Aishwarya sits engrossed in her music lessons, as she repeats the bhajan verses being sung by her teacher Lakshmi Mohan. Guha sits beside his classmate, enthusiastically rendering the verses, following the beat of the cymbals. Shreyas, an eight-year-old, looks blasé as he settles down in a corner, while Varun, who is around the same age, intermittently, recites the verses, along with his teacher and friends.
The description could seem like a typical setting of a normal musical class. However, in the case above, the class in progress comprises those with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), an umbrella term for conditions characterised by cognitive delays, social deficits and communication difficulties.
Lakshmi Mohan a writer and trained singer, has been training children and adults with autism for more than a decade now. Using bhajans as means for both verbal and non-verbal children, Mohan’s classes cover various age groups. She explains, “Nine out of 10 persons with autism are musically talented. But, most often due to the lack of patience, their musical side remains untapped.”
She adds that she employs bhajan as a technique as they are short and involve repetitions that help them in both concentration and coordination. “Words like hara hara and jaya jaya when repeated helps them focus. Bhajans are easier for them to memorise, as a result they learn them faster, when compared to other forms of music,” she adds.
Mohan’s experiment with music among autistic children began, after a moment of epiphany. Mohan realised that the music potential had remained untapped because of the lack of will to work with them. Later, after an extensive research on autism and the impact of music, Mohan started engaging autistic children with bhajan sessions.
Today, in association with the Lotus Foundation, where she conducts music lessons for children with ASD and music therapy sessions at her home in R A Puram, Mohan trains close to 50 people.
She says, “Over a period of time, there are visible changes in their behaviour. The children undergoing music sessions had problems with concentration. They initially found it difficult to sit still even for a few minutes and listen to the bhajans. But, today they are able to recite bhajans with ease. Some of them are gifted with a melodious voice.”
The most profound impact of music can be seen among non-verbal children. “They may not be able to utter a single word. But, with bhajan sessions they are able to sing clearly and with ease,” she adds.
There are a few ragas that are especially good for people with ASD. Mohan says, “The raga behaag has a soothing effect on them. But at the same time, songs that are fast-paced aren’t suited for them. But, later with time, as they gradually settle down well with music, they are introduced to them with care.”
So far, a few of the musically gifted children have come up with two collections of songs sung by them. These include Heaven Unplugged and Listen to My Heart. The songs composed by Mohan and rendered by her students Mukund, Aravind, Gokul and Chinmay are testimonies to the effect music can have on people with ASD. Her atstudents are enouraged by Bhaktaswara Bhajan Mandali, a city-based bhajan group that gives them a slot to perform in their programmes.
Mohan says that bhajans alone are adequate for working with autistic children. “The method bears results that vary with individuals, as the impact is personal and takes time depending on the person,” she says, citing examples among her students in her class. She adds, “It is proven that music and yoga facilitate mind and body coordination. That is why music works well in autistic people. There are innumerable positive changes that music can bring. Working with every child is a revelation.”