Some days ago, there was a torrent of condemnation, led by celebrity cricketers, against parents for pushing children too hard, over a video allegedly of a small child being browbeaten by her mother into learning how to count. Watching the outraged response, I wondered what people would make of the childhoods of my music Ustads.

As anyone familiar with the world of Indian classical music knows, traditionally, the training begins in early childhood, and is gruelling. A typical day’s practice schedule is four hours every morning and evening. One of my Ustads used to tell me how when he was a small boy under his uncle’s training, in the winters, in the bitter morning cold, he would be told to immerse his hand in a bowl of ice and start playing his sitar only once the fingers were frozen stiff. “My uncle would tell me that I have to learn to play in all conditions,” my Ustad would say.

At this time, I was already neck deep in activism protesting the removal of Indian children from their parents abroad by child protection agencies on allegations of harsh parenting. I used to smile listening to my Ustad’s tales, thinking what those censorious child protection authorities would have made of this!

Would any good have been achieved had they intervened? The Dagar family of Dhrupad singers is now in its 40th generation of unbroken artistic achievement of the highest order. Unlike the West, which left artistic genius to chance, and mostly posthumous recognition, our traditional training system produced generation after generation of musical geniuses. Even more important, these Pandits and Ustads are the living repository of our civilisational genius as expressed in our music.

The famous vocalist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi ran away from home as a child in search of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan after hearing him sing on the radio. Once he found his guru, he was undoubtedly put through the traditional test of his commitment to learning—a long period of being ignored, sent to help in the kitchen, and generally waiting on the guru hand and foot, before being initiated into his shagirdi.

In the dour world of child rights, this kind of thing would land the whole family and teacher in jail, and the child in foster care!

It is not only adults that wish to train and discipline children. Some children, like the boyhood Bhimsen, search high and low for someone to teach them. In the Mahabharata, it was the young Eklavya who went looking for a guru.  When he was unable to find one (or, in today’s child-rights thinking, had a lucky escape from child abuse!) he invented an imaginary guru out of mud. We often reflect on the cruelty of Dronacharya in demanding Eklavya’s thumb as gurudakshina. But there is also a tale here of the passion of the child that desires to find his guru, to the point of cutting off his thumb.

If we look for it, there is a twist in every tale—even in the tale of the little girl whose video went viral, whose uncle calls her the laadli of her family, and whose nursery sends back a lot of maths homework. Worse things can happen to a child than parents who want them to do well in school.

On the one hand, the world is engaged on a determined project to deny babies and children the one thing they most desire—the presence of their mothers, who are being taught, scolded and ridiculed into prioritising career over children. On the other hand, we are so particular about someone else’s children, that we go into paroxysms of rage over news of their mother’s slapping them over

The blubbing, disorientation of the little 3-year-old allegedly being chastised by her mother, in the video, is exactly reproduced in home after home every weekday morning by one-, two- and 3-year-olds all over the world, when their mothers leave for work.

But this article is not a tirade against working mothers. Defending the mother of the girl in the video, her music-composer uncle told us how she bounces back within seconds of these frantic outbursts, which is exactly what our little blubbers want to do the minute we have left home for the office.

Melodrama is the stuff of toddlerhood, and no mother can manage her tot without being an ace dramatist herself. Besides, children can be very badly behaved, and mothers have feelings too. It is legitimate to ask whether it is right or necessary to terrorise 3-year-olds over studies. And, though most of the world disagrees with me, it is also legitimate to ask whether mothers who don’t need the income should work. But while these are legitimate questions, they are not the most important questions in the world. What child rights advocates don’t understand is that there is a lot to be said for leaving things to sort themselves out.

There is a tendency to see children as weak, helpless and completely at the mercy of the adult world. That is not quite the case for toddlers pitted against their mothers. Each blubbing session is a negotiation, each angry exchange leaves its mark on the mother. Mothers may come around, decide to give the child a break over homework, or come back home early for that week. Some mothers may eventually take more radical decisions, like changing schools, or work schedules.

The vulnerability of the child is tempered by its parents’ love for it. That is its natural buffer against the mistakes of its parents. If we are truly concerned about child welfare, then we should be encouraging, and not repressing that love. We do children no favours by teaching adults that having children is some kind of second-class choice, and that true fulfilment lies in ambition and achievement.

The natural tendency for parents is to love their children, but if you keep telling them from girlhood up that having children is a form of bondage, then there is going to be a huge affection-deficit for children in the culture. The West tries to compensate with harsh child protection laws. But these have only made things worse for children. Videos of children howling, as child protection workers drag them from their parents to foster homes, are several times more disturbing than the video that went viral.  

This is something we Indians need to bear in mind as a society that is being wooed by UNICEF and Save the Children to adopt the harsh anti-parent beliefs. These organisations want the state to be established as a super-parent, placing every parent under suspicion of abuse, and subjecting every family to monitoring by child protection agencies. This is not a theoretical concern. In their report to the Ministry of Women and Child Development of 2007, recommending the adoption of Western-style child protection for children, these organisations were unequivocal in their condemnation of Indian parents as being authoritarian, sexist and prone to physical discipline. There was not a whisper in their report, from the point of view of the happiness and security of children, of the fact that Indians are still largely family-minded; that the culture still favours marriage as the foundation for raising children; and that despite rapid modernisation we have not adopted the highly atomised and individualistic cultures of some Western societies.

In England, a bill has been introduced in Parliament that makes parents criminally liable for such things as ignoring a child, making it feel unloved, and comparison with siblings. It is popularly called “Cinderella’s Law”. In Scotland, a bill (the “Named Persons Act”) that would appoint a (named) social worker for each child born there (even those with parents), was just about defeated, with the Supreme Court declaring it unconstitutional. The ruling party has sworn to overrule the court, and enact the bill into law. UNICEF and Save the Children are among the leading advocates of these kinds of misconceived measures for children.

There is no defeating an idea whose time has come. And the idea of the present time is that harsh parenting and strict schooling is bad for children. Even my Ustads are so persuaded. When they recount their childhood to me, they end by saying they are raising their children differently. The days of frozen-finger training are long gone. Soft and fluffy childhoods are round the corner for all the little ones. I just wonder whether our musical traditions, along with many other of our age-old treasures, will survive.

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