Of Michael Jacksons and Illayarajas: A musical revolution in Telangana is underway
In Telangana, at government-run social welfare residential schools, the first batch of 160 children, drawn from 10 regional blocks are working towards a certification in fine arts alongside their state matriculation degrees.Updated: Mar 12, 2018 08:14 IST
Madhulatha Anthigari, 53, gave 12-year-old Sai Charan from Narasampet three chances to admit he’d made a mistake. As a child who loved to dance to film songs on TV, it was highly likely he would later regret signing up to study Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi. Or feel shy at being the only boy in his all-girl class. But Sai Charan told the principal he was sure. Sai Charan loves to dance. Why shouldn’t he when he dances so well, the girls in his class will tell you.
He wants to be Michael Jackson, an ambition that most classical fine arts colleges and schools would scoff at, but here in Telangana, they understand it perfectly. After all, the skills you are certified in must give you the ability to find a job, and the mix of classical and modern has produced an AR Rahman, an Illayaraja, a Yesudas, and a Prabhudeva. In Telangana, they seem to be clear about that.
After Sai Charan, four other boys — Premkumar, A Manosreeharan, J Ankit and B Arvind — have signed up to learn classical dance too.
The boys are part of the first co-educational Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institution (TSWREI) school that offers a fine arts certification along with a matriculation certificate. The 160 students of the first batch, drawn from 10 regional blocks, live in a cheery five-storey private building leased for the purpose. The cellar doubles as a dining room. They live on the first and second floors, and classes are held on the third and fourth.
In the last week of February, plans for the model to be replicated in a second Telangana Tribal Welfare Residential school, were approved. These two are the only government schools in the country to offer a complete certification in Carnatic vocals, Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, mridangam, tabla, guitar, the keyboard and theatre arts with a curriculum based on the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University’s fine arts programme, and the Trinity College popular music programmes.
The Tamil Nadu government has already sent a civil servant to Telangana to see if it can adopt the model.
Two batches of 20 children learn vocal Carnatic music, 30 learn dance, 20 study theatre, 20 painting, 10 keyboard, 10 guitar, 10 violin, 10 tabla and 10 mridangam. Haasil, who plays the drums and guitar, learns two instruments. Raj Tarun learns both the guitar and vocals.
Several children introduce themselves as so-and-so Swaero — the term by which they have come to be known and which is becoming an alternate positive identity for several from the scheduled caste groups. ‘Sw’ stands for ‘social welfare’ and ‘aero’ from the Greek for air. ‘Anti-gravity’ is in their motto — that which cannot be kept down.
On January 19 last year, the batch of tabla students was pleasantly surprised when their teacher took them to watch Ustad Zakir Husain live in Hyderabad. Several of them performed solo and in troupes at the 20th International Children’s Film Festival in Alampur in November last year, in front of an audience of 30,000.
Ask these children what they want to be when they grow up, and IPS officer is the most popular answer followed by doctor and scientist, but all are appended after “musician/singer/dancer”.
The curriculum, experts say, is well thought out. The arts are restricted to three times a week from 2pm to 5pm, after regular school hours. This serves several purposes: one, to allow future batches to rotate the same instruments and practice rooms; second, to instil a habit of self-practice among the students on the days when they don’t have classes; and third, to ensure they don’t tire of their new skills class.
The first batch was picked through auditions at social welfare schools. For the next batch, the selection has been thrown open to those not already in the residential school system. From a shortlist of 400 — 40 from each region block — the best 120 will be selected.
The fine arts co-ordinator and mentor Manjulatha Mandapakala, 40, a former HSBC and GE employee who quit corporate life to gain a gold medal in music, has a hawk-like eye for the specifics of the process, the selection and the curriculum. She heads a team of 12, all All-India Radio graded artists.
The fine arts have long been accused of being a bastion of the dominant castes. IPS officer and secretary of the TWSREI RS Praveen Kumar says he targeted the domain after realising that for those from the oppressed classes, music tuitions after school were a luxury they would never have the money or time for.
“There are several children who are immensely talented but who will never have the money to spare or the environment in which their talent can be nurtured,” he explains.
The brahminisation of music and the arts has happened for several reasons, says Manjulatha. “One, that Carnatic music is devotional in nature, the privileged pursued it without needing to consider if they could earn from it, for other ends.”
Second, Carnatic music is so deep a subject that occasional classes offer no real depth. “True mastery requires years of study, which those from underprivileged backgrounds cannot afford to devote, as the need to earn a living always interrupts.”
The certification is devised so that by the time the children complete their secondary schooling, the fine arts certification makes them eligible to study further, work or teach. The biggest point of discussion was the devotional aspect of the music, which concerned Praveen Kumar, who keeps religion out of the school system. “The devotional words are the way in which the ragas and krithis, which constitute the body of Carnatic music, have been studied and they contain the historical body of work surrounding it. They are like formulae. Once mastered, you can apply them anywhere.
Many film songs use the same 72 ragas, but as a teacher and a pupil, it is less appropriate to study a film song with words of love than it is to study a few words of devotion to god as a means to analyse and interpret the raga. It’s merely a tool.
It does not require devotion to master it. Even Illayaraja and Rahman are masters of the Carnatic form — we don’t care what caste or religion they are but they are able to apply it to all music. That is all we need to achieve,” Manjulatha says.
Praveen Kumar was satisfied with the logic, understanding that one needed to co-opt the system to break down barriers; so it went into the curriculum. However, the schools consciously offer both Western and Indian classical forms to keep in mind children from other religions.
While children are only taken on if they express an interest to learn, and if their parents are willing, those who are unable to keep up at the end of the year are sent back to the regular non-fine arts schools.
“We don’t mind if here academics dip, but the fine arts skill is immense. It is only a problem if the fine art skill is dipping, because then they can do just as well or maybe even be more focussed in a purely academic school. So we observe for the year and then take a call,” Madhulatha says. So far, the biggest change has been poor farmers, labourers and workers starting to believe that a fine arts education can be a potentially lucrative career option for their children.
“It’s trust in a government-run school. That’s a huge vote of endorsement. We are going to make this the IIT of fine arts,” says Manjulatha.
The theatre troupe pulls off a funny mime one-act skit. In guitar class, 13-year-old Vishnuvardhan from Nemallipur plays the songs Uppenantha from the Telugu film Arya 2 as his class strums background support.
Someone from the theatre troupe has just been signed on for a short documentary film. They dance and sing songs of home, and the latest film numbers too. They are learning from each other how to support each of their skills, and that newfound faith and sense of community makes their eyes shine.
“At first, I thought how will I do this, it looks so hard, but then the more I did it, the easier it became,” says chirpy D Saraswati, 12, from Nacharam, who is also the school vice-captain.
The Carnatic troupe sings a geetham, then a folk song. Then, the sky fills with the words of the Swaero anthem, Telugu lyrics inspired by their ten commandments, that include ‘I will not leave my shoes outside the doors’, telling of the caste discrimination many in these classes have had to face.
First Published: Mar 12, 2018 08:06 IST