Born with a Song
These are the first two lines of a popular song I grew up listening. The song was written and sung by Jose Filiciano, a brilliant musician of the 1960s and 70s, who happened to be blind.
Ghunguroo ki tarah bajta hi raha... or Gori tera gaon bada pyara... are examples of great songs composed by Ravinder Jain who is blind as well.
There is a strong heritage of talented musicians with visual impairment. Surely all of us have rocked to the music of singers like the blues maestro Ray Charles, the wonderful Stevie Wonder, or the vibrant tenor voice of Italian Andrea Bocelli.
Certainly, all of the above are great musicians who happened to be blind. But the question I ask is whether being blind implies that a person is naturally endowed with the gift of music? There is a common perception in many parts of the World that, “If someone is blind, teach him or her music”.
My friend Preeti once told me that her parents started her off on the Sitar when she lost her sight at the age of 7. She diligently pursued the art form for over 12 years, putting in 8 to 10 hours of solid practice every day only to be told at the end of it that she was tone deaf. There are a number of blind students who take up music as a subject in school and college. In fact in many schools music is offered to blind students as an alternative subject to Mathematics, only to later be pushed into careers as music teachers in Government schools in small towns.
The music scene has over the years become extremely competitive, professional and crowded. Gone are the days when a Rafi, a Kishore or a Mukesh dominated. Today, it is no longer enough to have a great voice; it is about the whole package. Along with a well trained voice, a good stage presence has become equally important.
Gayatri Sankaran is a highly accomplished Carnatic vocalist, who began her musical journey at the age of 3. She was born into a family of musicians and had the good fortune of having access to the right kind of gurus who guided her all the way, teaching and training her in the intricate nuances of singing. Today she performs on stage in India and internationally, and also teaches music. She has over 75 students, many of whom live overseas and take regular classes from her using Skype. She is a regular performer on All India Radio and her talent has been widely recognised. She has been conferred with the Padmasree award and has also performed at the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
A couple of years ago, Divakar Sharma, a blind student from Delhi Public School, R K Puram, Delhi, suddenly shot to fame when he won the title of Little Champ on a Zee TVs reality show. The TV channel signed a contract with him and promoted him. Encouraged by the prodigious talent and this early success, his father gave up his full time job to promote him, however Divakar is still struggling to make it to the big time.
A few years ago, a friend and I did a talent search in a few select cities of India. Nearly two thousand blind musicians sent us their recordings. With the help of professionals, we shortlisted about 150 of them for a face to face session. We conducted auditions at Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata and New Delhi. In the final analysis, there were just a handful of artists who caught our attention as people who might have some potential. However this exercise categorically showed us that there is absolutely no connection between blindness and the talent for music, the two are totally unrelated.
The long and short of it is the being blind does not mean you will have an innate musical ability. We must learn to recognize talent wherever we find it, independent of disability, caste or anything else.