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This school in India proves music can change lives

In a remote Himalayan community in India, admission to a school set up by a Canadian Jesuit priest meant more than a meal ticket for the children on the lowest rung of the traditional social hierarchy; each student was also given a violin. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro returns for an update on the school, and one student who has gone on to a life that might have seemed unfathomable.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, hitting the right note.

    Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro returns to a remote Himalayan community in India for a story of promise and success.

  • Rev. Paul D’Souza:

    Good morning, everyone.

  • Students:

    Good morning.

  • Rev. Paul D’Souza:

    Today, we have a very special guest. She's not really a guest. She's one of our own, Kushmita.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: Kushmita Biswakarma came home to her alma mater one recent morning, an unlikely journey from an unusual school that we first visited 14 years ago.

    It was early in early 2004, just as the school's founder, Canadian Jesuit priest Ed McGuire, was choosing his next kindergarten class, screening a crowd of 5-year-olds. Most of their anxious parents had never set foot in a school.

    Father McGuire was looking in particular for the last name Biswakarma, as in Kushmita Biswakarma, which is common among people on the lowest rung of the traditional social hierarchy.

  • Rev. Ed McGuire:

    We're trying to pick the poorest we can find. If someone comes and tells me, "My name is Biswakarma," then they've met 80 percent of our entrance tests that we have here.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: Admission meant a meal ticket.

  • Rev. Ed McGuire:

    It's a rather well-balanced meal, plain, but very nutritious.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: Good nutrition was essential for learning, Father McGuire said, but good learning to get children to love school would take something more.

    So, every child, almost from day one, was given a violin. Most of the students had never heard the instrument before. But their progress was easy to measure as you went up to higher grades.

  • Rev. Ed 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.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: The luckiest, perhaps, was Kushmita Biswakarma, whom we visited with her parents, sharecropper farmers, living in a tiny tin-roof home.

    Narmaya Biswakarma (through translator): We are happy, very happy.

    Balbadhur Biswakarma (through translator): We, of course, didn't 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: Kushmita was well on her way until the tutelage of a German volunteer teacher. An eighth grader here, she would soon make an unimaginable leap for someone of her background, high school in Germany.

    She lived with the family of her mentor, Margaret Klein (ph).

    Aside from high school, she was also accepted into a prestigious conservatory in Munich, getting a formal music education. She also used her keen ear to rapidly pick up the language, excitedly telling a friend here on home video about how her exams went.

    But, back home, just a few months later in 2005, there was terrible news. Father McGuire, the school's founder, died suddenly of a heart attack. He was 77.

  • Rev. Paul D’Souza:

    He was a much loved person by children, by people here in Kalimpong. It was a big loss for everyone, and more so because it was so untimely. No one expected Father McGuire to go so suddenly.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: That must have been very tough on you.

  • Rev. Paul D’Souza:

    Yes, because, I mean, we had to tell everyone that I am not Father McGuire.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: Father Paul D'Souza says the transition was painful and there was very little money, especially after the school's original building became unsafe following earthquakes in the region.

    Money from German Jesuit organizations built a new and expanding campus. Through it all, Father D'Souza says, the school has tried to be faithful to Father McGuire's mission.

  • Rev. Paul D’Souza:

    Music is used as a medium which is central to all that happens in Gandhi Ashram, to give them the joy, to give them the confidence, and help them focus in life, on their studies.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: You like the violin a lot?

  • Student:

    Yes.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: Father D'Souza says music can start these children dreaming, aspiring to futures their parents could never fathom.

  • Student:

    I would like to become an engineer.

  • Student:

    Army.

  • Student:

    Doctor.

  • Student:

    A teacher.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: However, the poster alum for the school, fittingly, is now a professional musician.

    Kushmita Biswakarma went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in music performance from the University of Nuremberg. She's performed before audiences across Germany and Europe.

    But performing at Gandhi Ashram, her school, is something different, she says.

  • Kushmita Biswakarma:

    I'm sorry.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: The tears brought on by a flood of memories of a profoundly special childhood, she said.

  • Kushmita Biswakarma:

    Takes me back to my days when I entered the school, very new, fresh. I got the violin for the first time in my hand. It reminds me of where I come from. And that keeps me grounded. I feel home.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: Her German education is geared more to a career path in Europe and Western classical music. But that urge to feel grounded and home drove her to return permanently to India two years ago.

    She's worked to expand her repertoire after, trying to establish herself in India's music capital, Mumbai, where the Bollywood film industry is also the main source of popular music.

  • Kushmita Biswakarma:

    I needed to find out myself like where exactly I — at last I belonged to, because it is quite difficult being in the middle of two big cultures like India and Germany. And you have to be you.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: A year ago, she married Tilak K.C., whom she met on a flight to Germany. A native of neighboring Nepal who also grew up poor, he got a scholarship to attend college. He now teaches economics at a private high school in Mumbai and edits videos of his wife's performance.

  • Tilak K.C.:

    It still blows my mind, to be honest, actually what she has done here, because very few people can claim to have started from the point where she did and have achieved this.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: Kushmita's parents still live in the same home, happy, they say, for the future of their three daughters, particularly proud of their oldest.

    Balbadhur Biswakarma (through translator): We were very fortunate to get them into Gandhi Ashram.

    Narmaya Biswakarma (through translator): Kushmita is both like an eldest daughter and eldest son. She's done everything and everything possible for the family.

  • Kushmita Biswakarma:

    I would want to build them house. I would want to buy land for them, because they don't have their own land. And they have been staying in other people's land. And my parents work for those people, and I don't want them to do that anymore.

    Fred de Sam Lazaro: Giving back is part of the culture here, Kushmita says, to family and to the school community, whose pupils are often the first in their family with a real chance to escape generational poverty.

    "Music touches the soul," she told them, and showed them.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Kalimpong, India.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What a wonderful story.

    Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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