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Making music in India

9 years ago

  As a growing interest in western classical music takes hold across the country, Andrew Stewart finds out how more young people are getting involved and what this means for India’s music teachers. Ask a dozen futurologists to predict global economic trends or this decade’s breakthrough technologies and you will receive at least two dozen different answers. There’s one subject, however, on which today’s forecasters hold strikingly unanimous views. India has become the surest candidate for positive, sustainable change - a South Asian marvel ascending world league tables in everything from gross domestic product to the size of her working age population. For all India’s complex social problems and embedded inequalities, the nation’s present expansion and future prospects amount to a compelling tale of confidence, determination and creativity. Rising interest in western classical music, in demand from the mountainous Nagaland in the north to the tropical southern states of Kerala and Goa, may not be India’s biggest news story. But it does contain the makings of a revolutionary advance in high quality music teaching, one in which ABRSM is determined to play a leading part. Tim Arnold, ABRSM’s International Operations Director, speaks of the passion and optimism of the organisation’s Regional Co-ordinators in India. He is convinced their energy can fuel the strategy to develop partnerships with teachers, students, schools and colleges, and build the infrastructure required to deliver excellence in western classical music. ‘There’s a wonderfully positive feel about India in general and the way it is embracing western classical music in particular,’ says Tim. The online news magazine Outlookindia recently reported how many young people are coming to western classical music from ethnic groups rarely touched by the genre in the past. It noted how India’s latest cohort of classical musicians is not confined to ‘the usual suspects’, the Anglo-Indians, Christians and Parsis traditionally encouraged to study European art music. Today’s ABRSM exam candidates are just as likely to be Marwaris, Punjabis, Tamils, Kannadigas and Malayalis. ‘In a sense,’ wrote Outlookindia’s Sugata Srinivasaraju, western classical music’s expansion ‘is about new India’s confidence – unshackling history and democratising the arts.’ Surging national pride has certainly helped redefine India’s relationship to the cultural legacy of her former colonial masters: western classical music, once the preserve of a ruling elite, is seen today as accessible to all. The educational value of the genre has meanwhile attracted the attention of countless Indian parents, and the demand for high standards of music training has inevitably grown faster than the supply of qualified teachers. Tim has visited India four times since 2001. He returned this year to lead seminars for instrumental and vocal teachers, offering advice on the subject of developing musical skills, in six centres across the country. ‘The dramatic growth in our work in India reflects widening recognition there of what ABRSM represents,’ he notes. ‘There’s an exciting possibility for us to provide the training that music teachers in India tell us they desperately need. There’s a hunger for practical knowledge and skills. Teachers realise that it’s in their interest to be known for their expertise and abilities.’ Thanks to the power of grapevine marketing, the best music teachers have been swamped by requests from students. Gita Chacko, pianist and ABRSM Regional Co-ordinator for Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, notes that every classical music teacher in Chennai, Bangalore and beyond operates a waiting list for new students: ‘Anyone can set up as a music teacher, with or without a qualification. But we can see already how our outstanding young musicians are determined to pass on their skills to the next generation.’ Gita mentions a gifted former pupil who opted to study medicine and is about to qualify as a doctor. ‘She intends to teach music in her spare time, because it is her passion. I’m sure there will be many other fine musicians who make careers in other professions but who also want to perform and teach music.’ Gita suggests that the Indian diaspora, able to access high quality music education in Europe, the Gulf States and the United States, is influencing teaching standards in the mother country. The speed of online communication and social networking media, she says, mean that families separated by continents can compare notes about their children’s educational experiences within seconds. In addition, recessionary pressures overseas and the lure of job opportunities in India have attracted many migrants to return home, bringing experiences gained overseas with them. ‘Many non-domiciled Indians have returned to India, especially to Bangalore,’ Gita observes. ‘They want their children to continue with the music studies they started abroad and to take ABRSM exams. These parents expect to find good music teachers in India, producing a demand that did not exist before.’ It has also propelled nationwide interest in accredited exams and benchmark standards. ‘Parents see music as an additional qualification for their children; studying music has grown alongside the rise of middle-class income that has followed the IT revolution, especially in Bangalore and other fast developing parts of India.’ Western classical music, as Tim suggests, is gaining credence as a career path. ‘While most parents still encourage their children to become doctors, lawyers and engineers, music is now becoming an acceptable profession,’ he explains. ‘That has been coupled to a dramatic increase in the numbers now entering for ABRSM exams. Sales of western classical instruments and sheet music are also expanding.’ ABRSM’s Regional Co-ordinator for north-east India, Tony Braganza, notes how Chinese imports have introduced good quality, affordable instruments into the marketplace. The liberalisation of India’s import laws, and resulting access to global producers, has placed instruments and sheet music within reach of a potentially massive domestic market. Tony’s Kolkata-based music retail business operates a hire scheme that delivers instruments everywhere from inner city districts to remote hill villages. ‘The hills of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Gangtok are literally alive with the sound of music,’ he enthuses. ‘All three towns are centres for ABRSM exams and have a large number of boarding schools that teach music as part of the curriculum.’ Tony notes how western classical music, long established in parts of northern India, is flourishing in the far north-eastern state of Nagaland. ‘We’ve worked hard to introduce formal music training in the cities of Dimapur and Kohima,’ he observes, citing the Crown Centre for Music and Hope Centre for Excellence as examples of beacon schools in the area. ‘These have become great centres for ABRSM exams. The Patkai Christian College has also developed a music department and offers a BA degree in music.’ Tony adds that children from underprivileged backgrounds are among those swelling the ranks of Nagaland’s music students. ABRSM examiner Charles Barnes first visited Nagaland in 2003, returning in 2009. He was inspired by his experience of the Hope Centre for Excellence in Kuda village. The school was established by Zubeno Mozhui to provide performing arts tuition. ‘You might assume that, musically speaking, this little village was stuck in the back of beyond,’ Charles recalls. ‘But the Hope Centre for Excellence is run by a dynamic lady. Zubeno and her colleagues are showing what can be done even in small villages. Around two thirds of the students I examined achieved distinctions and their overall standards were remarkable.’ Two Hope Centre violinists, native Nagas, were recently chosen to join the Vienna University Orchestra’s India Youth Orchestra project for its Kolkata string workshop. They and other Hope alumni are forging what Charles Barnes describes as a ‘fantastic nucleus of excellence’. ‘Wherever a school of this quality and vision appears, we can expect to find a youth orchestra and ensembles within 10 years. The fact that the Hope Centre is in Nagaland, on India’s remote north-eastern border, shows what can be achieved far from the commercial centres of Mumbai and New Delhi.’ India holds a prominent place in ABRSM’s development plans and Tim Arnold cites ABRSM’s presence in regions such as Kerala and Nagaland as evidence of its long-term commitment. ‘We can help raise the quality of music teaching throughout India,’ he says. ‘The demand and enthusiasm are already there. Our key strategy now will be to support the work of India’s music teachers. We exist to help develop the quality of music making, and by helping Indian teachers, we believe we can make a lasting contribution.’

This article was originally featured in the May 2011 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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