Music has a way of transforming you: How the Subramaniam siblings are changing the lives of 25,000 kids

Bindu and Ambi Subramaniam are helping the next generation hone their musical skills at Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts
They are currently working with 25,000 kids in 50 schools across five states — Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Maharashtra (Pic: SaPa)
They are currently working with 25,000 kids in 50 schools across five states — Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Maharashtra (Pic: SaPa)

Bindu and Ambi Subramaniam have been cultivating the transformative power of music since they took over the Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts or SaPa in Bengaluru. They are currently working with 25,000 kids in 50 schools across five states — Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Maharashtra. We spoke to them about how they are helping out students in government school through their 'SaPa in Schools' programme. Excerpts from the conversation:

Being brought up in a household that has everything to do with music, it was probably a natural choice for a career but what specifically led to the starting of SaPa? 

Ambi: We have had the opportunity to grow in our careers as musicians because of our parents’ vision. They have always been passionate about teaching us diverse musical styles and giving us the opportunity to interact with some of the most reputed musicians from around the world. They made music an integral part of our lives, and we always strongly identified with that vision. We actively took over the running of SaPa in 2011 — SaPa takes in musically inclined children as young as three and helps them fall in love with music. Our vision is to nurture the next generation of passionate musicians. In 2014, we started the SaPa in Schools program to fill the need for a structured music curriculum in schools across India. We noticed that there is no set standard for music in the syllabus, and that it is seen as an add-on subject. Today, research studies point to the need for 21st century skills like teamwork, empathy, and communication in the workforce, and music is a great gateway to building these skills. It also helps children develop language skills and better absorb subjects like math and physics. We wanted to provide a comprehensive curriculum that will help students appreciate music and develop their sense of cultural literacy.

What inspired you to teach underprivileged kids? 

Bindu: We strongly believe in the transformative power of music for all children – regardless of financial background. There is a huge body of research pointing to the tangible benefits of music in education, and we have also had a chance to see this for ourselves. For instance, we conduct an activity called the Name Tango, where each child in the group sings their name out loud and the rest of the group repeats the name. In private schools, this is one of the ice-breakers. But when we conducted the activity at a government school in Pune, we saw that it completely changed the dynamics in the room. In the first round of the activity, children were mumbling their names and it was so incoherent that I had to stand right next to them to even be able to hear it. I realised that it was because their self-esteem was so low that they had trouble shouting their name out loud to a group. But when we encouraged them to continue the activity and they heard twenty others sing their name back to them out loud, there was a visible rise in their self-confidence. Of course, I don’t believe that this one exercise will fix everything. However, I know that music is a transformational tool and that we should provide this tool to as many children as much as we can. As institutions, we don’t really know what employability will look like a few decades from now, so we don’t really know what we are preparing children for. We’re training children based on predictions and trends. However, one thing is clear – there is a need for creative literacy and cultural sensitivity, and music is a great gateway to developing these skills. It may seem like a superficial or idealistic thing to teach music, but there are so many measurable benefits to take away from structured music education. We have conducted a lot of research while developing our curriculum, and know that what we’re teaching comes with real takeaways.

Ambi: Music is a wonderful thing that relieves stress, increases happiness and gives everyone an identity. This is true not only for underprivileged communities, but for everyone. I definitely think that music will keep children from lesser privileged communities creatively fulfilled, because the ability to create something of your own gives you power, one that can never be taken away from you. It can also be a great career option; there are plenty of avenues in music that you can take. 

How is SaPa's curriculum different than any other music school's?

Ambi: What primarily sets the curriculum apart is that it’s about creating a transformational change through music. Music is a powerful, yet untapped tool in the path to creating better citizens, and our program is all about harnessing that power. We have a global music component that teaches children about different cultures, creates positive multicultural experiences before they have a chance to form prejudices, and develops linguistic skills by teaching songs in 15 different languages. We also have a “music and the world around” component that helps students draw parallels between music and subjects like mathematics and physics. The idea is for them to see that music is connected to everything, and isn’t just a feel-good hobby or something only potential professionals should pursue.

Bindu: We’re lucky to have been exposed to different genres of music even as children. It has helped us appreciate the diversity in the industry — even if we’re not playing a particular style, we enjoy it. Our father has always been passionate about diverse musical styles, and wanted to pass on this learning and exposure to children. We identify strongly with that vision. We’ve had the chance to meet great artists from around the world, interact with them, and pick their brains; we want to ensure that other children get that chance as well.

You have performed with a lot of famous musicians, what is your dream project and with whom?

Ambi: It’s true, we’ve been fortunate to have collaborated with some of the best artists from around the world. As part of my latest project, I will be featuring in a documentary - Trance - by internationally-acclaimed filmmaker Emilio Belmonte. Scheduled for release next year, Trance features flute legend Jorge Pardo and his contributions to Flamenco music. The film concludes with a special concert featuring some of Jorge's favourite collaborators around the world – me on the violin, guitarist Niño Josele from Spain, percussionist Tino di Geraldo from France, flamenco bassist Carles Benavent from Spain, and harpist Edmar Castañeda from Colombia in the USA. It truly is an honour to have a chance to do this.

Bindu: One of the best things about the musicians we’ve collaborated with is their open-mindedness and excitement to try new things. We’ve invited artists from around the world to feature in our weekly TV show, The SaPa Show, and our kids love it. As far as collaborations go, our dream now is to bring together a million children from around the world, demonstrating the power of music to connect people from all walks of life. Thanks to the power of social media, we’re hoping to make this happen sooner rather than later.    

Kids these days get to opt for the unconventional careers more. Do you think a young musician in India would have financial stability if he/she chooses this as his/her career?

Ambi: One of the great things about this generation is that no one is “one thing.” It’s rare to find someone who wants to be just a singer forever; these days, it’s much more common to meet people who juggle various different creative experiments and priorities.

Bindu: I really appreciate this generation’s focus on giving back to society and doing meaningful work; they don’t place salary at the front and centre of everything they do. That said, there is always an avenue to make a livelihood from pursuing music as a career – avenues that didn’t necessarily exist for the generations before this one.  

What would you say is the most important lesson that your parents had taught you? Do you still adhere to that?

Bindu: Being surrounded by great musicians from the time we were born, we sort of assumed that was normal. We assumed that every musician was a great musician, and that was the bar we set. Mediocrity was not an option. That’s something we carry in everything we do; the textbooks we write, the curriculum we design, and the music we perform are all about doing the very best we can and giving it our hundred per cent.

Ambi: We’ve always been taught to work hard and keep moving, no matter what. Again, we make sure to follow this by constantly analysing our work – whether at a performance or at a workshop – and looking for ways to do a little better. Since I was a child, my father would always tell me that it wasn’t about the praise or criticism; it was about constantly improving my performance. It really stuck!

Is young India losing interest in classical music or just reinventing it? 

Bindu: From Bach to Tyagaraja, all classical musicians were innovators. I’m sure that, back in the day, a “traditionalist” would have said “these modern musicians are messing with what we’ve maintained for so long.” The idea of classical music is always evolving, and continues to remain alive and well. We are lucky to be working with thousands of young artists who are just as excited about their musical career as anyone from the previous generation was. The way it is expressed may have changed – there are fewer temple concerts and more Instagram videos – but the music in itself (and the passion for it) is just as strong as it once was.

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