By Naomi Miller
Naomi is a student at the University of Oxford studying Literae Humaniores. She visited Music Basti in August 2010, as a participant with the Study India Programme, coordinated by the University of Birmingham, UK.
Approximately four million people visit Qutub Minar in South Delhi every year. The world’s tallest brick minaret, it offers stunning sights, a snapshot of multiple architectural styles spanning the three centuries over which it was built, and the chance to capture your dreams by embracing a mysteriously un- corroded fourth century Iron Pillar, sadly now fenced off by conservationalists. However, only a minute fraction of the steady stream of tourists realize that just a few hundred metres away lies a slum and the Umeed Boys’ Home for street children, where I am currently, rather surreally, teaching sixty boys the Macarena. Inside the gates, boys spring up from all sides, wrestle, shout, bang a djembe – yet outside, few people seem to know even that they exist.
WATCH THE VIDEO: Study India Programme at Music Basti !(Click to view)
The plight of such children has always been an emotive one. Seeing a child in distress arouses strong and instinctive protective urges in most of us, and there have been many organisations which provide aid to these children, in Delhi and all over the world. Though these simply do not have the scope or the funding to reach every child, they do an excellent job for those whom they manage to reach. Recently, however, there has been a shift in the way we conceptualize poverty, particularly pertinent to the subject of poverty in children. Whilst in previous decades the definition of poverty has been largely focused on the criterion of low income, with all its ramifications, Amartya Sen has done much to popularize the conception of poverty as rather the absence or inadequate realization of basic freedoms – the freedom to live without disease, for example, or without hunger, or without illiteracy. This new so-called ‘capability approach’ may seem merely to shift the emphasis from the perceived cause (no money) to its consequences (no food, no education, no healthcare), but this shift has important consequences. When poverty is defined as a lack of money, aid is given, but generally on a case-by-case basis, depending on the whim of pitying individuals, or the good luck to be in the target zone of a benevolent organization – there simply isn’t enough money around to ensure that every poor person is given the financial aid necessary for them to escape poverty. Sen’s approach, however, focuses on the lack of certain basic freedoms, thus beginning to invoke that most powerful of documents, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When human rights are involved, aid moves from being a reality for few to a legal necessity to all. Whilst the Universal Declaration of Human Rights barely mentions children specifically, in 1989 the United Nations ratified a Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in September 1990, and to which India is a signatory. Again, the emphasis for children has shifted from ‘needs’ to ‘rights’; in particular, the report breaks new ground in its insistence on the right of children not just to b protected and to have fulfillment of their basic needs, but also to actively participate in the way they live their lives, and have their voices heard in accordance with their maturity. Article 12 specifically states that ‘Children have the right to say what they think should happen, when adults are making decisions that affect them, and have their opinions taken into account’, backing up the statement in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression’.
All this may be very well, you are probably thinking, but how does a shift in emphasis such as this move from being a theoretical technicality, over which academics may quibble, to schemes or projects that may lead to tangible benefits to children? When a child has been living a life on the streets, fighting for each mouthful, do they care about their rights and responsibilities as set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child? And, when a child who has been roaming free on the streets, with the opportunity to go and do as he pleases, is plucked from the streets and ‘saved’, how do we teach him that he still has freedoms within an institution such as one of Delhi’s homes for street children, that must feel unbearably rigid?
It is here that organizations such as Music Basti come in.
Founded in 2008 by the then 20-year-old Faith Gonsalves, it now has a team of ten core members of staff, around fifty volunteers and a huge number of Delhi’s best musicians, and works with three children’s homes in Delhi as well as external projects in slums and elsewhere. The basic premise is simple. Once a week, a few members of staff go to each home and run workshops for the children there. The focus is on music, as the name suggests, but the staff also run meditation and art sessions. The aims are simple, the benefits multiple. The act of singing together gives children both group identity and individuality; children are picked out to come to the front and sing alone or in small groups, clustered around the guitar of 21-year-old Neraj Arya, who conducts many of the workshops, before slipping back into the crowd. While some children, when questioned, confessed to being scared to answer questions in school lessons for fear of the teacher, or of looking stupid, when they are asked to sing alone, there seems to be only a bashfulness, usually rapidly overcome; others are clearly delighted to be chosen and happy to perform. Singing in front of others is not the same as expressing your own opinion, but it is a good start, and begins to teach the children to have confidence that their voice is worth hearing. The choirs of girls and boys even occasionally perform at concerts around Delhi, to audiences of up to hundreds. Just as importantly, Music Basti is constantly in the process of self-evaluation and needs assessment, including gathering the children together in small groups and asking them directly what they think of the sessions – what they enjoy and what they do not. The results, as far as possible, are acted upon, including more of the things the children enjoy and want, and avoiding the ‘consultation without commitment’ that the Commission on Poverty, Participation and Rights found was viewed as the ‘ultimate disrespect’ to the poor in the UK (2000, p18).
The possibilities of music go further than just the simple act of expressing one’s voice in song. The idea of music being a healing influence has been present since Plato and Aristotle; our current concept of music as therapy has been in use since World War One. Music provides a way of releasing emotions for those who find it difficult to express them explicitly. Children who own next to nothing may work together with the common goal of creating their own song together, ably guided by workshop leaders, coming away with not only a sense of personal achievement, but also a sense of personal ownership – something that is theirs forever, that no-one may steal, break, or take away. The chance to be creative; the opportunity to learn English without even realizing it in the pop songs they clamour to learn (Shakira was a particular favourite, it seemed) – all these are just some of the myriad benefits, as it is increasingly being recognized, that music can bring.
This is how it works in theory, at least. And in practice? I was lucky enough to work as an intern for Music Basti, both attending and taking workshops at boys’ and girls’ homes, and from the start it was clear that the musicians were engaging both the children’s brains and their hearts. Even walking in the homes with the workshop leaders is enlightening – children run to them and breakout into smiles; the keen ones cluster near the guitar at the front when they sit and others peep round the door and are called in as soon as the strum of the guitar and the beat of the djembe begin. Most of the children, growing up in a country where music education would have had no part in the curriculum even for those who have attended school, struggle to pitch easily, or to feel the strong rhythm of the beat, so simple scales are sung and clapping games are played to teach them to use their ears before the proper singing starts. Learning is tailored to the children – the boys are taught more kinesthetically, the girls with a greater emphasis on thought, meaning and meditation.
No matter what they sing or how they learn it, however, one this is clear – the overwhelming feeling in the room is passion. Singing folk songs or hits from Bollywood movies, many of the boys screw up their eyes and let rip with open mouth; the more demonstrative girls cling to the adults leading the workshops and giggle. We watch one boy come to the front of the class and jam with a workshop leader, extracting some amazing rhythms from the djembe whilst perched precariously on a broken chair; an adult whispers that he barely even turns up to class but has been participating happily in workshops. The children are learning in one of the best ways – without even knowing it. Their clamour to learn songs in English is expanding their vocabulary; the meaning of the lyrics, which include words by Kabir, the great mystic poet and saint of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is always discussed, and the children are able to paraphrase these lyrics when asked. The workshop leaders have plans to introduce historical and geographical key issues into the songs that they write and pick out for the children – they have seen how the children remain engaged when information is given through the medium of music in a way that they do not when it is given verbally.
It is clear to any casual onlooker that the vast majority of children are loving what they are doing. To measure accurately the benefits to them, however, is difficult. Street children are far from a homogenous group, and a series of workshops in homes with well-cared for children and secure infrastructures will prove more beneficial than an identical series in less well-run homes. The workshop leaders believe that they have seen the children become more confident, more relaxed, and more aware of their own responsibilities in the world and to younger children during the time in which they have been working in these homes, but such a change is not easily quantifiable, especially with a shifting subject base and relatively restricted access to the children’s guardians and schoolteachers. More research is needed on the advantageous effects of music on children, especially based in India where the benefits of a musical education are not recognized. However, reading the reports on the needs assessments conducted by Music Basti, it seems that the children are beginning to recognize the power of their own voices – the boys, for instance were ‘vociferous’ about the responsibility of the youth of India in effecting change in the community and righting the wrongs that they perceive. There will be plenty of nay-sayers who point to the perceived relative inutility of putting resources and time into music workshops when so many children require food and money merely to survive day to day. But, as the old adage goes, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. The legacy that Music Basti is leaving is already clear. We could hear children at Umeed Boys’ Home practicing the djembe as we arrived; some children have begun to write their own songs and music; older children at both boys’ and girls’ homes have been holding workshops for the younger ones when the Music Basti team are not there in a manner that they hope will continue down the generations of children. And even if none of these benefits were present, no-one watching the faces of these children as they discover the toe-tapping beats coursing through them for the first time and the twining melodies of the music would deny them the opportunity to sing. As Igor Stravinsky said, ‘Music is nothing more than a series of tensions that find their relaxation’ – and if anyone is more in need of finding relaxation for their tensions than these children, they would be hard to find.