I sport an inexplicable passion for singing Hindu devotional songs, i.e. bhajans. Bhajans are often associated with deeply religious sentiments but that’s not their appeal to me. I just find the serenity of the lyrics, the tender rendering of a soulful note, the positive energy of a group singing in harmony, or the absorbed yearning in an individual voice very refreshing.
When I sing a bhajan, I feel connected to all that is good and innocent and peaceful—and I can pause to think about things nobler than the next meal’s menu.
So imagine my excitement when I got the offer to become the bhajan teacher for the Danville Balavihar. (To the uninitiated, Balavihar is a set of classes designed by the Chinmaya Mission, aimed at familiarizing children with India’s cultural, moral, and religious heritage).
I accepted the post quaking head-to-foot. I had no teaching experience and had been out of touch with formal singing for a while. All I really had was my passion.
I recalled my classical music lessons in India and modeled my classes accordingly. If you have never had the pleasure of attending a classical Indian music class, they are a fairly serious affair—with students reverently and diligently practicing lessons under their guru’s guidance.
Within months I noticed an obvious resistance to my music lessons. My five-year old son displayed these symptoms most adeptly. There was the aggressive stance: “I don’t want to go,” “Why do I have to do this?” And then there was the passive resistance: shuffling feet, rolling eyes, stifled yawns.
I was dismayed. Was this just a general disdain for bhajans? Or was the issue muddied by an identity-crisis among first-generation Indians? I mulled over all kinds of ponderous issues—never suspecting the truth.
And then one day, as I prepared a client presentation at my day job, it struck me that the bhajan students were also my clients, in a way. What was I doing to market my services? Had I helped them see the value of my goods? More importantly—had I adapted to their needs? I had to tighten up my act.
I started observing classes kids did like: school classes, sports classes, art classes. What were the key strengths?
The classes were run by cheerful, energetic instructors
Even when instructors imparted critical skills, the approach was not heavy-handed.
Students were not pressurized to perform.
Students were encouraged to talk openly, and not fettered by unconditional reverence for the teacher.
Students were kept actively engaged and had something to do or think about at most times.
Students were constantly motivated through non-competitive challenges.
Teachers never lost an opportunity to celebrate success—however small.
Instructors acknowledged that there was life above and beyond their class; issues outside of class were discussed during breaks; personal problems were given due consideration—even for children as young as kindergartners.
I decided to combine these observations with client service skills refined over 9 years as a market researcher.
Before I developed a tactical plan, I had to define my basic vision. Here is what I came up with: My classes were not designed to impart formal classical training. They were about giving kids exposure to the genre and making music accessible and fun so all the stringent commitment and preparation attached to such classes were unnecessary. The beauty of a bhajan lies in that it can be sung be anyone, anywhere. Bhakti (devotion) and music are not the privilege of a talented few—nor can they be forced from an unwilling heart. I just wanted to give the children a pressure-free platform to explore this art form. Of course, I hoped someday some students would look past the fun and sense something special in their heart.
Accordingly, one day I started my class by stating it was entirely possible some children did not like coming to these bhajan classes; in fact my son did not think it was particularly cool to do so! And it was OK with me if they felt this way. But since they were already in class, how about we give the songs a good try?
This earned me a few smiles.
Next, I made it clear that although all children did not have to like every bhajan we learnt, it would be only courteous to treat every song with respect, out of consideration for someone who did like it. I also asked my students to bring to class any bhajan they liked. I could not possibly cover every song they brought, but I would try to do at least 1 or 2 each semester.
I then asked what they got out of my class. I got scattered mentions of “God,” “relaxation,” “making parents happy,” and even “nothing.” I accepted every response with equal gravity.
Then one student turned the question on me. I promptly said it was an opportunity to sing with some wonderful students! They all started laughing and we dropped the matter. But I hoped they would think about it later, as children are wont to do.
I also declared I could accept it if they did not sing sometimes. This was greeted by startled silence. I clarified that while I hoped they would all join in, yet sometimes if a student felt tired or disinterested, he/she could just relax and listen. They nodded and a couple opted to “sit-in.” (Just as I had expected, most of my “sit-in” students start singing half-way through class.)
That night I also sent an e-mail to parents requesting them not to bug their children to practice. I wanted the kids to put in extra practice only if they felt like it. Even though I continued to make requests to practice daily, there were no repercussions if the children did not comply. If they practiced, the gain was their own growth—and if they did not—well there was really no loss at all.
I had recognized the need to keep students active. So we introduced regular breaks. This did not mean students had downtime doing nothing. To a student, a break is anything that breaks the monotony. So breaks meant we would sit cross-legged for some songs, and then stand in chorus for the next few; or I would lead for one song, and then ask a willing child to take the lead for the next one. This last practice not only helped build students’ confidence but also motivated them to prepare songs better.
I began creating milestones. We created challenges within each session—such as who would volunteer to lead a song or who could spot something wrong in what I sang. I was careful to not pit one student against another. The competition was never about singing better than other kids.
I also raised milestones outside of the class. We are encouraged to sing in Chinmaya Mission pujas—an offer I had ignored out of fear of failing. But now I signed up for 2-3 pujas. Each performance meant 15-20 minutes of singing—implying at least 3-4 songs had to be learned.
We were not ready yet, but the idea of a public performance acted like magic! Suddenly I had a motivated group—practicing, memorizing, and singing.
Parents also caught the bhajan bug and began scouting for more opportunities for the kids to perform. We signed up for festivities at the Livermore temple and even sang at a satsang. All selected forums imparted a sense of performing formally—yet were non-competitive in nature.
I made it clear that participation was entirely voluntary; yet, if a child committed to a performance, he/she was expected to do their best. My mantra was: no pressure!
At the end of each performance I was meticulous in sending positive feedback. I was also honest in including criticism where due. I requested the same of the children and their parents. Sometimes we celebrated a good performance with a pizza party. At other times we started on a new, more difficult, song to mark our growth. And if the performance did not go well, I would raise the cry for another challenge and off we would go again.
There were other subtler tactics I devised—such as singing “sa” to call attention instead of shouting for order; or requesting kids to stretch their hands overhead to indicate they were ready to listen, or ending some classes early so we could socialize.
And last, I tried to keep things light. We were never too busy to laugh. Of course after a couple of particularly wild sessions I realized the importance of keeping the reins slightly in check. But on the whole, the combined influence of music and peer pressure would persuade even the wilder kids to calm down and sing.
I completed my first year with six students. Today, almost three years later, my class strength is about 30-odd students; but more importantly, I have several students coming back for their second or even third year with me. Parents report children are quite willing to come—and if they are to be believed—actually dislike skipping classes.
I know I have not changed the world. And I have certainly not retained every student who ever came to class; but thirty young voices are good enough for me.
Shailaja Dixit would like to thank Balavihar for allowing her this opportunity, her students for their affection and enthusiasm, all the parents for their unquestioning support—and above all—the Fremont Swaranjali teacher (Ms. Natana Valiveti) for being her guiding light.
She has a Masters in Mass Communication and currently lives in San Ramon, CA where she divides her time between writing, singing and home-making.