Acharya Ratna vidushi Rajam Shanker combines her love for science and Carnatic classical music in her music therapy. She is a Sangeeta Alankara with distinction from Akhil Bharatiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, the National Music University. She also hold a master’s degree in Vedic Astrology, which she employs as a medical diagnostic tool.
For the last two plus decades she has helped treat clients for a variety of concerns from mood management to mental and developmental disabilities through Indian classical ragas from Carnatic music. She has authored “The Healing Powers of Indian Ragas” which provides lucid details on the practice of her craft. Another book with more Ragas is underway. In this interview she talks about her journey as a music therapist.
What inspired you to become a Music Therapist, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
I was initiated into the practice of Indian traditional music therapy in 1996 by my mentor and Guru, Sangeetha Mahamahopadhyaya late Sri Kollegal R Subramanyam, the eminent Vaggeyakara, lyricist, musician and musicologist. Before this I was an instructor, moderator and music examiner for senior level assessments, tutoring students between the ages of 5 and 65, for more than four decades
Over the years I have associated with individuals and institutions in Hyderabad, Chennai,Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi dealing specifically with Autism and related developmental disabilities in children and adults, Healing, and Curative Education. I have collaborated with medical and rehabilitation professionals in the employment of Indian Classical Music in Music Therapy, and this work has shown perceivably positive, and clinically validated results in treating children and adults over a range of medical and developmental disabilities. Therapists from other disciplines, both India and overseas, have shown keen interest in my group intervention techniques and client specific interventions.
Currently I enjoy working with senior citizens through group classes and individual sessions of bhajans and semi classical songs. It is my endeavour to encourage them to pursue this art with zeal and enjoyment.
I also enjoy mentoring senior students of Classical Indian music in their pursuits of understanding and practicing my art of music therapy and intervention.
For freshers and newly interested persons, I do have sessions for simply understanding the vibrations in our body and understanding of how music therapy works.
My work in music therapy has received critical and popular acclaim in both the print and visual media. Over the last 10 years I have participated in multiple conferences, in India and abroad, made workshop presentations and also featured in various media- print, radio and television. This year during the lockdown actively engaged in a variety of online interactions with daily session on various forums across the country and abroad. Am comfortable in English, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. I live in Hyderabad, India, amidst a lush green garden and serene landscape.
How do you assess the needs of your clients and create individualized music therapy plans for them?
Music Therapy prescription must desirably emanate from the clients’ treatment team which can include doctors, psychologists, teachers, caseworkers and in the case of children with disabilities, their parents. Based on an imperative preliminary evaluation and detailed analysis of the inputs and data provided, interaction with the individual client and the degree and capabilities of the support system(s) available, Music Therapy sessions are carefully structured. In a nursing and rehabilitation environment, the prescriptions also demand a variety of modulations and calibrated delivery.
“The advantage of multi-disciplinary collaboration is that it provides for systematic evaluation and clinical validation of visible and perceptible changes observed. Each client’s degree and extent of disabilities is distinctly individual which a detailed preliminary evaluation of a number of diagnostic tools and inputs establishes. Consequently, Music Therapy protocols deployed is client specific, calibrated, monitored, modified and continuously evaluated.”
It must be emphasized that no time frame can be prescribed to perceive positive results. Regular, systematic and dedicated sessions will establish noticeable changes in approximately a ten-to-twelve-week period. Sessions are carefully planned, executed and evaluated based on the specific needs of each client. Evaluation of progress in the designated goal areas is completed on a regular basis.
Can you describe a specific case where music therapy had a significant impact on a client’s well-being or progress?
Over the years there have been numerous individuals who have recovered significantly from their ailments. Recently, I worked with a 74-year-old lady who had become a widow. The late diagnosis of her husband’s cancer causing his demise along with her daughter’s troubled marriage caused depression which manifested itself as a respiratory and physical weakness. She was prescribed steroidal medicines which initially treated her respiratory issues, but later resulted in further deterioration of her mental and physical health which remained undiagnosed and unresolved.
After a few months of joining a group bhajan class her interest in Carnatic music was rekindled. She still struggled with her breath and did not have confidence in her physical ability to cope with daily activities and outings. It took a year’s practice in weekly sessions of bhajans and individualised sessions where I slowly introduced her to some tougher ragas. During one of her difficult phases I made her practice a song in Ragam Darbari Kanada, this coupled with walks prescribed by her physician resulted in dramatically improving her mental and physical activities giving her confidence to perform in our club program and also travel by herself to different cities to attend family functions.
Are there regional variations in Indian music therapy practices, and how do you incorporate these variations into your work, if relevant?
It is a fact that all music therapy interventions invariably involve the direct participation
of the patient / client either in a small group or in an individual session. In listening sessions, the patient / client is expected to absorb and react to musical tones or melodies as selected by the music therapist with his or her experience. The listening sessions can revolve around physical, emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, or spiritual aspects of the musical piece. The client is encouraged to frankly respond to music through various activities such as: relaxation or meditation, movements (structured or free), perceptual tasks, free-association, story-telling, imaging, reminiscing, drawing, singing along, playing beats, dancing etc. Music can be live or recorded. Commercial hits which are liked by the clients in various styles (e.g., classical, popular, rock, jazz, country, spiritual, new age) could be a good choice. Often familiar popular tunes, nursery rhymes and simple basic instrumental melodies are used to instill confidence in the patient / client.
One takes into consideration the profile of the client: his or her cultural/ regional background, likes and dislikes in music, tastes and preference s of tunes/ ragas etc before trying a musical piece. The music experience often includes learning how to produce vocal or instrumental sounds, imitating musical phrases or rhythms and beats, vocalizing sounds (not necessarily ‘singing’). Further, the patient/ client is encouraged by the therapist to improvise quite freely, responding spontaneously to the sounds as they emerge. Clients are encouraged to create their own sound portraits, linked to persons, events or situations in the client’s life. In all music therapy sessions, it may be said that clients need not be musicians, nor are they required any previous initiation to / or knowledge of music. Music therapy sessions are designed to take advantage of the innate tendencies in all human beings to react, respond and resonate. The therapist constantly monitors the reactions of the client and calibrates content or delivery as required. No value judgment is involved on the singing or performance by a client, and the client should feel open and free with the music therapist – without any inhibition – so as to derive the best out of the therapeutic sessions.
In your work with doctors do you find them receptive to music therapy?
There is much research in the recent years which have made medical fraternity increasingly receptive to using Music as Therapy.
Music can change brain waves from the beta to the alpha range, enhancing alertness and well-being. David Sobel, a psycho-neuro-immunologist, suspects that at least part of the thrill of music seems to come from the release of endorphins, the powerful opiate-like chemical produced in the brain that induces euphoria and relieves pain. The impact of music on the autonomous nervous system (ANS) which is responsible for regulating a vast array of physiological and metabolic functions in the human body, has become a fertile ground for contemporary researchers. Thanks to the grand strides made in neuro-imaging in recent years, it is now well acknowledged that sedate music reduces the level of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, significantly which results in calming down the limbic system of the brain, which plays a key role in emotion.
Therapists working individually and as part of multi-disciplinary teams including Physicians, Surgeons, Psychologists, Paramedical and Wellness professionals are increasingly consulting Music Therapists in multiple pre and post trauma application environments, for physical, emotional and supplementary aid to medical prescriptions.
Indian classical music is believed to provide pathways to realize the divine, is that the highest form of healing?
Music Therapy has been a time-tested legacy of the Indian social and cultural ethos handed down from our ancient times, what we refer to as the Vedic era. Music Therapy interventions have evolved as a true confluence of art and science, a multidisciplinary collaborative practice employed in both Wellness and Healing. Any primary or supplementary discipline of Music Therapy in the medical, nursing, rehabilitation or rejuvenation environment must provide for calibrated delivery of the intervention tools or medium and evoke a perceivable response. Indian Classical Music, its infinite application variables, its extremely precise and elaborate structure of ragas [scales], swaras [notes], srutis [pitch variations] and talas [beats] and in many cases, its spiritual connect, largely facilitates this requirement of specific design and calibrated delivery and are used as a means of establishing communication with the human body’s main and subsidiary energy centres. The practice is substantially client specific, initiated after a detailed evaluation of multiple diagnostic inputs of root causes of the physical, psychological or developmental disabilities.
There are numerous studies on how music can help children in learning, for behavioural therapy and as an expression of their inner creativity. How do we differentiate this from healing physical ailments?
We primarily use pentatonic scale or Audava ragas for children between the ages of 7 and 14. The music used for intervention is very different from the songs popularly used as part of school curriculums and lessons. In Music therapy these scales are primarily used in two employment modes – Passive (listening) and Active (participating). Passive forms of music therapy may be beneficial in almost all ailments and the active form will be of immense help in neurological problems. Passive and Neutral modes find employment in multiple social, educational, wellness as also regular work environments as both interventional and non-interventional mood management tools.
Nadam is integral to Indian Knowledge Systems. How did our rishis and musicians study its impact on the human body?
Since the Vedic period chanting, Bheeja mantras and music which has a similar base were rendered with utmost care as each intonation, inflection of voice and rhythm was carefully calibrated to be a source of healing and spiritual upliftment. In music therapy through Carnatic music- the seven swaras are connected to the corresponding seven chakras to energise a particular part of the body and achieve harmony and balance.
What is the response to Indian music therapy abroad? How much training is required to be a practitioner?
I share a strong personal opinion, which I have constantly emphasized and have found substantial support at many International Music Therapy conferences I have attended in India and abroad. It is that Music, Classical, Semi-classical, or Folk Indigenous to the Country or Region is the preferred medium for establishing a relationship with a therapy client. Most ancient civilizations, Middle-Eastern, Indian sub-continental, Asian and Oriental have substantial evidence over many centuries of the use of their varied genres of indigenous music as a mood management medium. Musical forms and performances I have witnessed and enjoyed in the countries with ancient civilizations – Egyptian, Middle Eastern, Greek, Turkish, Thai, Chinese, Korean and East European are outstanding examples of the spiritually enriching and holistic traditions which must never be allowed to die or be overshadowed by alien influences. Music rendition and Music Therapy practices have been part of the milieu, familial and social environment of all these civilizations. Teaching, training and assimilation in many of these populations is primarily through the Oral Traditional institution of a Master-Disciple Relationship – Guru-Sishya Parampara in India- is very responsibly practiced and a constantlyevolving, learning experience curve, and given our legacy of generosity , Therapists in the West are showing increasing interest in our Music, Traditions, Practices and Methodologies. Not only in India, but in many countries outside the West, there is an often reluctance and resistance in accepting Alien Institutionalized Music Therapy systems, regulations and practices and the inclination is to develop country specific practices and protocols factoring in social, cultural, lingual, ideological, religious and even political contexts and sensitivities.
In the absence of standardized and institutionalised academic training programmes, practices or protocols, Trained Musicians in India, using Legacy Sounds and Music in Therapy Interventions, are doing so with great self-imposed sense of Ethical and Moral responsibility, factoring in all the contexts and sensitivities.
It is our sincere desire, hope and trust that universally acceptable, yet India Specific Music Therapy Academic Programmes, Practices and Protocols will evolve at the very earliest. Without elaborating further at this point, I submit that Music Therapy Practice, Clinical Evidence, Validation, and Research into the impact and effects of music, on individuals or groups are both, independent and collaborative, not conflicting.
What role do you see Indic playing in your journey?
I have participated in many of your programs and found them insightful and engaging. I would like to showcase Music therapy which is already being practiced unknowingly in our homes but is yet not understood and explored just like the many other mysteries of our wonderful Bhartiya culture.
I hope Indica will join me in my endeavour.