We have as much to learn even as we teach

Music Within Or Without Music

In a desire to find the ‘normal’ child within the autistic children, are we forgetting their very core?

Ananth has heard it over 50 times… the same phrase in Kalyani: ‘Sri Kamakshi’(in Syama Sastri’s kriti, ‘Himadhri Suthe Pahimam’) and is ready to hear it many more times, over and over again.

Autism theory sees it as ‘repetitive behaviour. Research finds this to be a common behaviour for children with Autism. In the world of rasikas, when one listens to the same piece many times, one is called a passionate rasika. “I wake up to your Kalyani. It has been so for years now.” I have heard this often, from my rasikas.

There is a difference though. Ananth is brimming inside with Kalyani, so much so that when he sings it the next time and the next time, I can hear a new space between the notes of Kalyani… with such purity, clarity, and beauty, that it knocks me down and brings tears to my eyes.

So, what exactly do we mean when we say, ‘inclusive’? I have been part of many conferences where this has been discussed. Make them part of our society: inclusive education, inclusive employment, inclusive art… the list is endless.

Five years ago, when my students and I conducted our first experimental music workshop for children with Autism in Bangalore, I was struck by what I heard a father say about his daughter: “It’s the first time someone has looked at a strength of my child.”

My students and I have been engaging with children with Autism for the past three years through Hitham, a Trust that I founded to take music to children, who would otherwise not have access to music — sharing Carnatic classical music with them and trying to understand music better, along with them.

We started without any formal curriculum or plan. We wanted to see how we could offer music to children with Autism. We were pleasantly surprised and completely unprepared to discover, that music is a strong bridge between their world and ours. We have as much to learn from their music, even as we teach them.

Their focus, their concentration, their ability to shut out everything else, delving so deep into the world of their choice… isn’t this something we should be learning from them? Should we not strive to include these traits in ourselves?

Jyothikiran , another child with Autism, always puts his ear close to the mridangam, the violin, the sruti box, the speakers… as if he wants to be so close that he doesn’t even want the breeze to come in between. Perhaps he does this to hear the origin of that sound, and the journey of the sound, hear it as close as possible, to enjoy it, to delve deep into it. It reaches him in a way none of us are able to fathom. Soon thereafter, he stuns you with a picturesque and as yet unheard shade of Bagesri. It not only educates me about the many hidden parts of Bagesri, it enlarges my spirit as well.

So, are we, I wonder, somehow not able to understand their core? Their uniqueness? What they’re here to help us learn, even as they themselves work very hard to learn ways of being in this world? In a fierce desire to find the ‘normal’ child within them, are we forgetting these children’s very core?

“She is non-verbal,” says Sangeetha, Samyuktha’s mother, but ‘Aayar Paadi Maligayil’ is sung so beautifully by her. I have still not understood how a child who is ‘non-verbal’ can sing so authentically, in a way that brings alive the emotive content of the lyric.

This is Nature’s way of pushing the envelope of our understanding, I guess.

The writer is a leading Carnatic vocalist who engages with children

 The Hindu – April 13, 2017