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Healing through music: In conversation with music therapist Rajam Shanker

It is said that when the legendary musician Tansen sang, the rains descended upon the Earth. Music has always been integral to Indian culture and heritage. In ancient times, it was considered an instrument to connect with the inner self and tap into a higher level of consciousness. However, the power of music is not just limited to its enchanting effects. For centuries, people have used music therapy to cure diseases and provide a new lease of life to people.

Rajam Shanker, an Indian Classical Music Therapist, gladly attests to this. Shanker, who uses the ancient practice of Nada Anusandhana to heal several medical conditions, associated with Carnatic classical music early on in life. Although it was only much later that she discovered her uncanny ability to connect with ragas, before she decided to use her knowledge and expertise as a healing tool. It would be apt to say this music therapist has touched and changed many lives.

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, she shares all about music therapy and its growing prominence all over the world.

Can you tell us about your journey from Carnatic classical music to music therapy?

When I was a student of Carnatic music, I would often experience a unique phenomenon, where I felt the notes of certain ragas touching me from within. I could feel the music altering me. But at that time, I was too young to understand what was happening or to question those strange occurrences. It was only much later, upon discussing this with my Guru, that I was first introduced to the healing power of music. He used to say, “Everyone is receptive to the healing qualities of music, but only a few people can recognise it and wield its power. You are one of them.” Since then, there has been no looking back because I knew my purpose was already laid out in front of me. It was under his guidance and encouragement that I decided to pursue a career in music therapy.

How does music therapy work?

Let me give you an example. When you’re at a party, you’d most certainly want to listen to upbeat music, which elevates your mood. In this case, the kind of music you choose would act as a mood enhancer and your emotions will immediately fall in sync with it. Now when we use music as a therapeutic tool, the core process is more or less the same, wherein we use music that easily synchronises with what the body or the mind is experiencing.

Before starting with the therapy, it is important to ask the client where they want the healing to take place. Then, we try and understand what their body and emotions are longing to connect with. You see, every emotion needs something to connect with, which can help it flow more easily, and music helps to do just that. Musical notes transcend the body and provide a healing touch to where it’s hurting.

Which genres of music does music therapy have success with?

Almost all genres of music can be used for music therapy. It is purely client-specific and is applied according to the client’s preference. For example, if someone is a follower of Sufi or Indian folk music, do you think their body will respond to classical ragas? It won’t, despite its therapeutic nature. Similarly, Beethoven’s classical music is widely used as a therapeutic tool in western countries. In music therapy, it is very important to understand the comfort level of a client with a particular music genre. Not just this, I also have clients who don’t particularly connect with any genre of music. In such cases, I use resonance and vibration as healing tools.

Carnatic music is known to help cope with developmental and neurological problems. Can you tell us about it?

Any form of music, when used appropriately, can have a direct impact on neurological issues and disorders. The science behind this is simple. Music produces waves, and its frequencies pass through the nervous system and travel to the brain. When we work with patients with neurological disorders, we use music to activate a particular set of nerves in the body. Sometimes, these inactivated nerves are what cause the disorders and also come in the way of the body’s development. When we perform music therapy on patients, there are a lot of things to be taken care of, like the pitch of the music, its volume, and the method to be used—vocal or instrumental. We also need to make sure there is no conflict between the nervous system and the music used for the therapy. For example, I can’t use similar music to heal a patient who has suffered a stroke and an autistic individual.

You have used Carnatic music to treat autism, learning, and neurological disabilities. Can you share an experience that has impacted you as a therapist?

There are many such experiences, but let me tell you about one such case which left me with a deep sense of gratitude. There was a 17-year-old boy who had come to me for treatment. He couldn’t speak, he refused to make eye contact with people and lived in a world of his own. What was worse that he didn’t know how to use the restroom. This was a grave concern for his mother since he often ended up relieving himself by the time he could be rushed to the restroom.

I immediately knew I had to work with his lower body first. During our initial sessions, he would avoid even looking at me. But all the while, I kept singing to him, and in the next six to seven sittings, he had slowly started building eye contact with me. After regular music therapy sessions, he finally began to use gestures to indicate his need to use the restroom. Gradually, over time, he started socialising and warming up to people. The best thing was that by the end of his therapy, not only had he started making an effort to communicate verbally, but he also began to smile, something which was completely absent before.

The benefits of music on the mind and the mood of a person are proven and gaining popularity. Despite this, why is music therapy not yet a part of mainstream therapies?

Today, I can confidently say that music therapy has started to gain popularity and credibility as an alternate therapy because medical professionals have begun to consider music as a therapeutic medium. In fact, music therapy is already in use and quite popular in other countries, where most hospitals and care centres have a separate department for the same. Even in India, it is gradually being used now as a healing tool, for instance in orthopaedics where music is used for pain relief. So yes, a lot of health institutions are now opening their doors to this form of therapy.

Tell us about your book The Healing Power of Indian Ragas. What was your motivation to write it?

My students were my biggest motivating factor, and also the realisation that I wouldn’t be able to create as much awareness as I want without the help of a medium to spread the knowledge. This is when I decided to compile all the values and methods of music therapy, both old and new, in the form of a book. My decision to write this book was also a way of preserving snippets of knowledge and wisdom passed down to us through generations, which I feared would’ve otherwise gotten lost and forgotten with time. You see, the world has begun to look at India for its ancient and traditional methods, and we should not allow those to disappear.

What are your goals and hope for the future of music therapy?

What I really hope is for the future of music therapy to be bright, and for people to start understanding its value and significance. You know, most people who have undergone this form of therapy already realise its benefits. But I want this awareness to spread as far and wide as possible, and for people to start reaping the benefits of music in their day-to-day lives. Let’s not forget that music is easily available and accessible to all, and given the kind of lifestyles we lead today, almost every person suffers from stress and mental exhaustion. So why not use the therapeutic values of music for healing?

  • Vidushi Rajam Shanker is an independent practitioner of Indian Classical Music Therapy, a researcher and instructor for over twenty years associated with interdisciplinary medical and rehabilitation professionals employing music therapy interventions in Wellness, Healing and Curative Education for children and adults with developmental disabilities. She also has a Masters in Vedic Astrology and researches its employment as a medical evaluation and diagnostic tool. She has conducted workshops at a number of Music Therapy seminars and conferences, both in India and abroad. Her book The Healing Power of Indian Ragas is now into its second print edition.

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