Over the last week, there has been a furore about an internet petition on the website change.org to be sent to the Ministry of Human Resource Development. This is not an ordinary petition, but one demanding that classical music be made compulsory in Indian classrooms.

As a person trained to believe in the wonder of our classical traditions, a more detailed reflection throws up other considerations that defeat the purpose of such petitions. Furthermore, in a political context rife with a misplaced sense of what constitutes “Indianness”, I do believe we need to be very careful about what we demand, and why we demand it.
Dear HRD Minister,

Congratulations on the many laudable initiatives of your government to make India an economically strong and a culturally vibrant nation. Just like in yoga, India has a rich heritage of classical performing arts, particularly Carnatic music and Hindustani music. These traditions date back several centuries and form an integral part of Indian culture, playing an important role all round the year in festivals and social events. Indian classical music has also significantly contributed to the Independence movement, and forms the backbone of Indian dance, theatre and film industry. Indian performing arts have a pride of place in the world.

Classical music was once taught in the gurukula. Today, just like yoga, it can be taught in schools using modern methods to develop good fundamentals, nurture talent, and kindle an abiding interest in Indian music. Weekly lessons based on a syllabus created by a team of great musicians can cover both Hindustani and Carnatic music basics. This will enrich the cultural foundations in the education of our youth andcreate many more great musicians like Ravi Shankar and MS Subbulakshmi. Basic schooling in Indian classical music will also diffuse classical music from elite concert halls to mainstream Indian life.


The intent of this petition is not to create a burden or imposition of an unpleasant school subject. Music can be offered in every school with an attractive format and content and therefore become a happy, group learning experience. Children will show enhanced learning abilities and become more proficient in studies and sports, due to classical music exposure.

Should Hindustani or Carnatic music be made compulsory in school classrooms? To answer the question positively, I would have to say there are no answers. Only more questions.  To start with, what constitutes Hindustani or Carnatic music in a classroom setting? Do we go ahead and say we define pedagogy from the current practice of it as seen in a performance context? Does that preclude theoretical precepts underlying such performances? Is all pedagogy about performance? How do we reconcile a gurukul-based approach and its varied demands towards an abstraction  that suits the classroom situation? Is that fair to the musical tradition that it represents?

More pertinently, how do we reconcile the realities of a classroom to a sensible approach to syllabus setting? Proponents of the petition cry foul at the simplest mention of the practicalities involved, including the rather important question of who the teachers will be, and how to train them. One of the rather frequent solutions offered includes getting young musicians and music graduates and giving them this job. The second-most-touted concept is this rather elusive phraseology termed “Music Appreciation”.  There seems to be no specific definition on what exactly this needs to be or what children are supposed to appreciate. Often, this seems to be idiosyncratic to the person who designs such programmes.

Hard work

Do we realise that the Central Board for Secondary Education, for instance, has reverted to the RTE Act of 2009 to mandate 1,200 working hours per annum for teachers in Class I to VIII, with an added proviso that those in secondary and senior secondary schools have to work six hours and 10 minutes per day, for six days a week for classes VI upwards. If this were to be successfully implemented, we are already discussing a new generation of children who will have to work much harder, and study more hours.

There seem to be two related, but distinct demands in the proponents of the petition. One, that our children understand “our culture”, and that we need more appreciation for our classical art forms in our educational institutions. Two, that our children are not being “taught” to be more “aesthetic” and creative.

All of these notions and ideas assume the following. One, that our classrooms and schools do not currently offer sufficient exposure to the arts, classical or otherwise. Two, that exposure to our classical music forms (and for strange reasons not our folk traditions, dance traditions or even storytelling traditions) alone can correct this perceived gap in education. Three, that creating compulsory training in classical music will breed a new generation of culturally aware and aesthetically rounded students.

Creative exploration

Let us now examine what the National Curriculum Framework convened by the National Council of Educational Research and Training did in 2005. Looking at inducing an approach towards creative exploration (as opposed to “teaching” creativity, whatever that may mean), the National Curriculum Framework recommended the establishment of a Department of Arts and Aesthetics, and individuals as eminent and as qualified as Shubha Mudgal were part of the core committee that made these recommendations.  Specifically, the directive reads :
"The Department of Education in Arts and Aesthetics (DEAA), NCERT, following the recommendations of the NCF 2005 to implement arts education as, (i) a curricular area of school education from class I to X and (ii) as an approach to learning & development, across the school curriculum and Implementation of the Right to Education Act, 2009, has designed and launched programme on 'Art Integrated Learning (AIL) in Primary Schools of Delhi in 2011-12, as a pilot project."

Let us be aware that almost all schools affiliated to CBSE, state syllabi and other boards are already compliant with several of these recommendations, including the mandatory music hour. There are specific schools that advocate Indian music training to the extent that they have even set up music clubs for talented children to get more attention. The realities of the classroom, however, are vastly different.

With one staff member to 35 students or more to contend with, a music teacher, given an hour across a week to expose children to the varied complexities of Indian music, suffer from chronic fatigue and mounting pressure on timetable delivery and the need to show results. Music graduates are usually not trained to understand classroom demographic complexity or socio-economic communication divides. (That would be a matter that will have to be taken by a joint action force that constitutes both the University Grants Commission and with college-level boards). A “one lesson fits all” approach cannot, by definition, work for an art form as diverse as Indian music.

Neither is pedagogy, an area of supreme subjectivity when it comes to the creative arts, definable in broad terms and expected to serve across the spectrum. Many sizes work, and many approaches do this job effectively.  Here is one very different approach from the hills of Kalimpong, West Bengal which actually uses Western classical music effectively.

The Two Room Apartment
Little Mozarts

Coming back to Indian music, organisations such as SPIC MACAY were set up with the precise objective of exposing children to its beauty and its varied traditions. This has of course had a profound effect on generations of young minds, and continues to. As all voluntary missions go, it too has its own share of challenges, but that does not take away from its intent or impact. Whether that system can serve as the crucible on which other similar initiatives can be founded is of course a question open for a number of suggestions (and there are many, in every region).

Further, there have been attempts made by a number of eminent performing artistes and organisations who have made tremendous strides in their own ways, in terms of  outreach. Chitravina Ravikiran went several steps further and defined a blueprint for classical music dissemination in the classroom starting with the Sarva Siksha Abhyan during the previous regime (which is now languishing due to lack of political will). There are many more such artistes and organizations, and we salute every one of them.

I am also surprised (and rather alarmed, given the rampant xenophobia in today’s cultural discourse), that it has become de rigeur to ask for the “removal” of Western music elements from the syllabi for Indian schools.  Why does the same principle not apply towards English language learning? Or Western thought on physics? (Why not ban Fermi, Einstein and Leibniz in one shot, while we are at it?).  This thought is an insult to the practical intelligence of children who show tremendous fluidity in adapting to creative input.  (For instance, a Western approach to the theory of harmony is actually far more functional in training groups of children to sing, even when such content is Indian in form and structure. Many such delightful experiments serve children and teachers efficiently).

From an African example, where similar approaches yield moving results .

Nigerian Children's Choir

Schools that follow the the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education, General Certificate of Secondary Education and International Baccalaureate  already have advanced training in music, visual art and theatre where other battles of teacher unavailability and lack of standardisation are being fought.  However, with immense foresight, the system allows the child to be given the option to pick the art form he or she most desires to be trained in.

Let us also understand, that making anything compulsory might have the additional undesired effect of turning children’s attention away, especially given the enhanced workload they are expected to be tackling, this point on. In a “make it compulsory or ban it” mandate that we currently find ourselves in, this is a real danger of becoming a reality unless we are careful.

Rather, a solution towards the existing school music hour that takes into account a more enhanced approach towards creative exploration for the child – (for example, taking in elements from our rich Indian classical repertoire, but also from similar traditions worldwide) – and links learning from these exposures towards holistic development, seems to be an approach worthy of consideration. Making anything compulsory can happen only after taking into account the realities of the varied stakeholders in this process, including those of the most important ones, the children.

No one questions the need to take tremendous pride in our culture and in our traditions. And yes, there is much more to be done. However, it is important that we look at what we already have put in place, and help that process, rather than impose demands on it that are sometimes less practical than they sound. Further, asking for interventions from ruling parties and their agendas certainly tolls a rather dangerous bell.

Whatever these deliberations will entail, one must keep in mind the need for teacher training and constant re-skilling, an activity that is arduous and requires tremendous thought and enlightened policymaking. Jingoism and social media warmongering may not be entirely fair or appropriate as there is so much at stake. And keeping in mind, always, that it is our children who stand to lose, and who have everything to gain, by the decisions we force upon them.

Creativity cannot be so easily defined. And neither can the love of music be fostered by it becoming yet another mandatory examination requirement.

Anil Srinivasan is a classical pianist widely credited for introducing the piano to the South Indian classical music palette. He is also a respected music educator working with over 25,000 children in South India through his schools initiative.