Tunes, steps, melody: A classical arts play book for kids
What could classical dance have in common with a delicious meal? Shrinkhla Sahai connects the two in her new book, India’s Classical Music and Dance, which aims to help children understand and appreciate the science and beauty of India’s classical forms.
To explain the nine rasas (loosely translated as the nine emotions: shringara (love/beauty), hasya (laughter), karuna (sorrow), raudra (anger), veera (heroism/courage), bhayanaka (terror/fear), bibhatsa (disgust), adbutha (surprise/wonder) and shantha (peace or tranquility)), for instance, Sahai asks children to think about eating their favourite food. What is it they enjoy? Is it just the taste, or the fragrance, the colour, the feel, or the way it is served? It is, of course, all of the above.
“Eating involves all your senses. And all foods have a lingering flavour that stays with you. Similarly, a performance is also a sensorial experience,” Sahai says. “When you attend a concert, there is sound, performance, costume. All of which come together to make you feel something, and that feeling is rasa.”
The 88-page book by Sahai, 36, an educator and radio host, is part of publishing house Red Panda’s Let’s Find Out! series for children aged 8 to 12. Released in April, it uses similarly innovative approaches to explain taal (rhythm and rhythmic composition), raga (melody), and the philosophy of dance. To explain why the raga, for instance, is integral to classical music, Sahai compares each one to the experience of meeting a new person. “Each raga has its own mood and personality. You get to know them slowly, their favourite time of day, their likes and dislikes. Similarly, the personality of a raga unfolds as we learn and get immersed in it,” she says.
In addition to easy-to-access explanations, the book features short stories and brief introductions to artists and musical instruments, colourful imagery, and interactive exercises. The exercises are in sections called Riyaaz Room (riyaaz is Urdu for practice). In the Riyaaz Room for Rasa, readers are asked to pick their favourite song and identify what rasa (emotion) it creates within them while listening to it. In the Riyaaz Room for Ragamala paintings, children are asked to turn on a piece of music that they like and draw in response to the music. They are then asked to try and identify the connection between the music, its lyrics, and their images. That, Sahai explains, is how the Ragamala paintings, a popular sub-genre within the Indian miniature, took shape.
Breaking down concepts that take adults years to master was both challenging and interesting, Sahai says. “The aim was to get into the shoes of children and draw from their worlds, simplify concepts without being simplistic, and introduce as many concepts as possible without making it text-bookish.”
In a time when the classical arts are interacting with technology, with different mediums, being practised and perceived in new ways, two things are more important than ever: A grasp of the basics, and a sense of questioning and critical thinking. If she wants the book to be anything, she adds, it’s thought-provoking.
“It’s exciting to see how tradition is evolving and changing. The cultural history of various forms, the socio-political aspects that in many cases have not been inclusive, are being examined. This critical thinking must begin from childhood,” Sahai says.
As part of that effort, she has introduced unconventional narratives in her book, including sections on women vocalists and instrumentalists who have typically been excluded or sidelined in the history of the classical arts. The book also illustrates the contributions of non-Hindu masters such as Indo-Persian poet Amir Khusrau, vocalist Ustad Amir Khan and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Awadh, who was also a composer and studied Kathak.
We must teach our children to be more inclusive, more curious, more questioning, Sahai says.