TOPICS > Arts

Fighting Poverty with Violins

December 14, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It’s 7:30 AM, and the kids are off to school in Kalimpong in the Himalayan foothills. Like elsewhere in India, schools are mostly for the middle and upper classes.

Many were started by Christian missionaries back in British times, when this area became a refuge from sweltering cities like Calcutta. A couple miles downhill is the newest missionary school, named not after a patron saint, but the father of modern India.

At Gandhi Ashram, it is the first day of a new school year. Father Thomas Edward McGuire, a Jesuit priest, is choosing his newest kindergarten.

FATHER THOMAS EDWARD McGUIRE: (Speaking in Nepali)

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Gathered around him are dozens of anxious parents whose kids could never get into another school. A lucky 25 or so will get in.

FATHER THOMAS EDWARD McGUIRE: (Speaking in Nepali)

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: McGuire is looking in particular for the name Biswa Karma, a name shared by people on the lowest rung of India’s caste system.

FATHER THOMAS EDWARD McGUIRE: We’re trying to pick the poorest we can find.

If someone comes and tells me, “my name is something, Biswa Karma,” then they’ve made 80 percent on our entrance tests that we have here, you see?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Admission is most immediately a meal ticket.

FATHER THOMAS EDWARD McGUIRE: Between the nutrella and the vegetables they get in the curry here, it’s a rather well- balanced meal– plain, but very nutritious.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: This is something they would not get in their own homes normally?

FATHER THOMAS EDWARD McGUIRE: That is certain, yes. You’ll see, after they finish the meal here, how they’ll start running around, sort of giving other witnesses to the presence of a nutritious meal.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: There’s not much equipment or playground to run around on, but instead of cricket bats, every child here, almost from day one, is provided a violin.

TEACHER: …Three, four… one, two, three, four…

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Most have never heard the instrument, certainly not playing western music. But listen to the next class.

They are three to five years along, but seem light years ahead.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: What made you think up this whole idea of teaching these kids violin and western music?

FATHER THOMAS EDWARD McGUIRE: Well, I suppose, first of all, because I like it myself very much. I don’t play.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Father McGuire came here 50 years ago from Canada to teach in the prestigious Jesuit schools, but McGuire also worked the streets, trying to bring into the schools children of people he called coolies, or laborers.

Because their children were more likely to be academically behind, McGuire began looking for activities at which they could excel.

One day he asked a visiting violinist from the Calcutta Symphony to play for his street kids.

FATHER THOMAS EDWARD McGUIRE: And I told him before he came, they might giggle or laugh or that sort of thing. And he said, “Fine, I’ll be ready for that.”

He played for well over an hour, and it was just rapt attention. So then I thought maybe they might take an interest in this kind of music.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: When he started his own school in the early ’90s, with money from Indian, German, and Canadian donors, McGuire hired some of the Coolie children he’d adopted years before to be teachers, including music director Rudramani Biswa Karma. (Violins playing)

FATHER THOMAS EDWARD McGUIRE: Rudramani was a boy who had, as we proved later, extraordinary ability in music, native ability.

Now, I first met Rudramani on the streets of Darjeeling when he was seven or eight years old. And he was just a coolie. He was earning his own livelihood.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Under McGuire’s tutelage, he went on to get a college degree, and, remarkably, just in the past two years, hearing aids to correct a severe impairment he’d endured since childhood.

Rudramani says few words. His passion and eloquence are more evident in the music he plays, teaches, and arranges, everything from Mozart to movie scores to Nepali folk songs.

FATHER THOMAS EDWARD McGUIRE: I would bet you that 95 percent of the children I have here have never owned a toy. All these children can do is sit around and play Mozart. Lucky kids. They can’t go and listen to “boom, boom, boom” or “rrrr, rrrr” on the TV.

TEACHER: (Speaking Nepali)

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Meet Kushmita Biswa Karma. Her parents labor on farmland in exchange for food and space for their tin-roofed home.

NARMAYA BISWA KARMA (Translated): We’re happy, very happy.

BALBADHUR BISWA KARMA (Translated): We’re happy to see them go to study, because we, of course, did not have a chance to study. Now they are able to get an education. They can have a better life than we did.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For Kushmita and about 30 older students, McGuire has gotten scholarships to attend the so-called mainstream schools.

FATHER THOMAS EDWARD McGUIRE: So we’ll have to go and get measured for the school uniform.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It’s a big break, but it’s also a social challenge to fit in. That’s where their violins fit in, providing a boost in self- confidence. ( Violins playing )

KUSHMITA BISWA KARMA: I used to play violin. I used to play solo songs, like Hindi, Nepali songs. And they all used to love me playing violin. I had friends. Many friends I had in the convent.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So you had many friends in the convent school because you were able to play violin?

KUSHMITA BISWA KARMA: And I was good, also.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And you were good also?

KUSHMITA BISWA KARMA: Yes.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She’s good at the violin– so good she was pulled out of school to be tutored by a visiting German music teacher in hopes of attending one of Germany’s most prestigious conservatories.

KUSHMITA BISWA KARMA: Before, I didn’t know, like, the rules and the way… how we should play violin.

She taught me how I should hold my bows and how should I cast the violin.

I want to come back to Kalimpong because my parents are here. I was born here. I studied in Gandhi Ashram School in Kalimpong.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Would you like to be a teacher in Kalimpong someday, teach music at Gandhi Ashram?

KUSHMITA BISWA KARMA: Yes.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: You belong to this Society of Jesus. Where is Jesus in this Hindu- majority school?

FATHER THOMAS EDWARD McGUIRE: Well, my Christianity, as lived here, is trying to get breakfast for those kids in the morning. Go out and develop your talents.

God created you for a purpose. God has a purpose in mind for you in this world today. What is it? You find out. (Violins playing)

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He says few of these kids would likely want to make a career as musicians, but music has been their ticket to an education, and a ticket out of generational poverty. (Applause)