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Arts in whole-child education

May 11, 2019

An excellent symposium at the IIC (which as collaborator provided the venue) mounted by Kri Foundation and Kala Bharati (Montreal) on Arts Education for Youngsters, presided over by Arshiya Sethi, resulted in some valuable interaction on a topic which is crying out for intelligent discussion among the art minded and artists. The late Dr. Harbans Nakra, an electrical engineer by profession, took private studies in psychology, neuroscience and was very interested on the role of dance in child development. Along with his wife Mamata Niyogi Nakra, an internationally known Bharatanatyam guru, scholar and writer (who runs the institution Kala Bharati in Montreal) who was also deeply interested in dance education for youngsters, the couple attended and took part in several Dance and the Child International Conferences.

Dr. Harbans Nakra writing on the Human Brain and Behaviour systems, in his papers, gave insightful information on the potential of dance and music training helping mind-body coordination, sensitivity to emotional responses and body awareness along with development of imagination and decision making capabilities - apart from dance education helping in maintaining and preserving cultural identities - all of which adds up to a 'solid pedagogic footing for the inclusion of dance as a subject in the college curriculum.' Apart from benefiting, he maintained that every child had a right to dance. Mamata Niyogi Nakra's Kala Bharati in Montreal, has with her very integrated approach to the subject, sponsored various types of activity brought people together - even kite flying for example which involves action which has been called 'gentle', 'delicate', 'interactive', 'poetic', 'graceful' - all epithets used for dance movements. Yasmine, a technologist working in a medical laboratory, writes about how learning the Bharatanatyam adavus entailed the kind of total body involvement that improved her concentration levels and she found that performing the dance proved to be a kind of 'spiritual tonic.'

Belonging to the Parampara Group of Dance and Music, G Elangovan engaged in his earlier childhood years in providing tanpura sruti for great singers (something his father Guru Govindarajan greatly encouraged and which the speaker said was like the wicket keeper behind the stumps, who begins to understand the game better than anyone else, a great learning experience). He has discovered how life patterns have incorporated certain scientific truths - which unconsciously form the building blocks of art teaching - like lulling the child in the cradle to sleep through crooning in a raga like Nilambari, which has been discovered through research, aids sleeping. Similarly, Shubhapantuvarali induces a feeling of sadness and occasions which are sombre have frequently been marked by dirges, or slow alaap on an instrument, which happen to be in this raga.

He also said that the earliest of musical giants in the South, Purandara Dasa must have thought of the ten to fourteen year old student when he composed exercises like Sarle Varase, Alankara, Geetam, Jante varse etc. These are solfa exercises which aid in improving memory, in acquiring felicity of speech, and above all an ear for music - an understanding of the exact placing of a note in the entire scale. When Muthuswamy Dikshitar heard the British Band and decided on his notuswarams, it must have been with the NRI musician in mind perhaps, he remarked- because a raga sung like that sounds absolutely like western music.

Irshad Alam, Arshiya Sethi, Kamalini Dutt, Elangovan, Leela Venkataraman, NCERT rep, Shubhendra Rao

Sitarist Shubhendra Rao and his Dutch wife Saskia who has created a 15 stringed Indian Cello for our music, make an ideal Karnataka/Dutch couple helping Indian music. "Music is the birth right of every child," asserts Shubhendra who is staunch about the Indian identity being preserved, his luck being that his wife is more Indian than he is! Insisting on conversing with their son in the mother tongue of Kannada and Dutch, the boy when two and a half years old knew not just both these languages but also Hindi, English (picked up from school) and Bengali from the neighbourhood the couple lived in. Saskia has the advantage of being music trained in the pedagogic teaching system, the couple felt sorry for 99.9 percent of our kids who never have a chance of learning good music through the Guru / Shishya institution.

Teaching kids in a Nizamuddin basti, the couple started planning out a method of teaching which induced fun and play while unconsciously acquiring some skills but more than being educated, developing a good ear for music - so that these deprived from birth children could benefit and find joy in at least listening to music. It is the lack of sensitivity to good music that sends youngsters to instruments like the Cassio, Drums - all so loud. Through playful immersion, these kids are acquiring an aesthetic sensitivity, which will make a big difference to the way in which they look at life, he maintained. Now with Saskia's help, Shubhendra has brought out small text books starting with Dhwani, going on to Vadya (like surbahar, rudra veena), Raga and Tala (through storytelling), Duniya (World Music) and then Sastra - the different stages - the last Sastra taking you "from Sama Veda to Rehman" as he put it. Today about 30000 children from different parts of the world are following his method, which is being endorsed by most institutions. He wisely maintains that his aim is to open the mind of the child to the beauty and richness of good music. He does not try to train a performer though he has learnt his music at the feet of the great Ravi Shankar himself. "Once a child shows exceptional promise and desire to learn, one should put him under a proper teacher. My role at the moment is to bring about an awareness about the joy of music."

The high point of the entire discussion for almost every participant was being introduced to a person like Irshad Alam, one of the dropouts of school, and a product of child labour - who suddenly happened to cross the path of Arshiya Sethi, who at once sensed this unusual talent. A prodigious talent, who knows everything one can possibly want to know about Delhi as a World Heritage City, Alam is fully familiar with the gulleys, the oral histories, Kissagoi (people's stories), the typical dialects of the Tongawalas, all about the 7 gates of Delhi like Kashmiri Gate, Ajmeri Gate, Turkman Gate short he is a veritable encyclopedia on Delhi - you name it and he will make a play out of it. His stories about Badshah, Begum or Sultanoke, of the 'Angrez' Azadi se jude, Qissey Aam logo ke, Quissey Panchatantra ke, Namak Haraam Ki Haveli, Tombs, Forts, Graves - nothing he cannot make into 'Khel Khel Mai Padhna' for children. His 'Dastaan Dilli Ki' and 'Taalim Khel Khel Me' is what education sorely needs for youngsters. And all schools should encourage this type of acquiring knowledge painlessly - and getting to know about India. There is a combination of play, talk, dance, singing - you name it and it is there.

In fact this man, impetuous, bubbling with life and difficult to stop once he gets going, is a genius and while his organization called Talent keeps staging events for children in schools - combining enjoyment, participation and learning of history - it is a pity that a person like this is not cherished by the culture mandarins. Thanks to his godmother Arshiya, he gets occasional programs. But living from day to day with his group does not say much for the spotting and nurturing of excellence in the field of culture. It was heartening to see persons like Kamalini Dutt, retired ex- founder director of Doordarshan Archives showing great interest in wanting to utilize his talents. Others like Mamata Niyogi Nakra herself has taken note and one hopes he will find some more opportunities for his creativity.

It is very good that the NCERT has now taken up Art Education as an important aspect of every child. Joyful learning 'A Stairways to Happiness' is looking at integrated art learning. Apart from visiting monuments and museums, the aim is integrated multi-regional art exposure.

The crucial point is that it is art awareness that one tries to inculcate in the child. Art learning is not only an impossible attainment in a country of this size with so many institutions, but more importantly one does want to recruit a whole band of half-baked art teachers leading to even more mediocrity than one has at present. Armed with this awareness, any child exhibiting unusual interest and talent can be sent to a proper teacher to learn the right way. Developing the sensitive side of an individual would be all to the good - and what better way than through arts? Is anybody listening?

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

I am a member of the Dhitang dance team in Montreal, enjoying a privileged association with Kala Bharati for the past one year. The Stairways to Happiness project holds a special place in my heart- for its contribution towards exemplifying the role of performing and creative arts in a child's development. The symposium brought together multiple perspectives and lenses through which to view child development. I wanted to share some thoughts on it as well.

I am a PhD candidate studying Educational Psychology at McGill University (Montreal) and a dancer trained in Bharatanatyam for over 25 years. The Stairways to Happiness project brings together my academic and creative interests under one banner.

Dr. Harbans Nakra's work on the role of dance in whole-child education and its neurological, socio-emotional impact is a pathbreaking contribution. As an educational psychologist and Bharatanatyam dancer, his work piques my interest and helps me concretize ideas for advancing holistic child development, which I intend to pursue as a career myself.  

As part of three intergenerational workshops held in Montreal, based on a story written by his wife Dr. Mamata Niyogi-Nakra, I had a chance to experience the joy that dance brought to young children and their parents. The workshop brilliantly incorporates the concepts of symbolic representation, perspective taking, and language development - as described by Piaget, a developmental psychologist - to engage children. Dance is the perfect medium for this exercise.

I cannot wait to see how this project develops further and continues to spark empathy, imagination, and creativity in children and help create citizens of the future.

- Aishwarya Nair, Montreal (May 28, 2019)

I am very pleased to read the article by Ms. Leela Venkataraman, the well known dance critic, on the round table discussion titled 'Stairways to Happiness' held at India International Centre on the 12th of April. By covering the event, a person of her calibre and stature has given the event the importance it deserves. She has even gone back to the roots and covered the contributions of Dr. Harbans and Dr. Mamata Niyogi Nakra in this field.

This subject has been of great interest to me and I have been working on it for some time now. I have also known about the 'Stairways to Happiness' program undertaken by Kala Bharati for the last one and a half years.

The event at India International Centre was based on the path-breaking work being carried out at Kala Bharati in Montreal regarding the role that dance and other performing arts and creative activities play in the development of multiple intelligences, social skills, physical and mental well-being. The day long event started in the morning at 10:30am by Dr. Arshiya Sethi, who was the Moderator, with a brief introduction to the subjects and how the proceedings will unfold. She was followed by Asha Dhawan who has not only been associated with Kala Bharati since its inception in Montreal but who was also one of the first students to learn Bharatanatyam at Kala Bharati. She spoke of her own experience about transformation that dance has brought in her and her daughter's life.

This was followed by a brief overview by Dr. Mamata Niyogi Nakra about the work that has been carried out at Kala Bharati for over nearly four decades and particularly on the topic of 'Stairways to Happiness' program in the last two years.The next speaker  Anil Wadhwa, who is in the process of writing a companion edition of the book titled 'Place of dance in whole child education- a scientific perspective' written by Dr. Harbans Nakra to make it accessible and an easy reading for a lay reader, spoke about the circumstances and joyful experiences he went through in reading the original book and how he came about writing the companion edition. Anoop Wadhwa who has been associated with 'Happy thoughts' shared his experiences about how the schools in Delhi were giving importance to the happiness quotient in the curriculum for children.

This was followed by two detailed and very interesting powerpoint presentations by Dr. Elavarasan, a renowned doctor of Siddha school of medicine who is currently in the role of Siddha Consultant in Ayush Wellness Clinic at Rashtrapati Bhawan, New Delhi, and Dr. Samanta Datta, a doctor and professor of Ayurveda based in Kolkata. Both the doctors through their presentations gave concrete examples and testimonials to demonstrate as to how classical Indian dance through its movements and mudras regulates the flow of energy and activates various pressure points in the body thereby proving to be an effective medium in curing mental and physical illnesses amongst children and in improving their intelligence and mental faculties thereby helping in their overall well being and development and enabling a healthy body and mind with a smile on the face.

This took us to the lunch break. The post lunch speakers included Elangovan,  Shubhendra Rao, Sharbari Mukherjee of NCERT and Irshad of the Talent group. Leela Venkataraman arrived around lunch and has in her report covered the post lunch session in greater detail for which I am deeply thankful to her. This subject is of great interest to me and I have been following, have been involved in the progress of various activities and projects of Kala Bharati under 'Stairways to Happiness,' a project inspired by Dr. Harbans Nakra.

I am working on a detailed report on day long round table discussion held on the 12th April which will also include my own area of study of effects of dance and Pranic (Energy) Healing in achieving bliss.
- Anil C (May 24, 2019)

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