I learnt an important life lesson when I was 18. I was in India for two months, and it was my very first travel experience completely by myself. I took an interest in India in my early teens, and when everyone was busy studying for the university entrance exams in the last semester of high school, I decided to go there.
There was one thing I wanted to do…
One of the reasons I wanted to go to India was that I liked Indian classical music (especially south Indian). I wanted to go to live concerts in India. But I was thinking of taking things a bit further; what if I check out music schools too? The way Indian people learn classical music seemed very interesting.
So before I went to India, I made a short list of music schools I might be able to visit. There wasn’t much information I could find but I could at least get a few addresses. Thank God there was already the Internet, although Google Maps hadn’t been invented yet.
The school I wanted to visit was in Chenneai, a big city on the south east coast. A few days after I arrived there (where I had my 18th birthday), I decided to try a music school I looked up online. It was Friday and I assumed that the school was open.
I had to take trains to get there from where I was staying. Since the place wasn’t on the map I photocopied from a guide book, I had to buy a proper map in a local bookshop to locate the school. One good thing was that I wasn’t bad at reading maps. Without one, I was (and I still am) pretty clueless and I would end up in some random, unexpected place, but as long as I had the map, I could find my way around. I love the feeling when I find places I’ve never been to, just by reading maps. That’s probably why I enjoy travelling so much.
The school was a bit of a distance from the nearest station, and I was quite happy when I finally found it. However, it didn’t take long before the happiness turned into disappointment; apparently, the place was closed.
My first attempt had ended in failure.
I wasn’t giving up. Visiting the music school was important to me. There was no way I would go back to my country without taking a peek at Indian musical education.
I went back to the place the following Monday, three days later. I didn’t think that it would be open on Saturday and Sunday. I didn’t actually know when it would be open. All the information I had was the name of the school and the address. But I had the impression that the place was still operating.
And I was right. When I got there, I found the gate open.
As I tried to go through the gate, I noticed that there was a guard. I spoke to him to get the permission to enter.
“Excuse me, can I visit the school?” I said.
“Why?” said the guard.
“I am interested in south Indian music and I want to see the classes.”
“Well, you have to talk to the head-mistress.”
“Can I see her?”
“No, she’s not here today.”
“Then, when will she be back?”
“Tomorrow. Come again tomorrow.”
I nodded and left the place. I was getting closer.
When I got there on the following day, the same guard was there and he took me to the headmistress’s office. She was a (good-looking) Indian lady dressed in traditional clothes. When I entered the room, she calmly asked me why I was there.
“I came here because I am interested in south Indian music, and I wonder if I could see some of the classes in this school.”
“What kind of class are you interested in?” she asked.
“I’m interested in vocal classes.” I answered, hopefully.
“And why should I let you see my classes?” she challenged me.
I was slightly taken aback. Interestingly, it hadn’t occurred to me that she had absolutely no reason to let me visit her school. In fact, I could have already been kicked out by the guard. I was just a random – very random – Eastern Asian guy wandering into some remote music college in South India. I don’t think that was something that would happen everyday. I could have been some sort of bad person.
“I am just asking your favour…” I answered, rather weakly.
She reflected for a few seconds.
“OK then, I’ll let you do it,” she smiled.
The power of asking
It didn’t occur to me until much later in my life, but not everybody does the kind of thing I did. In fact, I wouldn’t have done it either if it had been in my own country. It might have been the unusualness of travelling in a foreign country and the passion for music that made me bolder than usual.
But, come to think about it, even if she had no obligation to let me visit her class, there was absolutely no reason why I couldn’t ask her a favour. And it actually worked. People are generally kind. You will never know what you can get just by asking.
Bonus 1 – the classroom
I think that what I saw in the classroom is worth sharing.
When I entered the classroom, my heart filled with joy; it was exactly the kind of scene I was expecting to see.
The teacher – the word ‘guru’ would be more suitable to describe him – was sitting at the back of the room, and about a dozen students were sitting around him. There were no chairs or tables in the room. All of the people were sitting on the floor, as traditional Indian musicians do. It looked more like a yoga class than a (Western) music class.
When the teacher sang a short passage, the students would follow. Sometimes the teacher did it slowly for the students, but it seemed like the students already knew the song fairly well. South Indian music is very complex to sing and I was impressed by how well the students managed the song. They turned out to be in their second year.
The teacher didn’t speak English but many of the students did, so I could communicate with them. Everyone was very friendly and curious to know who I was. I even exchanged e-mail addresses with one of them.
Bonus 2 – south Indian classical music
If you are not familiar with classical South Indian music (and I assume that most of you are not) this video will give you an idea. I know that it’s not exactly the kind of music a teenage boy will get crazy about. You can easily imagine how hard it was for me to share my taste in music with my peers in high school.