A different rhythm

Music helps these young people with intellectual disabilities and autism develop their faculties

Rajeev Kamath settles into a corner of the class, sitar by his side. Joining him in a circle are Anand Jangir and Ram Bhiwandkar with tablas, and Chetan Jawale, Nandini Rajwade and Pratibha Kamath who will sing and clap. Aarti Nagarkar, vocalist, occupies a high stool with a harmonium, while Samvit Desai sits on a chair with a djembe. Darren Rebello enters late, and a djembe is passed to him. Around them are a refrigerator, a microwave oven and assorted food supplies, in a garage in Juhu that in 2015 was converted into a kitchen run by people with autism.

The soft-spoken, bespectacled Mr. Kamath has a steady, reassuring demeanour. His students, mostly in their mid-20s and early 30s, have intellectual disabilities or are on the autism spectrum.

Mr. Kamath begins the session with a rhythm exercise: the students have to clap to a 1-2, 1-2-3 beat, while those on the percussions follow along. He claps in the direction of each person, keenly aware of who is out of line. A few rounds later, Aarti sets the next lesson. “Rupak taal”, she says, and the beat shifts to a 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2 cycle.

Chetan is missing beats, and Nandini is reluctant to clap; she is sensitive to sound and pain. Mr. Kamath guides them both tenderly.

Never once in the hour-long session does Mr. Kamath raise his voice; a movement of his eyes or hands and a gentle coaxing are enough.

At times, though, he needs to be firm. Pratibha, his daughter, is chatty and distracted, while Anand and Samvit are sharing jokes. “Pratibha, this is class. Focus!” he tells her with a sharp look; and then turns to the boys, “No masti (mischief).”

He asks Pratibha to play ‘Vande Mataram’, giving her the sitar. She plays flawlessly, following it up with the patriotic song, ‘Hum honge kaamyaab’. The energy in the class immediately shifts, and the rest of the group joins her in singing it. After two more pieces are similarly performed, Pratibha asks her father, “Are you happy?”

Mr. Kamath refuses to indulge her. “You were rushing through the last song,” he says. He takes the sitar, plays, stopping to correct members of the group when they go off key or rhythm. They wind up with the pop song, ‘Hooray, hooray, it’s a holi-holiday.’

Photographer Sanjeev Saith sits in another corner of the class, observing each of them keenly, moving only to take pictures.

He is struck by the talent on display and the sense of community. “The music binds them,” he says.

Teacher by accident

Mr. Kamath calls the group ‘Tarang’, which means ripple. The classes began as an extension of the jam sessions he held on Sundays, two-and-a-half years ago, at his home.

Mr. Kamath is not a music teacher by profession, and his initiation to teaching was not planned. He has been on the faculty of IIT Madras, worked in a few companies and even run his own digital media organisation.

A decade ago, he would regularly take his daughter to his own music class, where she would ask the teacher, “Will you teach me?” But her request would be ignored, and she would be hurt. Mr. Kamath then started training her at home. Today, she puts in an hour-and-a-half of riyaz (practice) every day. She also did her Bharatnatyam arangetram (debut) in 2007, when she performed for over an hour.

Mr. Kamath teaches the class semi-classical music, since most of them learn classical music elsewhere. Like all good teachers, he understands his students well. “Aarti is a versatile singer. She can go from opera to Carnatic, whereas Pratibha works at it,” he says.

Their learning is innate. Pratibha and Aarti cannot read (most notations in classical music are written); they listen to a tune and pick it up. “They have no idea of aroh and avaroh (the ascending and descending order of notes that define a raga).”

Pratibha not only plays the sitar, but also performs Bharatnatyam, while Aarti sings. Before every performance, Mr. Kamath trains them for three to four months. “We need to keep up the practice, or they forget.”

Rhythm and therapy

Mr. Kamath says he has spent time researching disability and music, and wants to give his students an exposure to a variety of options, besides using the sessions as therapy.

Music therapy typically consists of making people listen to different types of music, but he wants his students to learn through participation. “Traditional therapy says every raga has a different effect on the mind. But I can see so many different possibilities, be it in rhythm or in melody.”

He wants to keep the music going to improve his students’ skills. “I believe that once we invoke the internal rhythm, many of their faculties will start developing. Initially, I was focused on just the music. Now, almost 50% of my time is spent getting the rhythm right.”

He says he has seen improvements in his students’ observation and listening skills, and in responsiveness. Anand once could not synchronise with the rhythm, but can now pick up the beat midway into a song, progress that took almost a year.

It’s not always hard work, and the teacher and his students have enough fun to keep them going. “These people just go up on stage and perform; there is no pressure. They have no inhibitions.”

They are also incredibly honest about the process; “they don’t look at shortcuts or cheat, saying they have practised when they haven’t. They are innocent. I enjoy teaching them.”

A sense of independence

A photograph of the group is proudly displayed on a wall at Café Arpan nearby, run by adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. All his students perform various roles in the café.

Ashaita Mahajan, trustee at Yash Charitable Trust, which manages the café, says social interaction, friendships, “just being out and about, doing things that will make them feel more independent, travel by themselves, are all life experiences that have made a difference to their overall development.”

Her cousin Aarti’s “life is music”, she says. “As a family, whenever we go for dinner, she knows exactly what is playing in the background and starts singing. Pratibha too has reached some incredible heights as far as music goes.”

The idea behind Tarang was to support their talent if they wanted to pursue it.

“If you force it on them, they’re not going to do it. Here they look forward to music class. Everyone else may not necessarily play an instrument but wants to be involved.” The music also helps create a sense of teamwork, she says.

But beyond these things, there is a deeper connect. Mr. Saith believes the music will stay with them. “Regardless of how your life might be, if you have music with you, it’s a friend forever.”

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