Epics in Indian Life: Concert Pianist Diana Ambache finds a new inspiration in Tamil Nadu

7 Aug

I knew I needed a change. Career-wise and in myself, I was at a cross roads. For nearly a quarter of a century I’d directed and played with my own orchestra, the Ambache Chamber Orchestra; playing Mozart collaboratively with no conductor, and reviving music by women composers. In some ways the personal stuff was more complicated. Over the last ten years I’ve had a series of meningiomas (benign brain tumours) which had left me in low spirits. Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine and the surgical skills and care of the NHS, the physical problems have been dealt with; coping with the emotional effect has not been so simple.

Both in my career and for pleasure, I’ve travelled a lot and always loved it, and Asia’s colourfulness is a big magnet for me. When I saw an advert for a volunteer to go and teach English in a performing arts school in Southern India, I found it an attractive idea. I spoke with some people who’d been there and saw that they thought well of it. Another bonus would be to miss the English winter – I’ve always hated the cold and the lack of light. But it was a shot in the dark.

So off I went in October 2010, to the heat, colours and smells of Tamil Nadu, to find I was part of the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam, in Punjarasantangal village, near Kanchipuram, about 50 miles from Chennai. Not only was the School in a fine new building out in the peaceful countryside, away from the noise and pollution of Kanchipuram, but I felt immediately welcomed by the friendly atmosphere and openness of the people. Curiosity abounded: “wot your nem?” (and many further questions) was asked of me wherever I went. Right from the start I enjoyed the delightful contrast to our English reserve.

There were 44 children, aged from 7 to 17. They came from very poor families, some farmers, some working as Kattaikkuttu actors; both are low caste and low paid activities. Most of the children arrived at the school malnourished, but keen to learn. I’ve never before met such a bright, lively, expressive, and open bunch of children as these. They were instantly inclusive, and sharing their wonderful energy and exuberance, I felt buoyed up by them.

One of the many delights this school gave me was discovering a whole new (old) art form, I’d never previously heard of. Kattaikkuttu (kuttu for short) is a singing/dancing/acting drama, depicting stories from the Mahabharata, normally presented in all-night village celebrations. This is usually from 10pm to 6am, avoiding the heat of the day, and then at sunrise the villagers go off to work in the fields. Not only was I being enriched by these stories, but also by a unique, local, artistic way of telling them.

That apart, the school was an extraordinary community in itself. It was run by a couple with many skills and a light touch. Rajagopal came from the kuttu tradition; his father and grandfather had lead their own kuttu companies. He created the school to pass on his knowledge, and to include girls in a form previously exclusively for men. His Dutch wife Hanne looked after the business side of the school, and had a talent for attracting interesting people to work there. It was a close-knit community; I seemed to acquire a whole new family in one fell swoop.

Watching their kuttu rehearsals I was immediately struck by the performing and communicative strengths of the children. No teenage inhibition here; they were committed to direct and full expression, whatever they were doing. One young boy was so full of joy he used to go round the school skipping and cart-wheeling; his real name meant Sun God and I privately nicknamed him Mr Excitement. We did (English) Reading together, and he noticed that I got the giggles when he read the word “shop!” in a high pitched voice; so he would say it whenever he saw me. Talk about Pavlov’s dog.

For me one of the pleasures of travel has been encountering other people’s ideas. So many things in India caused me to pause in my thinking. Time and again I realised that I didn’t understand the culture, and so I couldn’t make a judgement. What a release that was! It meant I spent more time observing the different cultural ways, and less time forming opinions.

I sometimes worry about the blandification of the world. However the human imagination is alive and well in South India; it’s such a colourful place, there are many expressions there of different ways to live life, which is so stimulating and invigorating – I was soon out of my rut.

Although I had music teaching experience, the task of teaching English was new to me. What I learnt straight away was how different their needs were. Firstly, the wish to learn was so strong that there were almost none of the UK schools’ problems over discipline. The children I taught daily ranged from Reading with the younger ones (“I fust, I fust!“), to a group of five delightful 11-year old girls, to a conscientious 15-year old studying for the government Standard 10 exams, to a couple of older kids, not doing an exam.

These last two were very normal teenagers who, for reasons I never fully understood, were not talking to each other and had very different interests. Whatever I suggested, the girl’s instinctive reaction was “noh, noh, noh!”. However, when I started doing something with the boy, her competitive instincts took over, and she joined in, to show how good she was. Alongside all this, she was an excellent dancer, and frequently took the lead in the kuttu dramas. Actually she epitomised the Indian girl’s problems: she was avoiding taking her Standard 12 exam as she thought her parents would marry her off at that point, professional performing not being thought a suitable job for a woman.

The class of the five girls was called Vaiduriam (cat’s eyes – all classes were named after gemstones). As girls, they were considered to be a few years behind, educationally. But they were charming, beautiful, sharing and affectionate. Who could, or would, resist such warmth? In class, we talked, and read, and did a bit of writing, though that was more difficult for them. What they most enjoyed were games – specifically, The Memory Game – turning over and remembering pairs of cards. I know it’s related to the way they learn by rote, but they were brilliant at this game, while I was completely hopeless. They also expressed tremendous excitement when they realised they knew where a pair was.

A touching aspect of this game was when one of them saw I wasn’t doing well, she would slip me some of her pairs. Also, when I left the School, another young girl gave me a satin pink rose for my hair. Such giving from people who have almost nothing was nearly heart-breaking. Curiosity was evident here too: some of them liked to sit next to me in class and gently pinch my skin, as if finding out whether I was the same as them. Yes, personal space is not the same in India; I had thought my body was my own, but I had to adjust that thinking too.

They all loved games, and they played together whenever not in classes. The boys were, naturally, mad about cricket. They also enjoyed playing Scrabble, endlessly thinking up new English words and asking me what they meant! They were so sharing about everything that they would ask for my help with their turn; indeed ‘helping’ was another charming aspect of this group (and has become an almost technical term in my London home). And as they held all the hands of tiles open for everyone to see, very occasionally it seemed like I had put down most of the words on the board.

Humour was another attractive trait, and laughter was heard all round the school. It was also brilliantly used in the kuttu. Although the stories were about deities, in the drama the link between these characters and us mere mortals was a clown or buffoon (pronounced pupoon). This school had a pair of clowns, playing together and off each other wonderfully, delighting in the absurd, and doing slapstick stunts that made me grin from ear to ear, along with all the audience.

As universal reference points, the Indian epic stories were part of their daily lives, perhaps even more than the Bible stories are for westerners. The Mahabharata characters were not just familiar, but real to them. Also, they didn’t just like the goodie-goodies; for example, they thought Rama, hero of the Ramayana, a bit boring (whiter than white), whereas the 10-headed demon king Ravana (who’d kidnapped Rama’s wife Sita) was more popular. The 10 heads were another delightful example of different ideas. In the film Amadeus, Mozart wishes for three heads to wear all the different wigs he liked – he didn’t know the half of it!

Their respect for these characters was similar to their respect for their elders. Rajagopal’s classes always received complete attention, as the children were so absorbed in what he was telling them. When I occasionally had trouble with a student playing up in class, I sometimes said “shall we go and talk with Rajagopal?” There would be no further problems with them that day.

As well as the exuberance of the children doing the kuttu, both the dancing and the clothes were quite wonderful. Because originally done by fire-torch light (no electricity), the costumes were mostly bright red, and the deities wore huge ornamental head-dresses. Amazingly, under these cumbersome crowns, they did the most fabulous pirouettes – like whirling dervishes. With the sense of commitment I’ve spoken of, I was always impressed with their performances. They coped with problems that I, as a western performer, would have got upset about. One performance was interrupted by speeches from a pompous politician (the sponsor). The kids were real pros, completely unfazed, and simply continued when he’d finished.

As you can imagine, I was quite inspired by all these qualities. I’ve not volunteered like this before and I discovered the value of giving in a new way. It’s completely reciprocal: you both give and receive; everybody benefits. After six months there, the effect on me was to come home full of their enthusiasm. I haven’t felt so positive about the world in years. They’ve even given me new directions in life: I’ve done a proper training in teaching English to foreigners, so I could teach immigrants here. I’m starting a new fund for women composers; and maybe I’ll go off on another amazing Asian adventure.


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