In 2008, musician A.R. Rahman established the K.M. Music Conservatory (KMMC) in Chennai, which runs a scholarship programme called the Sunshine Orchestra, with the objective of offering music education to youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds. Today, the Sunshine Orchestra is a full-fledged ensemble comprising the most talented KMMC musicians who have also performed at various Indian and overseas venues with the maestro himself. Rishita Roy Chowdhury reports.
The musical genius of A.R. Rahman is no secret. He has established himself as one of India’s most original musicians and has won worldwide renown for his songs. In a career spanning some three decades, Rahman has donned many hats—that of a composer, singer-songwriter and music producer. But there’s another aspect to his professional life that isn’t really well-known, but which is nonetheless dear to him: it concerns Rahman’s work as a mentor to young musicians.
In 2008, the musical maestro established, under the A.R. Rahman Foundation, the K.M. Music Conservatory (KMMC) in Chennai, which runs a special project called the Sunshine Orchestra, which provides music education and exposure to underprivileged kids.
A brainchild of Rahman, the project is aimed at identifying, selecting and training youngsters who have a gift for music but are too socially and economically constrained to develop that gift. Rahman wanted to do something for aspiring musicians who, if not for this project, wouldn’t have had access to proper instruments, training or guidance.
Speaking to Guardian 20 about this initiative, Rahman said, “Through my foundation I hope to make it possible for those from less privileged backgrounds to have access to education and opportunities. The Sunshine Orchestra was developed to provide free lessons and instruments to children and empower them with the skills and confidence required to build a career in music. I think it’s important for us to really build platforms for aspiring musicians and artists, to give back to the younger generations now, so that they can provide future generations with the love, hope and harmony that music can bring.”
The project started when Jyoti Nair, head of the preparatory batch at KMMC, brought in 14 sixth-standard students from the Chennai’s MGR Corporation School, for musical training at the foundation. But 14 musicians were not enough for a full symphony orchestra, as was envisioned by Rahman. So Nair enrolled more students in this programme and the Sunshine Orchestra was born.
Till now, more than 140 students have been trained under this project—the eldest being 22 years old, and the youngest, a girl named Priyadarshini who is learning the trombone, six years old. Though it is a scholarship programme meant for the less fortunate, getting selected in the Sunshine Orchestra is no cakewalk. The screening process includes an aptitude test, which is a good yardstick to assess the applicants’ knowledge of music, their grasping capacity and concentration levels. According to the evaluators, these are very important parameters, and anyone who wishes to undergo this sort of training and learn to play a musical instrument has to excel in these areas.
At the KMMC, the students are trained by an experienced faculty, all experts in orchestral music and well-versed with the intricacies of complex instruments like the violin, the cello, the woodwind and the clarinet. The subjects taught here include music theory, Hindustani and Western classical music, and music technology.
What forms the core of the Sunshine Orchestra is the most advanced batch of students at the KMMC, comprising nine exceptionally talented musicians. These are: Vignesh U., Balaji A. and Nandhini A. on violins; Dinesh A. and Ebinezar Gnanaraj E. on violas; Balaji M., Deepa S. and Vaijayanthi R. on cellos; and Anish Franklin on the double bass.
Rahman performs live with these students frequently and sometimes even offers personalised lessons, so that they continue to grow as musicians. “I think it is important to inspire these students to become the leaders of tomorrow and enrich their lives, and the lives of others, through music,” Rahman said.
By now, these students have performed several shows with Rahman, both in India and overseas, including at prestigious venues like the United Nations Headquarters in New York and the Petronas Philharmonic Concert Hall in Malaysia etc. The Sunshine Orchestra also features on several of Rahman’s film score recordings.
The Sunshine Orchestra’s conductor is Srinivasa Murthy, a violinist of more than 40 years’ standing, who has worked with many eminent composers and producers in his career. He first joined Rahman’s team of musicians in 1991, and took up the responsibility of imparting music training to the Sunshine Orchestra kids in 2012.
For Murthy, working as a conductor for the Sunshine Orchestra is “a never-ending challenge”. He said, “Children are children, but circumstances at home can make a big difference. Having worked with underprivileged children for many years, I have learned that it can lead to a dead end if you don’t earn their trust. Doing that took a little time. About a year. But in the end, there was some light.”
Many of the Sunshine Orchestra’s accomplishments can be credited to Murthy, and he is justly proud of the work he has been doing with the kids. “All my Sunshine kids were first-generation musicians and were used to local music more than Western classical. Teaching them was a big task, something which challenged my patience and perseverance. I am glad that in the end it all paid off. Receptiveness was there. They had broken the barrier and come out of their shells. After seven years of taking up this assignment, my kids can now play Indian and Western music alike, alongside folk, Bollywood and jazz.”
Vignesh U., one of the violinists in this ensemble, shared his thoughts on performing in various countries, at large venues, with one of the biggest stars in world music. “It has been an awesome experience. We were really scared and nervous while performing at the United Nations but nothing beats the feeling of playing at such large venues. Experiencing the grand manner in which sound and music flow gave us the confidence to play even better,” he said.
It’s easy to overcome stage fright, but there are no shortcuts for musicians who want to become great performers. The enterprise demands serious discipline, as well as hours and hours of painstaking practice every day. The daily practice schedule of the orchestra is systematically designed—starting from music theory to hands-on performances.
Since most students here are still of a school-going age, the practice sessions take place before and after regular school hours. (The young musicians have the option of becoming fulltime members of the orchestra after completing their education.) During performance season, when the Sunshine Orchestra is touring, the rehearsals become more rigorous and concert-oriented. The group usually tries to go through a dry run of the entire performance a day before the scheduled show.
Deepa S., the Sunshine Orchestra’s cellist, talked to us about her passion for music and how Rahman’s project has made a difference in her life. “I have always had an inclination towards music. Even as a child I felt drawn to it and was always interested in listening to different kinds of music. Over time my interest developed, and I got the opportunity to learn from the best. I am proud to say that now, music is my life.”
Nandhini A., another violinist, found that music was her real calling only after she got an opportunity to join the Sunshine Orchestra. She said, “I barely had any knowledge of music prior to joining the Sunshine Orchestra. Earlier, it was just a part of life. Now, music has become my life, my passion and my career.”
Similarly, Vaijayanthi, the cellist, believes that the Sunshine Orchestra has played a transformative role in her life. “I am not from a musical background,” she said. “But after a point, I realised how music has the power to transform and connect people. And now, I have started enjoying music and playing the cello. I consider being a part of this orchestra as a great blessing. Rahman Sir is the greatest source of inspiration for all of us. To have the opportunity to play at his concerts, and in his movies, is nothing short of a dream-come-true.”
The KMMC faculty is drawn from around the world, with specialists in musical performance, musical theory and analysis, music history and music technology on staff. For instance, Lisa Sarasini is an English trombonist who serves as Brass Director here and has performed with many professional orchestras, brass bands, and chamber music groups throughout her career. P. Mohan Rao, who teaches violin to junior batches, is a violinist and viola player who has worked in the film industry for the major part of his 30-year career. P. Bhaskar, a violinist of the eighth grade from the Trinity Guild Hall, London, is the violin, viola and music theory teacher here. John Gayen, a cellist since 1980, has been a junior section cello teacher for ten years at KMMC and has worked as a cine musician for almost 30 years.
Today, the Sunshine Orchestra has made a name for itself, thanks to the KMMC faculty. The project is also being supported by members of entertainment industry and the corporate world. The audio gear brand Harman India has been associated with Rahman’s foundation for the last five years. They also fund the JBL Sound Scholarship at KMMC.
Pradeep Chaudhry, Country Manager, Harman India, said, “We believe in the power of music to inspire each of us to realise our possibilities. 2019 marks our fifth consecutive year of associating with the Sunshine Orchestra project in India, designed to impart free music education to talented children from less privileged backgrounds. Through this association, we aim to empower the next-generation to realise their potential through the power of music, technology and community service.”
The Sunshine Orchestra project started on a small scale but with big dreams. They aim to train more students in the coming years. And for his part, Rahman aims to stay committed to it. He said, “It is heart-warming for me to see these students develop and grow as artists, and to nurture their futures by supporting them is very fulfilling.”