Finding Harmony in Chennai and Delhi

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Finding Harmony in Chennai and Delhi

Sambhavi Mathiyazhagan, NalandaWay Foundation, Chennai


The NalandaWay Children’s Choir at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., ready for their first international performance. Photo: NalandaWay Foundation.

In India’s most disadvantaged communities, musicianship is not always encouraged. Domestic violence is not uncommon in some homes; in others, girls are not allowed to sing due to household chores. Some families simply don’t like their children singing. And yet many of these very same communities have produced the members of the NalandaWay Foundation’s Children’s Choir—proof that those “disadvantages” are often the only thing standing in the way of musical achievement.

Based in India, the NalandaWay Foundation focuses on the education and holistic development of underprivileged children through arts. Since its inception in 2005, the NalandaWay Foundation has impacted the lives of over 50 million children using the power of visual and performing arts. The NalandaWay Children’s Choir was launched in the city of Chennai in 2015 before later expanding to Delhi, the capital city, in 2018. In welcoming children with disabilities and children from less-fortunate socioeconomic backgrounds, the two choirs represent a rich world of enthusiastic aspiring singers.

In order to find these young talents from diverse backgrounds, the NalandaWay music team conducts auditions across several government and government-aided schools, children’s homes, and orphanages in Chennai and Delhi. The main criteria for selection is a child’s excitement and keenness to learn; their musical abilities are secondary. After a preliminary round of auditions, selected children advance to the second round, where they are tested based on their ability to sing in harmony with the group. Prior to joining the choir, none of the children have had any formal musical training.

The NalandaWay Children’s Choirs aim to respect every person and embrace every community. And the choir does just that by providing children from different communities with a safe and inclusive space to come together and sing, without any judgement or other inhibitions. These children come from some of the poorest parts of Chennai and Delhi. They are marginalized because they live in poverty, belong to a lower caste or a religious minority, or live with physical or learning disabilities. But when they walk into choir class, these differences do not mean anything. Music unites them. The children are taught to look at music as just that—music—without any baggage of identity.

“I for India” virtual fundraising concert. Photo: NalandaWay Foundation.

Every week, the children are trained by professional musicians, who act as music facilitators and introduce them to songs from different cultures and languages. The facilitators consciously pick from a repertoire of child-appropriate Indian classical and folk songs that have a unique message about nature or humanity, among other themes relevant to their daily lives. Through these songs, the children learn about rhythm, harmony, pitch, tempo, and other musical concepts. The children also listen to guest lectures by renowned musicians and experts to deepen their understanding and knowledge of music.

Both the Chennai Children’s Choir and the Delhi Children’s Choir have performed widely, alongside many celebrated musicians and across well-known venues. One of their most notable performances was the “I for India” online concert in 2020—India’s biggest fundraising concert for COVID-19, where they shared the (virtual) stage with some of the biggest names in music and cinema, from Bollywood to Hollywood. The concert reached a whopping several million people worldwide. Another significant milestone was when the children performed at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for the Serenade Choral Festival in 2018. The children cherish this experience even more because it was their first time performing in and traveling to another country.

Participating in the choirs has deepened both the children’s sense of community and their regard for different cultures. But there’s more to it than that: being a part of the choir has boosted their confidence levels significantly, and this confidence extends into the rest of their lives—education, relationships, expressing themselves, overcoming obstacles. Best of all, they bond. For the children, attending choir rehearsal is as natural as spending quality time with friends. The result is a special sort of harmony.

Samaya (17 years old) is a visually impaired child who has been in choir since 2015. She finds the choir classes very relaxing and energizing. Since joining the choir, she says that she is able to face many health issues better.

Jai (17) comes from a fisherman community in Chennai. Joining the choir has improved his Tamil language skills and has influenced his academic performance as well.

After joining the choir, Darshini (16) was the last child to open her mouth. Today, she is not only our lead singer but also handles peer learning sessions. She has come a long way from having no exposure to musical training, and now feels very confident about her singing.

During the pandemic, online choir classes gave the children a space to relax and breathe amid the difficulties they were facing at home. But while many looked forward to seeing their friends online, the classes did not work for everyone. Some kids were not learning in an encouraging atmosphere; some were too shy to sing in front of their families; some faced technological difficulties; and some had to work to pay for their school fees instead. Students terribly missed the sounds of being together, and teachers struggled to keep the spirit of the choir alive.

In the end, the choir survived because of music. That’s the beauty of choir: it taps into music’s transformative powers to help children emerge as more confident, more hopeful, and more prepared to make change.

View performances by the Chennai Children’s Choir and Delhi Children’s Choir on YouTube.


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