focus on multiple aspects of growth. Music, writing classes, speech therapy and much more will all be packed into a day!

How did you place the musical experience within this framework?

We decided we did not want any goal-posts. We did not want them to learn songs, or their instructors to write them down or train them . We told them we’re simply coming to sing, for the music to be. Abhinaya went week after week, and I would go every now and then. We noticed that the children did not turn away from the sessions, they would come. They would sit in the room and do their own thing, but suddenly we would notice a child hum a portion of a song, and not a particularly easy one! If the child stopped, another would pick up from where he/she left.

Any particular methods or techniques you followed?

We were told repetitive patterns appeal to them and give them a sense of comfort. We would sing the same songs for weeks together in the same order. After a few weeks, if we happened to sing in a different order, they would notice and tell us! After a while, we started recording their music. It’s amazing, today there are children who can’t speak normally, but who sing ragas, and in tune.

Apart from parents wanting to make their children move towards normal capabilities, there is a particular emphasis in the West on musical interventions being adapted to other contexts. If the children respond to music for instance, they look to mould these responses to improve speech. What is your view?

Well, it is perfectly understandable for parents to want that. I even come across parents who spot a moment in the child’s singing and ask me, is it possible that one day he/she will even be a performer? I completely understand where they come from. I try at times to not let this become the focus, because I’m not there to create professionals. Honestly, I don’t know if the music is therapeutic, if it can heal. I haven’t studied it. For me, it is simply about the music being soothing. If it can soothe me and you, it can soothe them. And if they can’t get to our perception of what the benchmarks are for an experience, we should go to theirs.

How do parents get involved?

Actually, we conducted a few camps in which the parents participated. For the first one or two days they would be a little unsure, and then we saw the transformation. They would start singing with the children, become a part of the experience. I have something very interesting to tell you here. Several parents came up to me and said ‘it’s amazing that you’re telling us what our children can actually do! We’re so used to being told all the time, of what they cannot do’.

Studies show that autistic children respond to distinct notes and pitches. What is it about music and their condition?

I have noticed a definite ability to connect with music and be affected by it. These children often spend hours listening to music, and nothing can distract them from it. I recall attending a seminar organized by Sankalp, an organization which works with autistic children. The speaker who was an expert, made a remark that people who are completely absorbed in music, in any art, almost border on the autistic! This is not to take away from the seriousness of what affects these children, but that remark almost dramatically changed my thinking of the idea of normalcy. How do we draw these lines? Isn’t the ability to completely drown yourself in something like an autistic child does, special?

How does Carnatic music fits into the scheme of things? Autistic children have been observed to respond to patterns which are simple and repetitive. The Carnatic system as we know is fairly complex.

We try and focus on simple songs to start with. Bhajans which usually do not contain very complicated lyrics work wonderfully – it’s often just Rama, Krishna and Radha. In a sense it is not very different from what a normal child will easily respond to. When the children are asked to sing for instance, it is so much easier to break into a beautiful song rather than sing Sarali Varisais (fundamental note sequences)! The children get appreciated and this makes them happy. So it’s really about changing your orientation from honing potential performers to teaching kids who simply want the joy of learning.

We start with Bhajans and slowly move to popular songs such as ‘Kurai Ondrum Illai’, which have for some reason become a part of popular consciousness. There’s something hummable about them perhaps. Having observed the patterns of these children and what they respond to, we have built a repertoire, a collection of 30-40 songs which we keep introducing them to. We even compose simple tunes in Carnatic ragas with words that appeal, like ‘moonlight’, ‘rainfall’ etc.

Isn’t it difficult to measure the impact of work like yours on these children? In the face of reluctance to easily accept alternative therapies, and the absence of documentation, how do you create more legitimacy?

I don’t know, I don’t understand this excessive focus on documentation, perhaps the legacy of the West! I firmly believe that if we can start by convincing parents and caregivers that this is something which can affect the child positively, the possibilities for pushing frontiers are immense.

Recently, a school in Chennai called V-excel organized a cultural event. It had autistic children dance, sing, perform in groups etc. Watching this, we would typically feel moved. But for the parents who were standing around and clicking photographs, it was not just a poignant moment but a significant milestone. That makes them realize their children are capable of all this.

Abhinaya came up with the idea of having a proper music concert with the children attending. I thought the idea was wonderful, and she actually went ahead and tried it. The children sat patiently through the first half of the concert. When she spotted them getting a little restless, she switched to songs they were familiar with. They sat in rapt attention for the rest of the concert. This gives us ideas to explore – can we do these concerts every month, what if some other singer they are unfamiliar with performs these very songs? There can be a lot of insights.

Personally, how do you see your engagement with the cause going forward?

It gives me immense gratification – the greater the number of people I can inspire to share in the joy of the experience, the better! Of course, there are wonderful organizations like SankalpKillikilliV-Exceland “We Can” who are doing tremendous work in the area, who keep providing opportunities for engagement.

To sign off, you might be interested to know that the word in Marathi for autism translates to ‘happy with oneself’. Nothing captures these children and their truth more beautifully than that!

(The Author, Preeti Mohan, is a practising advocate in the Madras High Court and a classical music enthusiast.)