Aruna Sunderlal

The music fraternity in Goa, certainly music teachers and young amateur musicians who have played at various times in orchestral projects in Bangalore will be very familiar with the name of Aruna Sunderlal, Founder and Managing Trustee of Bangalore School of Music, and they will be aware too of the huge respect she commanded not only within her city, but from her peers and colleagues from the rest of the country and around the world. The news of her death on 23 June came as a bolt from the blue to me, and is a big blow to the cause of music education in India.

When I visited the Bangalore School of Music sometime in 2010, it was already housed in its current location, a formidable 12,000 sq. feet building in R.T. Nagar, equipped with classrooms, recording studio and auditorium. At the time, the music charity that I had founded in Goa, Child’s Play India Foundation was barely a year old, and although Ms. Sunderlal had not focussed exclusively on our demographic (the underprivileged sector), what she had been able to accomplish was truly impressive and awe-inspiring. She was a living example of how much could be achieved by one person with a singular vision, and the steely resolve to follow that vision through.

Although I did meet Ms. Sunderlal at that visit, I was in the rank and file of the violas of the orchestral project (India National Youth Orchestra), so a convenient opportunity did not present itself for me to talk to her at greater length about Child’s Play. I really connected with her some years later, in 2013, when we were invited as delegates to the first-ever summit conference in India of the AAPRO (the Alliance of Asia-Pacific Region Orchestras) at the National Centre for the Performing Arts NCPA Mumbai. During the four days of the conference, as various facets of the current status and health of music in the region were discussed, I realised that although varying in degree, many issues were common to all our efforts. Everyone across the spectrum, from Child’s Play to the Bangalore School of Music to the NCPA was struggling and working hard to gain funding for their project. Without this, it is impossible to maintain running costs, and just as importantly, to grow and dream bigger for the future. All music education initiatives had to contend with long school hours, tuitions, exams etc eating into the number of waking hours in a child’s day, or the days in a week left over for music instruction or practice. All of us endeavoured to create new audiences for music among the public, and get more media attention to the arts.

In my conversations with Ms. Sunderlal between conference sessions, I learnt how she had begun her school at her home some thirty-odd years ago, and how it continued to function from there, an old colonial bungalow, for 22 years, until the current premises were constructed. She was naturally an old hand at soliciting funding from corporate houses and philanthropists, and only smiled when I told her of my frustration at this. “Be patient, but relentless”, she said to me. “Never give up! Never lose sight of what you wish to achieve. It will come if you persist”. These words of advice were a shot in the arm for me.

In a 2007 interview to The Hindu (the article about the school was aptly titled “Aruna Sunderlal’s Labour of Love”), she had laconically stated “We have done much with very little.” This was a huge understatement, of course. She has achieved more than others have done with far greater financial support.

A comparative study between the Bangalore School of Music and our Kala Academy over the same time span would be quite revealing. The Bangalore School of Music certainly offers instruction in a far wider spectrum of orchestral instruments. It has teachers for all the bowed stringed instruments (violin, viola, cello, double-bass), all the woodwinds (flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon), and most of the brass (trumpet, trombone, tuba, euphonium). This in itself is a huge accomplishment. The Kala Academy, despite being an older institution, with assured annual governmental financial support, and situated in Goa, the ‘Rome of the East’, with the advantage of a longer (by several centuries!) exposure to western music due to its colonial history, still cannot boast of this.

The Kala Academy has an inherent design flaw that has plagued it from its very inception. It is a creative, artistic institution, but administered by bureaucrats and politicians. As if this were not disadvantage enough, political considerations determine who wields the post of Chairman, and conversely, if a political party falls from power, so does the Chairman. Too often (in fact it would be hard to think of an exception), the Chairman while in office also holds other political responsibilities which eclipse the duties of the Chairman from the very outset. I have lost count of the number of times I have tried to meet various Chairmen, only to be told they were tending to the other portfolio which overshadowed all else. Meetings and decisions get postponed indefinitely, and files languish on tables in the meantime. It is an untenable situation. Such an important position, if it has to exist in the hands of a politician, cannot be a part-time consideration.

The story with the post of Member-Secretary is depressingly similar. I know of some dynamic teaching faculty members taking innovative proposals up to the administrative section, only to have them shot down on some pretext or the other. And on the other side of the ‘glass wall’ that divides administration from faculty and the department in general, they claim that teaching staff get complacent due to the security of a government job.

The argument on both sides holds for the other disciplines as well. Faculty from the Indian music, dance, and drama sections have at various times privately expressed their frustration with the system in place.

With the musical chairs (if you will pardon the pun) that is the order of the day with the administrative staff that make crucial decisions about the Kala Academy, it is impossible to have a comprehensive, studied, long-term vision, which is so crucial for the growth of any artistic, creative enterprise, certainly when building a lasting pedagogical tradition.

Aruna Sunderlal not only possessed this vision, but the grit and determination to see it through against all odds, to the end of her days. May her soul rest in everlasting peace.

(An edited version of this article was published on 17 July 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)