Sangeet4All: Celebrating Multiple Musical Cultures

The Sangeet4All logo has note names placed in the lotus, the seat of Goddess Saraswati, the goddess of music and learning.

By Saskia Rao-de Haas, creator of the Indian cello; Founder of Sangeet4All, India’s music curriculum for young learners

Sangeet4All is a music education program that connects children in India with Indian classical and folk music in a fun and meaningful way. I started the program with my husband, Shubhendra Rao, in 2014; our first students were 15 girls in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Delhi. The Sangeet4All program now runs in 18 schools in the regions of NCR, Gujarat, and Punjab.

What motivated us to create Sangeet4All? In India, arts education is often misunderstood and neglected as a subject. It’s laudable that music is finally mandated to be a part of the curriculum in the schools in India, but unfortunately most schools have no idea about curriculum planning. Many music teachers come from traditional music families, having been trained as performing musicians without any idea of music education as a subject. There are a number of perfectly planned music curricula available in India—the Irish national curriculum, The London Royal School of Music curriculum, the Finnish curriculum—that schools often turn to, but in these imported programs, there is no connection with India or Indian music.

Learning Indian ragas on ukulele.

My husband and I, in contrast, have spent our lives combining musical cultures. Shubhendra, a sitar maestro, was a direct disciple of Ravi Shankar. I grew up in the Netherlands playing the cello; during my studies at the conservatory, I changed direction to Indian classical music on the cello. Our son Ishaan has imbibed both musical cultures since day one of his life. We are passionate about bringing all kinds of music, especially Indian classical music, to children, so they can benefit from having music in their lives the way we and Ishaan have.

In creating our program, I was inspired by studying the ideas of Kodály, who was keen on children learning both music that is culturally appropriate for them and high-quality classical music to immerse themselves in. In Sangeet4All, we try to honor this beautiful principle. When we translate the Kodály approach to the Indian context, we get nursery rhymes in Hindi or other Indian languages (there are over 27 official languages in India), or Indian folk music. And we get Indian classical music, a music tradition that can pride itself on a 3,000-year-old musical treasure trove. North Indian and South Indian classical music is the music from the ancient temples, the Mughal courts, and the Sufi saints. It is the classical music of the concert stage in India. That is why we wanted to make a change: to provide children with music education that is culturally relevant, well-planned, and fun for both children and teachers.

Children playing the swartarang at the program center. Monica Dawar Photography.

I have divided the curriculum into six units, each with its own children’s book, lesson plan, and teacher training. The units are:

  • Dhwani, which means sound, and opens children up to the wonders of sound around them and within them.
  • Vadya, which means musical instrument. This is the story of Tara the Sitar, who lives with her family of string instruments in Vadya.
  • Raga and Tala, in which children travel to the land of the Ragas and meet the personifications of these Ragas.
  • Desi, in which the same children travel around India and connect with the rich tradition of folk music in India.
  • Duniya, which means world, and is about world music from an Indian music perspective. Readers travel around the world with Surya, Urvashi, and Azim. They meet Gerald Wirth, the director of the Vienna Boys Choir and cofounder of Superar; Bassidi Koné, a master balafon and djembe player from Mali; Gao Hong, a pipa player from China; and Freddie Bryant, a guitarist and composer from Manhattan. In the process of meeting these great artists, they discover their music and the musician within them.
  • Shastra, which means revealed knowledge or science. This is about Indian music history, from the Vedas up until music from today’s Indian film industry and the many styles and genres that are currently in use. We also developed special versions, methods, and notations for the bansi (Indian straight flute) and the ukulele. And we developed a new instrument, the swartarang, keeping in mind the beautiful Orff instruments on which you can remove each key from the xylophone. I adapted this idea using Indian note names and in the form of a glockenspiel, so that it would not become too expensive, and developed the color-coded notation books to teach reading and music composition.

School children performing at our yearly Music for Children by Children concert.

Apart from this young learners program, we work with music teachers to set up their choirs and orchestras. We also help senior students and volunteers set up their own community choirs with “Sa Re Gayein” (which means “Let’s sing together,” but also involves the names of the first three note names of Indian music: Sa, Re, Ga). We have had volunteers from the U.K., Australia, and the U.S. work with various NGOs here in India on building instrumental music and orchestras. Learning from experts across the globe has always provided us with invaluable insights to grow our program.

There are seven pillars upon which we base our content, lesson planning, and assessment model. These are voice training, rhythm development, concept building, listening skills, musical literacy, musical behavior, and instrument playing. Each of these is worthy of deep research and reflection. In our voice training, the vocal warm-ups include Indian techniques of chanting, yogic breathing, and ragas and songs from India. We follow a bilingual approach—Hindi and English—as do many schools in India. It is an ongoing job to ensure that more children have access to their musical cultural heritage and to convince policymakers to do it in a structured, well-planned manner.

A session with young cancer patients in Delhi.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, we needed to rethink our work, as did music educators across the world. Our first decision was to help others who were in far more difficult circumstances than we. We decided to organize an online benefit concert for health workers and migrant workers. Thanks to the support of the many artists who performed, we were able to raise an impactful amount of money. We also engage with many other wonderful initiatives to help the world around us and unite our communities.

In addition, I created online lesson plans for all schools; the Sangeet4All team can now teach an entire music program online! As we all know, the online medium has its own drawbacks; you cannot sing or play at the same time in different locations because of the slight delay on any platform. But listening skills, musical mindfulness, concept building, and musical storytelling are super effective in online learning.

On our Sangeet4All Facebook page, we have organized an online music competition for children; over 60 children have already posted their performances. There are some brilliant young singers and budding musicians who display a lot of enthusiasm, but most important is the fact that they all love music. These children embody the thought that Shubhendra and I have always kept as our guiding theme: Music is the birthright of every child.

We are looking forward to being with our students again. Until that day, we have to make the best of what is possible. We are now conducting an online music summer camp and online music school. It is a modest start, with 15 children (online classes cannot accommodate bigger groups of children). The good news is that the online medium does open up all geographical boundaries; we are starting free Sangeet4All classes in the U.S., Europe, and Australia this summer. We have seen that many children, parents, and teachers around the world are looking for quality resources about different musical cultures. We have also seen that Indian music has a lot to offer everyone, in terms of rhythm, vocal culture, and musical mindfulness. Children will also enjoy the musical adventures of Surya, Azim, and Urvashi (the main characters of the books) in the Land of the Ragas. When musical imagination takes flight in this way, it brings us to the simpler reality of childhood and innocence. This kind of peace is something we all can use.

The Rao Family.

When the great Indian musician Tansen was asked why his Guru, sage Swami Haridas, was a more proficient musician than himself, he famously answered, “I sing at the court of great Kings, but my Guru sings in solitude to the Greatest King of All.” This story is often told to illustrate the importance of introspection, finding a certain zone or connection within oneself from which music can flow.

That is what musicians all over the world are doing now; an artist without an audience must find the audience within. Hopefully, our students will make this journey too, deepening their musicianship by finding the place within themselves from which music can flow.

Click here to find out more about Sangeet4All; click here to email a request for more information about the summer camp.

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