A break in Bangalore

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Tim Yealland writes about his experience in Bangalore this winter, taking music to an Indian school

The KLE School is set in Nagarbhavi, an outskirt of Bangalore. You reach it either by riding on the back of your host’s scooter (mrdangam player R. Prathap), or by auto rickshaw. Both journeys are unforgettable, though the helmetless scooter version – weaving effortlessly through the wild dogs, pedestrians, motorbikes, cows, cars, trucks and buses that constitute the famous mayhem of Bangalore traffic – is the one that is the most addictive.

The children at KLE are aged between 8 and 13 and are of the sweetest nature. As soon as you enter a room you are greeted with a unison ‘Good afternoon, Sir’, but without sarcasm or irony. We are working with a mixed group of 27 pupils. The first day or two brought challenges. Everything is new for the children, every exercise, every structure, every creative question, so it’s taken a while for the work to flow. Indian education is extremely tightly controlled, with discipline a fundamental part of the learning process. The creative process needs real freedom for interesting things to emerge, especially if we are asking people to use imagination, voice and body. But we are there now, and it’s hard not to marvel at the spontaneity and freshness of the responses we are getting. The starting-point for the project was Romeo and Juliet, but quickly this has turned into a cosmic battle between the gods and the demons. Songs, dances, words are generated by the kids. Wonderful talent here. We’ve just made a great dance accompanied by the mrdangam in which the gods and the demons do battle – the ideas are all the kids’ own.

The principal of the school is Mr Prasad, and is as genial, welcoming and hospitable as is possible to imagine. He is proud of the school and the children, and parents and staff clearly love him. Prathap is a leading mrdangam player in Bangalore – his instrument is a two sided drum which is the South Indian equivalent of the North Indian tabla. I’ve just been to a marathon classical concert with Prathap playing alongside an ensemble and an astounding young male vocalist. Quite astonishing virtuosity all round, but an intrinsic humility too – music making in this style is a conscious religious act. Prathap’s family (3 generations on 2 sides) live in a house in an old-fashioned area of the city, and it is an amazing treat to be with them all, particularly when dosa (the famous wafer thin pancake that is eaten with potato curry) appears for breakfast. Such is the trust here that the family think nothing of 2 year old Pratham going outside on his own into the street and into a neighbour’s house. Prathap and I have worked together in the UK on a number of occasions, including our Wolverhampton community opera A House on the Moon in 2007.

Bangalore may be the high-tech capital of India, but you wouldn’t guess it from the city’s chaotic infrastructure. And the middle classes who supply the workforce for Bangalore’s software valley are not nearly as prevalent on the streets as the vast number of poor. The population grows daily, and the construction projects that mark the city’s expansion dominate the landscape outside the centre. It sounds fairly awful, but people are laidback, the pollution isn’t as bad as you might think; the weather is great, and there’s a terrific sense that life is good. I find that I live off the small cups of sweet milky tea you can buy at any street stall (a cup costs about 10p). Street food is great – the cafes look filthy but the snacks are cooked in front of you, and are probably safer to eat than the food in the posher restaurants. This is my fourth visit to the country – it is unspeakably wonderful to be back. If only the dogs that roam the streets under my window would stop howling to each other each morning at 3am!

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