In a modest classroom in the heart of Chennai, 16 children have assembled for their weekly music session. Sweety distributes chocolates for having turned 17 and the other children wish her in song. Benjamin is at that age when his voice is breaking but he gives every song his best, adding an interesting timbre to the collective sound of a choir primarily made up of girls. Samaya’s confidence doesn’t just shine from her eyes: it radiates from her stance when she sings. Kameswaran is the self-appointed group jester. Not for him the writing down of lyrics in a notebook, he shoots an image of the page with the camera of his mobile phone.

Meet the Chennai Children’s Choir who have harnessed the musical genius of AR Rahman, Ilaiyaraaja, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie to create a sweet, heartwarming medley.

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On the eve of World Music Day on June 21, a video featuring a medley of four songs sung by the Choir was uploaded on YouTube. The medley begins with Javed Akhtar’s metaphor of stars coming together as a resplendent constellation in Yeh Taara Woh Taara composed by AR Rahman and ends with the popular anthem that celebrates children, We Are the World, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.

The YouTube video went on to garner over 60,000 views in a little over a week and the audio was featured on Ashanti Omkar’s popular arts and music programme on the BBC Asian Network. This was no mean feat, considering it featured no celebrity and there was no topicality other than its connection to World Music Day.

But the Chennai Children’s Choir is much more than a motley bunch of children who bond over music. This is an immensely talented lot who want to be appreciated not because they are children, but because they are capable of creating world-class music. The medley is only a small component of a larger programme that they are part of.

Journey to excellence

Initiated by NalandaWay, the Chennai Children’s Choir is a subset of the non-profit’s Art Lab programme where children from disadvantaged backgrounds who show interest, enthusiasm and a willingness to commit themselves to a longer period of study are provided the means and opportunity to pursue their interest. To that extent, the Choir is a learning programme where children are taught music through the year, in different languages and styles.

“The Choir’s journey really began last June,” said Sriram Ayer of NalandaWay, “when we auditioned children from government schools in Chennai and Greater Chennai, including orphanages, and schools for children with disabilities. Of 800 auditioned children, we selected 60 keeping in mind that this would be a floating number – some would drop out to focus on their 10th and 12th Standard Board Exams. The current group is about 35 strong and includes six children who are visually challenged, one has slight mental retardation and one has autism spectrum disorder. On an average, about 15 children attend the weekend sessions. We intend having another audition this year to add more children to the programme.”

The children were trained almost every weekend since September 2015 by the Choir director, Vedanth Bharadwaj, a musician who plays the guitar, sings and composes music, and Manjula Ponnapalli, a musician, music education consultant and voice trainer.

Bharadwaj has, in the past, conducted music workshops with students from limited resource schools in Chennai. “The children in these schools are very keen," he said. "They give you all their attention and are quick to learn. They are like blotting paper – they just soak up everything you teach them.”

The songs in the medley were picked because they are about children and childhood, and they are also fun to sing. The ease with which the children sang in Tamil came in handy for two of the songs. When it came to the songs they were not familiar with, Yeh Taara and We Are the World, the children quickly proved that language was but a small hurdle to overcome when it came to music.

Over the past year, the logistics of coordinating the weekend practice sessions in Chennai has proved to be a challenge, with children coming from as far as Chengalpattu and Gingee in neighbouring districts. Some were too young or disabled to travel by themselves. “This has been a learning process for us,” Vedanth said. “The rehearsal space is in Mylapore and this has reduced the number of children who were coming for rehearsals from localities like Porur, Perambur, Avadi and Tambaram. Today, it’s mostly children from in and around Mylapore in addition to those who love the choir so much that distance is not an issue.”

A rehearsal session. Courtesy: NalandaWay
A rehearsal session. Courtesy: NalandaWay

Sriram gives the example of Poovazhagi, the daughter of a single parent who is a daily wage labourer. “While the child has shown commitment and interest in the programme, her mother has accompanied her for every rehearsal all the way from Gowrivakkam, which is over 23 kilometres each way, only because she believes that her child needs music education.”

Another challenge that Vedanth and Manjula have tried to overcome is that of phonetics. The programme entails teaching songs from many Indian languages to children who have grown up speaking only Tamil and at best, one other Indian language.

“We explain the meaning of every word and we make them explain it back to us,” Vedanth said. “We repeat every sentence, every line for the song in a non-musical manner, like narrating prose or poetry. I tell them the importance of pronunciation – for instance, in Urdu when you say Khusrau there is an importance to the syllable ‘kh’. I liken it to the syllable ‘zh’ in Tamil which is an unfamiliar sound for a non-Tamil speaker. We teach them that when you learn a new language, you need to speak it like somebody who is proficient in that language.”

In February, the choir performed at the Urur-Olcott Margazhi Vizha, a festival that attempted to take performing arts to the people of the city by setting it in an open space close to a fishing hamlet. “That was among the choir’s initial performances and it was quite a difficult environment to sing on the beach because the voice doesn’t carry,” Sriram said. On World Music Day, the choir performed at the Goethe Institut, where some of the parents watched from the audience. “While the children performed,” said Sriram, “I was observing the parents. There was so much joy, that their own children were performing, as though they had never expected them to do it. I think that was a big high.”

A rehearsal session. Courtesy: NalandaWay
A rehearsal session. Courtesy: NalandaWay

While the primary focus of the choir is vocal training, there has been a palpable difference in the children’s demeanour. “Some of the parents say that their children seem less angry at home,” Sriram said. “They take much better care of their personal hygiene and belongings. They also go to school regularly.” Ranganathan, who has autism spectrum disorder, doesn’t like going to school but looks forward to choir practice on Saturdays and Sundays. On the morning of the class, he is said to wake up at 6 am for a class that starts at 10.30 am, all ready and waiting to go. And Raksita, the youngest member of the choir, has taken him under her wing during the rehearsals.

“With the Chennai Children’s Choir, we want children from the most disadvantaged sections of society to do magnificently well,” Sriram said. “Also, if they can do well, they become role models for the community they come from. And that provides an impetus to do the right thing, both in terms of education or in terms of involving themselves in the arts. This could also provide possible livelihood opportunities for some of them.”

Back in the classroom, during a session, the children learn a Meera bhajan that Manjula had briefly introduced to them a few sessions ago. They repeat after her every line of Koyi Kahiyo Re Prabhu Avan ki, without stumbling over a single note or syllable. They sing Akash Ganga, evoking fond memories of school assemblies and dog-eared song books. They practise Yelelo, a folk song written in Telugu and Tamil especially for them, a goatherd’s song where one child even emits a convincing bleat. There are many moments when the melody and harmony meld well.

However, the song that really stuns is the children’s soulful rendition of Malarai Thazhuvum, composed by Manjula and written by a folk artiste called Pandiyaraj. It brings on the goosebumps to hear young voices sing with a restraint that belies their age, when they sing with the emotion befitting an ode to failure as a stepping stone.