Making an indelible mark with her singing in films like Hey Ram, Lagaan, Monsoon Wedding among several others, singer-songwriter Vasundhara Das needs no introduction. Das, who has donned several hats, including that of an entrepreneur and environmentalist, is passionate about music therapy and continues to further the cause of using music for community building and leadership, as a drum jam facilitator in India. By using the “powerful medium of voice and rhythm”, she and her partner Roberto Narain conduct training programmes at corporations, communities, schools and colleges across India, and have “now trained almost 200 people from different walks of life”.
Recently, Das addressed senior citizens virtually as part of the 16th edition of #TheLivingRoom (by Columbia Pacific Communities – senior living community operator) which consists of a series of 40-minute Facebook Live sessions for seniors to interact with some of the finest minds in the country. At the sidelines of the event, Das, who is trained in Hindustani classical music, spoke to indianexpress.com on exploring music as a therapeutic medium and more.
From a singer-songwriter, how did you start with drum jams?
Once a musician, always a musician. I’m busy surrounding myself with interesting possibilities of working with music in different situations. The singer-songwriter-composer in me continues to stay stimulated. I’ve been a drum circle facilitator along with my partner Roberto Narain who pioneered the use of drum circles in corporate India through our organisation Drumjam, working with communities and companies alike to use voice, rhythm and spontaneous music making as a medium of empowerment, community building, creative expression, experiential learning, team management, bridging socio-economic differences and so much more.
Since 2013, in Bengaluru, on the third Sunday of every month, at Rangoli Metro Art Center on MG Road, from 4pm to 6pm, we have been organising a free, family-friendly community drum jam which has been attended by hundreds of people. We hope to resume this once we feel safe again to gather post the COVID-19 crisis. Roberto and I are certified drum circle facilitation trainers in India and have now trained almost 200 people from different walks of life to use the powerful medium of voice and rhythm to impact their communities.
This path has led me to be more curious and explore more deeply the effects of interactive and spontaneous music making on mental well-being and further down the path of using sound as a healing mechanism.
And that led you to explore music as a therapy?
At the outset, let me clarify that I am not a music therapist. I am a musician who understands the value and possibility of the impact of music, specifically spontaneous music — using voice, rhythm, melody, harmony and silence — on mental health and well-being for many different populations. As a drum circle facilitator, my team and I have worked with children, children at risk, youth, adults, elderly, elderly with dementia and Parkinson’s disease and terminally-ill cancer patients.
By definition, music therapy is the use of music to address the physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of a group or individual. It employs a variety of activities like listening to familiar music, playing an instrument, drumming, singing, guided imagery and much more. A music therapist needs to first be a therapist, who understands the psychology behind people’s behaviour, and then employ the right tools from the realm of music and its possibilities as they see fit on a case by case basis. Since people’s minds are unique and challenges of health and well-being are unique (with very little scope for generalisation), it is difficult to make a sweeping statement like “it positively impacts one and all”. Our taste in music and reaction to certain concepts and elements of music differ from one person to the next, but what is certain is music impacts one and all. The kind of impact on each person is very subjective. Because of the many parameters that differ from type of intervention to type of individual, comprehensive, generalised conclusions through research are difficult to arrive at. But that said, there is a lot of research out there about the effects of music – therapy or spontaneous – on mental health and well-being.
In my experience, the power of the voice and the drum is not to be taken lightly. As humans, we have a primal connection with the voice and the drum since both instruments were our main form of communication even before we developed language. And to allow people to say, sing, touch, play, try, feel and express with these two mediums can be very empowering and cathartic.
You recently facilitated a session #TheLivingRoom by Columbia Pacific Communities. How was the experience?
My association with Columbia Pacific Communities predates the Covid-19 lockdown. We had initiated a series of drum jams in the month of March for many of their communities. The session I facilitated for Serene Urbana, one of their communities in Bengaluru, was a wonderful success. But the lockdown put a spanner in our plans and we are waiting for a safer time to interact with their other communities again. And while they have been very proactively bringing activities regularly to their communities, they too have had to make a shift in terms of how to engage with the elders. I find that #TheLivingRoom is a great way to engage seniors and their minds positively and am very happy to be part of this initiative.
How were your music-enabled experiences of working with children with special needs?
I have facilitated drum circles through Community Drumjam Foundation for a variety of populations of children with varying challenges – autism, AIDS, cerebral palsy, physical challenges, children at risk – in orphanages/care homes; the scope of possibilities beyond these populations is also very large. But again, each child is unique, how they react and interact is different. What works for some may not work for others. For example, not all children in the autism spectrum react positively to drumming while some others blossom. So a generalisation is impossible. Different modalities work for different personalities, but usually the entertainment experienced in a well-facilitated drum circle is what takes children or any other population to their unique special place — whether that’s dancing in the middle of the circle or sitting silently absorbing the vibrations massaging their nerves. I work mainly facilitating their musicality in that particular moment. So it’s almost always spontaneous music with the emphasis on them being the creators of that music and me being a mere facilitator of their creation. Benefits of this could range from creative expression, experiential learning, empowerment, acceptance, true happiness, release, and so much more.
What would you suggest for someone looking to explore more about music as a therapy?
In this time (the age of information and knowledge), everything is one click away. There are many modalities of music therapy. Each person’s quest is their own and their path their own. So one needs to be curious and find what they are specifically looking to do.
As someone who works with people from diverse backgrounds and challenges, what do you think of the entire conversation surrounding mental health?
The taboo and shame around people seeking help needs to go. Mental issues are experienced by every single one of us in varying degrees. The difference is merely that some are able to cope by using different modalities by themselves, and others need professional help. Nobody’s life is perfect all the time. But we need to be more open and accepting of each other and our respective challenges. The lockdown put physical distance between us and made us look at our immediate surroundings under a lens so we can understand the daily challenges faced by those nearest and dearest to us. If you ask me, that’s an opportunity to redefine relationships and be a better person all around.
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