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Mozart in the mountains


PULLING STRINGS: Many western musicians, like Father Gabriel from Montreal (left), have volunteered to teach at the Gandhi Ashram School

Viraj and Tika Bishwakarma live in a bamboo thatch on a piece of land owned by a farmer for whom their father works for a paltry Rs 65 a day. Not far from them, in Chhibo Bustee near Kalimpong, lives Ajay Darjee who was orphaned as a toddler. The tin shed they live in is theirs, but there are times, and not very infrequent, when the three don't even have enough to eat.

These teenagers would have been mere statistics in a country with millions of impoverished children but for an amazing ability: Viraj, Tika and Ajay can play flawless Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Chopin and even Tchaikovsky. And they can handle the toughest of musical instruments, from the violin and the viola to the cello.

So accomplished is the trio that it has mesmerised audiences across the world. Viraj has performed at Nuremberg, Munich and Penzberg in Germany, while his sister Tika has performed in Japan with a local youth orchestra. Ajay has been to the German cities as well as Zurich, Paris and Umbria (Italy).

If the trio appears an aberration, visit the unassuming Gandhi Ashram School at 6th Mile Bridge in Tashi Ding, Kalimpong. For the 245 underprivileged students of the school, western music is a way of life. Learning to play the compositions of the great masters on the viola, violin, cello, piano and flute is a part of their daily curriculum. Music lessons begin in fact from Class I, when children are taught how to hold the violin and the bow. The school actually has a full-fledged studio to repair the instruments.

There is something surreal about watching these children from impoverished homes at their music lessons. We watch Rohit Lepcha, Neeraj Thakur, Biswas Subba, Abhishek Rai, all aged 6-9, polishing their skills with masters Rudra Bishwakarma and Kamal Gurung. They gently pick the violins, tighten the strings with nimble fingers and begin to play with great dexterity and finesse.

After hearing one such performance during the Europe tour, Allan Wicks, who was the organist at the Canterbury Cathedral from 1961 to 1988, remarked: "I have heard youth orchestras in Australia, Canada, the US, Britain and the rest of Europe. All of them had advantages undreamt of by the staff and children at Gandhi Ashram. Yet the magical effect of their playing of Vivaldi and Mozart was, in my experience, unique. The playing of these 80 children between 7 and 13 years was one of the most wonderful sounds I have ever heard. "

British music instructor William Morris, who volunteered at the school last year, was stunned by the students' learning curve. "They are playing music that in England is given to students much older. It was amazing how children who never played the keyboard learned to play classical compositions, " he says.

School principal Paul D'Souza explains that the school does not attempt to create musicians but actually uses music to enrich the school experience. "When Father Edmund McGuire founded the project in 1993, he wanted music to take centre stage in the education process. Music has a purpose: it gives students confidence. Classical music helps them imbibe qualities like discipline and concentration, " he explains. The school has plans of introducing Indian classical instruments.

Though he derives satisfaction from his students' accomplishments, there are pressing worries. Paucity of funds is a constant anxiety. Pleas for mid-day meal assistance from the government have fallen on deaf ears. Now, he is saddled with a graver crisis: the school has to move out of the present premises, because it has been identified as a landslide-prone zone. "We have to move. The search for alternative land is underway. Wish we could get some help, " he says.

Till the elusive aid arrives, the likes of Father Gabriel from Montreal, Canada, will continue to chip in. The violin instructor arrived recently and intends to stay for two years to teach the children about whom he had heard some years ago. "Back then, I had thought I should be in Kalimpong someday, and here I am, " he says.

A few kilometers up the hill sits another hoary and well-known Darjeeling institution, Dr Graham's Homes. Started as a school for destitutes, today it draws children from across backgrounds. It also has one of the best choirs in the country today. Glaswegian Philip Gibson had heard the group perform during one of its trips abroad. "That was all it took for my wife and I to decide that we should be associated with the school, " recalls the school chief executive.

During that tour to England and Scotland, the 30-member choir did a live broadcast on BBC Radio at Oxford and sang at the great hall of Edinburgh Castle where only Sir Elton John and Justin Timberlake had previously performed. It also performed in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and the Isle of Arran.

"The tour was a huge success. Audiences were stunned to hear Indian kids sing English songs so beautifully. Remember, children there don't go to the church much these days and they certainly don't love to sing, " says Gibson.

Shane Saviel, the choir master since 1990, is glad that the trip happened. "Apart from goodwill and publicity for the school, the children got a lot of exposure and confidence, " he says. In recent years, the choir has performed to crowds of 4, 000 at the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club (CCFC), Tolly Club and Royal Calcutta Turf Club (RCTC). "The choir has grown from strength to strength. The challenge is to maintain the standard as successive batches pass out of school, " Saviel says.

Music has been an integral part of the school ever since the Katherine Graham Memorial Chapel was built in 1925. But it is only at the turn of this century that it shot into prominence. None of the choir members have formal training. But give them any song - be it hymns, numbers by Robbie Williams or Ronan Keating - and they can perform flawlessly.

Pastor Henry Simon, who had studied in the school, attributes the choir's success to the school's heritage. "Here, students develop a tremendous ear for music, " he says. The junior school has music classes where children are encouraged to sing not only religious songs but folk and pop as well. Though music lessons don't continue in high school, every student vies for a place in the choir. For many like Ben Wesley, a regular singer at Someplace Else and other Kolkata hotspots, a place in the choir is a stepping stone to a singing career.

Himani Boarding School in Kurseong has a choir as well. But it is the school's musicals that are really famous. School director Robindra Subba, who directs the shows, is proud of the school's productions that include Jesus Christ Superstar, Oliver, Les Miserables, Evita and Bombay Dreams. This year, the school will stage Mamma Mia.

"Till the 1970s, Darjeeling had a strong heritage of drama and theatre with all major schools such as North Point, St Paul's and Mt Hermon mounting productions. Then the movement petered out. When I got an opportunity to lead the school, the first thing I did was to revive the culture, " Subba says.


The lilt in Dar-jee-ling personifies the musical rhythm of the people who populate this picturesque part of the Himalayas. Music here is a way of life, a means without an end. Every household has at least one member who can strum the guitar or play some kind of a musical instrument. Not surprising then that the hills have been a breeding ground for a host of famous musicians and rock bands. Hillians, mistakenly referred to as 'The Sikkimese Beatles' by Time magazine in its April 1972 edition, was one of the earliest rock groups of Darjeeling to find fame outside the district. Peter J Karthak, its founding member, had received guidance from musicians like George Banks, Louis Banks, Amber Gurung and Indra Thapalia. The rock and light jazz they did regularly in clubs was a big hit and Peter remembers earning Rs 1, 000 a night back in those days. In the second half of the '60s came the Diamonds, considered by some as the first band to do 'real rock' in Darjeeling. The band started with instrumentals by Ventura and Shadows and went on to play the covers of The Beatles and Santana. Forbidden Fruit, which started playing in 1970, did a different kind of music and found an audience not only in Kathmandu, but Kolkata and Mumbai. Even in the turbulent '80s, when the Gorkha National Liberation Front started a movement to "free" the hills, rock groups like the US Band and Magnum Opus continued to do their well-attended gigs. Though the music scene today is not as vibrant as in the '60s and '70s, bands like Reincarnation, Destiny, Pralaya, Livathon, Hellriders, Damaged Brain, Divine Wreck, Rusty Nails, Mantra and Nomads are at it. Gorkhas have always been a musically inclined society and they will continue to be. Check out any military band in the country and one is sure to spot a Gorkha member. It was Capt Ramsingh Thakuri, a Gorkha from Himachal Pradesh, who had set the tunes for a host of Azad Hind Fauj songs, including the immortal Kadam Kadam Badaaye Ja. Music from the hills has also inspired many hit number in Hindi films, from Kanchi Re Kanchi Re in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (Ranjit Gazmer, a regular in RD Barman's team, played the 'madal' in the song) to another RD superhit Deewana Mujh Sa Nahin from Teesri Manzil. Shaan's first chartbuster Musu Musu Hasi Deu Na Lai Lai from the movie Pyar Mein Kabhi Kabhi was an original composition by a Nepali band for Gorkha soldiers. Subhro Niyogi

Reader's opinion (1)

Prakash KabraSep 12th, 2010 at 23:45 PM

I would not really like to comment on this article as it would turn out to be biased. I spent my childhood in kalimpong n studied in Dr Graham's Homes. It just feels great to see it covered in one of the most read newspapers :)

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