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How Indian classical and Bollywood music in British schools are bettering the grades

As part of the Model Music Curriculum, Indian classical and Hindi film songs are being taught to students as a way of appreciating diversity and enhancing academic performance

Written by Suanshu Khurana | New Delhi |
Updated: April 11, 2021 7:12:29 am
High note: The music curriculum at the Feversham Primary Academy, Bradford, has made it one of the best performing schools in Britain.

In the late ’50s, in the aftermath of World War II, two teenaged brothers — Dalbir and Balbir Singh — made their way from Khanpur, Punjab, to a West Midlands’ foundry. As labourers in the cast-iron factory, they had to melt metal. At work, they’d often break out into folk songs, and others in the factory would gather to listen. Over time, the Punjabi community in the area called them bhujhangy, meaning children.

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Soon, the brothers recorded an EP and appeared on television in 1969 for Guru Nanak’s 500th birthday. They called themselves the Bhujhangy Group, and their song, Bhabiye ankh lad gayi, became extremely popular among the diaspora. They combined the sounds of traditional folk songs with accordion, guitar and banjo, and became pioneers of bhangra in Britain. “With our television outing, we became very popular, and people started inviting us,” says the UK-based Balbir.

More than 50 years later, their song has made it to the list of musical pieces, under the new Model Music Curriculum, launched by Britain’s Department of Education last month.

Holly Manj, senior media officer, schools, Department of Education, says that they are mindful of the diversity in modern British identity, and how communities celebrate and explore their localised “cultural capital”.

The “study list” from India includes London-based sitar player Anoushka Shankar’s Indian Summer, pieces by Pt Ravi Shankar, AR Rahman’s Jai Ho from Danny Boyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Sahela re — Kishori Amonkar’s famed bandish in raag Bhoop, pieces in raag Desh by varied musicians and a tabla solo in ektaal by tabla legend Ustad Allah Rakha. There’s also Munni badnaam huyi, Lalit Pandit’s item song, from the Salman Khan-starrer Dabangg (2010), to explain how “the song includes many typical features of Bollywood films in its music, dance and colourful visuals”. Some pieces from Africa, Brazil, Pakistan and Bangladeshi folk songs are also on the list.

Developed by a panel of 15 music specialists, Manj says,“The curriculum will introduce the next generation to a repertoire of music, from western classical to popular music from around the world.” Naveed Idrees, head teacher, Feversham Primary Academy, Bradford, a member of the specialists’ panel, introduced a broad music curriculum that helped his struggling primary school to morph into one of Britain’s best performing schools. Almost three-quarters of the people around Feversham are of Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi descent.

“The focus in our country is on two things — English and Math. This made the children uninterested and eventually their grades fell. Music in our curriculum turned things around. Grades went from below average to beyond above,” says Jimmy Rotheram, senior leader, music, Feversham.

He, along with Idrees, has been responsible for turning around the school’s academic performance. “There was a phase in the modern music curriculum where there was more focus on white European composers. We wanted a diverse music curriculum, which was more spontaneous for the local community, so we have nasheeds and naats (Islamic songs or poems sung a cappella). Our school concerts are packed to capacity if we have a nasheed concert,” says Rotheram.

Feversham also has had guest musicians including flautists, violinists, and vocalists, for weekly sessions. Once even the local imam was invited, who spoke about the nuance of reciting an azaan and explained its tempo and melody. The inclusion of music from the subcontinent is a testament to the long journey that Indian music has made.

Nick Gibb, Britain’s School Standards minister, calls it “a musical renaissance across England’s schools”.

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