Music was the best medicine for 60-year-old homemaker Vijayalakshmi Kalathil, whose body had been ravaged by cancer. The brutality of lymphoblastic leukaemia was devastating but she always had a comforting friend by her bed: Chitti Babu’s classical music compositions, that she’d listen to on her old Panasonic tape-recorder, while trapped in a lifeless existence. Kalathil didn’t survive.
Chemo ruined her body, but music salvaged her soul. Its anxiolytic effect was undeniable and her granddaughter Tara Rajendran, a Kerala-based physician and an Indian classical musician, decided to use music as an antidote for suffering.
She is today a leading advocate for the inclusion of music therapy in India’s healthcare infrastructure.
Rajendran launched Oncology & Strings, her first lecture-concert series that promotes instrumental music therapy using the acoustically unique classical instrument, the Veena. Performed in specific ragas to serve as healing modalities for patient care, the audio files are shared with NGOs globally to be used by those recovering from trauma. “Patients undergoing radiation can do with a mood-lifter. Music can save them from depression. Those with neurological conditions find classical music therapeutic too,” says Rajendran, who picked the brains of music therapist-researcher Dr Anthony V D’Amico, the advisory dean of Harvard Medical School, also her mentor.
D’Amico instilled in her the importance of connecting emotionally with patients, something most doctors shy away from. Add to that, her stint as a student at Harvard, Stanford and Cornell made her marvel at the way they ingrained music into their healthcare infrastructure.
“Instrumental music therapy is played passively in the patient waiting areas, chemotherapy rooms and operation theatres. It’s abhorrent how we in India have underused the potential of our massive repertoire of indigenous music,” she rues. The understanding of music therapy is limiting in the country. Just listening to an instrument or singing along, doesn’t account for music therapy.
“We need music for surgeons, anaesthetists and other healthcare staff too. They’re immensely stressed out. Physician burnout is a huge issue, also under-recognised in lower-middle-income countries, including India,” she says.
Moving forward, the Indian healthcare system could work on two aspects specifically, according to this student of music. The current published studies don’t include musical interventions tailored to the Indian subcontinent, according to Rajendran.
“Secondly, the absence of an academic music therapy training curriculum is keeping us from moving ahead,” she says.
Reaching out to medical students, oncologists and pain and palliative care physicians in India with the importance of music in patient care is her primary objective. She urges medical students to work on clinical trials under the guidance of oncologists and create evidence/RCTs using musical interventions suited for the Indian population.
Currently she is also pursuing a PhD from Annamalai University, Chidambaram. Her dissertation focuses on the ‘Evolution of the use of Indian classical music in medicine’.
She needs to put in many hours of study but something that Oprah Winfrey said in her commencement address to Wellesley College in 1997, rings in her head: ‘Create the highest, grandest vision possible for your life because you become what you believe.’ And that’s the anchor that keeps Rajendran afloat.
What is it about music that keeps you going?
It’s the ability to modulate activities of brain structures.
A lesser-known composition everybody must listen to?
A thillana in Raga Kanada set to Roopaka taal: Srikara Karunakara dhara.
A thing people should keep in mind when exploring music therapy?
There is a sharp distinction between music and music therapy interventions.
A misunderstood aspect of your work?
I am often mistaken for a music therapist.