By Faith Gonsalves

“O-bladi, O-blada, life goes on! “. My first musical memory is swaying to this Beatles song when I was 2, maybe 3 years old, with my twin sister. Another favorite was repeatedly singing along with Raffi’s album which would require every half-hour to be taken out, turned over and inserted back into the cassette player {now “vintage”, I would imagine!}. Even today, a recurring dream that I have, especially after stressful days, is running through the long red brick corridors of my old school towards the music room to find refuge, but lately to find it locked, sometimes a class in progress, sometimes empty and with everyone gone. The time I spent in that large music room is among some of the most memorable, with unforgettable friends and teachers who were equally inspiring and talented as they were fun; teachers, role-models and confidants, never mutually exclusive. It was a retreat for me in what was otherwise too structured and mechanized a drill of daily ‘formal education’. It made me who I have become today, never mutually exclusive. In college I probably spent as much time with my Western Music Society and also for a while with Delhi based group Artistes Unlimited as I did studying History, both helped me rethink my voice and my ideas. Many of my academic projects in college were around music, for instance understanding the Chinese Opera, placing Russian composer Shostakovish’s work in the Stalin era, or tracing the development of jazz in the Civil Rights Movement in the US. I also spent three years volunteering and later working with a local youth organization, The YP Foundation through the years when they transitioned into a registered organization, working on diverse projects from arts management, literature, film, etc. Through all this, now when I look back, I see that something was awakening that wasn’t necessarily musical. It is a questioning of the life reality that I am immersed in. These different efforts also showed me the passion that artists, especially musicians, carry in their hearts, and later through my own organization, Music Basti, I saw how shared music making can change your life.

Most people have heard of the “five basic needs”, namely, food, clothing, education, healthcare and housing (definitions may vary but this is the one I prefer). These have not only stagnated as the benchmark for providing state led services to the majority population of our country (a country with second largest population in the world of over 1.2 billion people, more than that of the USA, UK, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Russia put together), but have also penetrated the public consciousness as defining the point that marks “enough”. If these “needs” are met, or being apparently met, then “enough” is being done. The debates are endless as they are vast, but if the appalling condition of healthcare, education and public distribution of food are to be any indicators, it is evident that we are certainly not even doing “enough”.

In understanding why I think music is an excellent tool for child-development and community building as well as for expression and learning, as a first point it is important to steer away from assessing it vis-à-vis other art forms, but to look at other art forms as being critically interdisciplinary and complementary, not just to each other but also to the fundamental fabric of what is called “education”. Again, here, the debates rage endlessly about the orphaned role of music and arts in formal education, and the notion that pursuing these professionally is akin to social and financial ostracization at best and suicide at worst. But these become really tangential arguments when evaluating the role and importance of music in education today. The proven impact it has on improving health, memory or moods and developing social skills like empathy, the proven effects on positive development of the brain, lateral thinking, communication, speech, mathematical reasoning,  and proven results in building life skills critical to functioning in today’s competitive social and professional spheres such as independence, self esteem and confidence, cannot afford to be ignored.

Photograph by Vivek Singh


This raises the relevance of my second point, music for all.

Music doesn’t factor into the “five basic needs”. In 2010, an intern at Music Basti, Dharna Noor, wrote a blog piece for our website titled “The Sixth Basic Need: Joy”. This idea in itself makes a revelatory admission, that happiness, fun or joy are excluded for those who are considered to have less value than those who have “enough”. But that is what is wonderful about music or art! It belongs to everyone. The term “under-privileged” (more or less not acceptable in development terminology now) never implied this cruel exclusion, which was a later imposition of the privileged.

To illustrate this point better, in 2012 alone, would you expect to see ‘street-children’ or the homeless wandering through the much acclaimed annual art and literary events such as the Delhi Art Summit or the Jaipur Literature Fest? If you did see them, what would you think? The concept of professional art is one of “high art”, and a preserve of such a small minority of individuals so much so that there is a separate term now for art that involves the community, “community arts”.

Community Arts can be loosely defined as a way of creating art in which professional artists collaborate more or less intensively with people who don’t normally actively engage in the arts. Sometimes known as “dialogical art”, “community-engaged” or “community-based art”, it is often based in deprived areas, with a community oriented, grassroots approach. Community Arts is a term embracing all those activities that involve groups of people doing creative things together. What differentiates Community Arts, say, from amateur arts or the professional or commercial arts, is that it promotes participation, regardless of the existing level of skill or talent, and is developed primarily to provide opportunities for people who through economic or social circumstance have little access to the means to participate in the arts. In India, much like elsewhere, the concept of community art has seen many artists across genre or form traverse both worlds, of community and professional art, and Music Basti is intended as one such project to promote this unity of goals.

These ideas led me as a 19 year old student to create the project called Music Basti in 2008. It has grown since then in ways I could never imagine! Based on the twin principles of music for education, and music for all, it seeks to use the tenets of community arts to create a renewed engagement with communities of children and youth who have limited if any access to opportunities and information. Equally, it works to create a different public consciousness led by the educated youth and artist community who thinks beyond the conventional “five basic needs”, and believe in including joy, through art and music, and through having fun.

It continues to be challenging to find the resources and people needed to run projects, to reinvent and innovate the manner of reaching out to the educated youth and artist community, and to challenge the traditional paradigm that views ‘at-risk’ children and youth as liabilities instead of individuals with boundless positive potential. For a child who leads a life of constant uncertainty, to whom stability and family are out of reach ideals, and for whom survival in a world of competitive capitalist oriented values seems daunting, music and arts helps to unravel a different language to explore the self and one’s society, to learn about different cultures and countries, to believe in one’s own ability and talent, to realize one’s inherent potential, to exercise one’s voice. This is an education that helps you excel, irrespective of whether you choose to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.

I believe it can give the huge populations of children and youth who are living on the fringes of our economic social and cultural life-reality a voice that otherwise no one is listening to.


About the Author | Faith Gonsalves is the founder of Delhi based “Music Basti” {since 2008}. Music Basti promotes community building and personal development for at-risk children and youth. Programs and activities focus on children-at-risk and urban youth through creating participative music education programs and life-skills to build self- confidence and creativity through interaction and sharing in and through music actively, also involving the youth and music community in consultation, creation, implementation and evaluation.
Development of teaching and learning material, child-centered arts and music projects and capacity building projects for NGO functionaries in Delhi among other projects.