Mumbai's Ajivasan Academy is helping uncover incredible singing talent among disabled people
A gifted singer, Om Gaitonde started learning the fundamentals of Hindustani classical music as a child from a music teacher who would come home. His parents opted for home lessons as Om has mild autism and they were unsure if his needs would be understood in a group class set up.
So when the Gaitondes heard about music lessons for people with disabilities at the Juhu centre of renowned Ajivasan Music Academy,they were keen to check it out. For two years now, the academy, started by well-known singer Suresh Wadkar has been teaching people across age groups and of different disability types for virtually free.
Om, now 18 years old, started learning here a year ago. "Initially, the purpose was to give him a diversion from the daily routine of going to school and coming back home", says father Mahendra Gaitonde. "We soon found that he was much happier learning in a group. He watches the actions that others perform and repeats them. It is much better than learning at home".
Om's personality has also changed, says mother Aruna. "He looks forward to going there and waits for the classes".
For decades now, the Ajivasan Music Academy has been educating thousands of students in Mumbai about Hindustani classical music. The classes for children and youth with disabilities happened quite by chance and was the initiative of Rekha Balgi, a special educator and yoga instructor. Balgi's brother Girish, has Down syndrome.
I went to the academy to see if they had a teacher who could come home to teach my brother music. Girish is musically inclined and can sign songs from the 60s and 70s, but I was looking for formal lessons. They did not have anything for people with disabilities but were open to hearing my requirements. - Rekha Balgi, Founder, Reach Out Camp
Teacher's magic touch
That was just the beginning. Balgi was able to mobilize a larger number and today there are over 60 students with disabilities learning music from Aruna Choudhary.
"I may be their teacher but they teach me many things like pure unconditional love, obedience, innocence, contentment, acceptance, friendliness and socializing", says Choudhary, who had no prior experience teaching with children with disabilities. "We also do some chanting, mudras and yoga to create the right learning experience".
Not only is Choudhary a gifted teacher, she is patient and loving says Geeta Mirji, whose son Chinmay is among the oldest students. "Chinmay is a Down syndrome child and when I enrolled him, I did not see any inclination for music. I had heard about music therapy and wanted to try it. Chinmay loves his class and is fond of his teacher. Under her guidance, he has overcome his speech difficulties and his pronunciation has improved".
Don't make the mistake of dismissing them as bathroom singers. Many of them have sung on stage accompanied by legends like table maestro Zakir Hussain and Fazal Qureshi.
"Although our kids are fond of music, we had never thought of them as singers as many of them have unclear speech making vocal music difficult. But with her patience and love, she has achieved amazing results. They have knowledge of alankars, raagas, taals, etc", says Yojana Wavikar, whose daughter Kimaya has been learning for two years now.
Their mastery is truly incredible and inspiring given the many odds they battle, yet another example of how given the right support and attitude, people with disabilities blossom.