Singing for perfect harmony
As the first strains of the classical Tamil song ‘Manidhaneyam’ plays, the melodic voices of children fill the room. “Humanity is nested in the belief of happiness… Let love and kindness cherish and stay on,” they sing, faces in rapture, the simplicity and beauty of the lyrics resonating in harmony.
The Chennai Children’s Choir (CCC) in Tamil Nadu, southern India, is rehearsing for one of their biggest events to date. They have been invited to perform at the Serenade Choral Festival in June 2018, an annual event in Washington DC, United States, celebrating choral music from around the world.
For most of the children aged between seven and 17 years, it will be the first time they will leave their hometown, let alone their country. The ensemble of 23 children come from diverse backgrounds, many from disadvantaged families, while some even have physical or intellectual disabilities.
But do not for one second think that this is a choir built on charity rather than talent. The kids can sing as well as, if not better, than some professionally trained singers. And although they are only able to speak Tamil, they can “sing like natives” in various Indian languages like Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Bengali, as well as English and Urdu.
Started in 2015 by the Indian non-profit NalandaWay Foundation, CCC has established quite a reputation for itself. Not least, because a medley of popular songs (including hits from AR Rahman and Michael Jackson) they released on World Music Day in 2016, went viral online.
Sriram V Ayer, who founded NalandaWay Foundation, says, “We consciously set out and auditioned children who came from the most poorest of schools, who came from the most backward sections, who were disabled, were visually challenged.
“Kids from various castes coming together, from various economic societies coming together, without any judgement. The only thing we did was to teach them songs, teach them music.”
Sriram was moved by the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, western India, to set up NalandaWay. The bloody violence driven by hate, fear and ignorance resulted in more than 3,000 people killed or injured, including women and children. Sriram was driven to get to the root of the intolerance he witnessed, and believed that children were the key to eliminating it.
To do so, he decided to give students from disadvantaged backgrounds a voice, through the medium of performance arts — theatre, visual arts, music, dance, radio and film. Every year, more than 50,000 children from the poorest districts in India benefit from NalandaWay’s free programmes.
The Chennai Children’s Choir is the perfectly tuned expression of how the non-profit is turning Sriram’s aspirations into reality — bridging divisions between children from different backgrounds, and finding a safe space for society’s marginalised to express themselves.
“We respect every language and we embrace every community,” says music teacher Vedant Bhardwaj. “And that is India. That is the essence of the Chennai Children’s Choir.”
Parents too have seen how the choir has uplifted their kids, and fully support their musical aspirations.
Mechanic Sudhakar’s daughter, Mahalakshmi, is one of the choir’s leading singers: “We belong to the Dalit community. We are a poor family. No one in my family knows anything about music. Now my daughter is pursuing music very well. That’s why I send her to the [music] class.”
While Jai’s father, Palayam, a fisherman, says with determination, “We need to get the children educated and see them succeed, let this profession end with my generation.”
Born blind, Samaya often faces discrimination. Her schoolteacher mother, Geeta Ravichandran says, “Whenever we go in the bus...they will say she is a special child. Some people reject to sit beside her.
“In the children’s choir, she expresses herself very well. They inspired her. They never treated her as a special child, and the children who are there, they treat her as a normal child.”
Their music teacher Manjula Ponnapalli says, “We were very clear about one thing. Nobody is different in this group, and music is a medium.”
Through the arts, children in schools across the country, where NalandaWay has implemented its projects, have improved their education, and even started to enjoy their studies.
“The confidence that they would show in education,” says Sriram, “in facing the obstacles of life, this is happening because of music itself.”
Seeing this motley band of children laugh, dance and bond outside of rehearsals, it is clear they have composed something unique and magical.
“I have found my best friends [at the choir]. We are all besties,” says a smiling Mahalakshmi, her eyes dancing to the beat of friendships forged across lines that once threatened to separate them.