Bollywood music director Shankar Mahadevan has been quietly enhancing countless lives through the Shankar Mahadevan Academy. The Free Press Journal caught up with its Founder and CEO, Sridhar Ranganathan, for an exclusive chat. Excerpts:
How did the idea of SMA Nirvana come to you?
The idea was presented to me in a dream during the early hours of one morning in August 2021. It was during the Covid-19 pandemic. I remember being terribly affected, like many others were, by the huge number of affected people—who suffered mental as well as physical agony. The whole uncertainty over what one could do or could not was stressing the whole world. I wondered what we could do as Shankar Mahadevan Academy to make a difference—apart from making monetary donations. Can SMA lessen the suffering and anxiety of people? I still vividly remember—sleeping with this thought running in my mind, I woke up around 3:00 AM startled by a dream that made my heart pump with joy. It was the dream of holding free, 60-minute live music concerts for anyone who had an internet connection and could watch the concerts on their mobile phones. The name of SMA Nirvana also came in the dream. Anxious that I should not forget it, I hurriedly scribbled it down on a notepad that I keep within my right hand’s reach on a small round desk beside my bed.
How do you execute this one-of-its-kind concept?
We tie up with NGOs who give care to these sections of our population.
People living with a terminal illness in hospice centers
Cancer survivors or people taking treatment for cancer
Elderly people at institutional centers or at the homes of the elders
Children who have no family or social support
Children who were born to sex workers, and are in the care of a well-meaning institution.
Adults or children who live with physical or intellectual disability
People who live with depression or other mental illnesses.
Then we set up a Calendar of Concerts with the NGOs for an entire year. The NGOs gather all the people under their care into a common room equipped with a large TV set and sound system. The NGOs also share the live streaming links of SMA Nirvana concerts with their network of founders, donors, volunteers, and their caregiving and administrative staff. Next we tie up with musicians. Many of our teachers and students of their own free will, voluntarily perform for the needy under SMA Nirvana. Anyone out there who is a musician that wants to perform music to bring happiness to others is a natural fit for SMA Nirvana. You only need to have the ability to hold an audience’s interest for 60 minutes: sing a variety of songs that connect with people, and enjoy connecting and conversing with people through your music.
What scale of donations does the organisation get?
We get about Rs 60 lakh every year, with institutions and individuals supporting specific initiatives of the Shankar Mahadevan Academy Trust. The sponsoring partners of our initiatives include Tata Trust, Tata Capital and WinWire Technologies. But the real story is the impact we strive to make with those donations. I feel the true impact we have created lies in the story told by these figures:
2500+ people learn music under next-to-nothing cost; just a commitment fee.
450000+ are the number of people that our free concerts under SMA Nirvana have reached.
5 musicians received a monthly pension of Rs 4000 under our SMA Muskurahat initiative: It is a reward for their accomplishments as musicians and performing artists. It is a fixed income for perpetuity that also keeps their dignity intact—they have earned this pension.
Please share the success stories at SMA.
Success needs strong legs to stand tall for a long time. For each of our initiatives, we have a different yardstick for measuring for success. In SMA Nirvana, we count our strong bank of Artists and NGOs, and most vitally end-beneficiaries—the people we perform the music concerts for. As mentioned earlier, the number of people we have performed free concerts to under SMA Nirvana is 450000+. We are especially proud of our students in the Inspire India Project—more than 2000 people have learned music under the banner of this initiative. Four of them took part in and stood as winners in “Music for Change”, a nationwide competition in song writing and advocacy-by-music conducted by Salesforce India.
What kind of challenges did you face during the pandemic for the past two years?
The Covid pandemic blocked the reach of music to many of our students who come from underprivileged families, under the Inspire India Project. Because we had to close our three centres in Mumbai and one centre in Bengaluru, about 1700 children from underprivileged families had to discontinue class. We started providing classes for those students who were able to connect online.
What is the strategy and line up for 2022?
At Shankar Mahadevan Academy, our mission has been “Joy of Music”. In 2022, we want to further this mission through these broad actions:
Reach music lessons to more households. Spread joy in families.
Restart in-person sessions under the Inspire India Project. We are scouting for institutional sponsors for this Project. We will widen the reach of this initiative with the lessons we learned with our online classes for these communities during the pandemic. Offer a structured music curriculum with learning outcomes in schools, colleges and universities across India, in in-person and online formats. Make music education more accessible to the young.
Bring 45 minutes of music learning to eager learners every week. Form Musical communities.
Offer music courses tailored to specific communities:
Senior citizens (under the program: Music For Seniors)
Expectant/pregnant women/young parents (Garbh sangeet, Lost Lullabies)
Children or young adults living with the condition of autism (Joyful Choir)
Women homemakers (Devotional songs, Film songs, Marriage songs, Songs for special occasions).
We are developing a set of self-study and with-teacher courses that any pocket in India can afford.
Bring 60 minutes of joy via music concerts to people every day.
Brighten lives for those who need that bright spark in their day.
Conduct one SMA Nirvana Concert every day, all through the year.
Bring joy of music to people who cope with illness, disability, pain, or loneliness every day of their lives. Brighten their day, lighten their burden.
Preserve Indian traditional music. Make it freely available for learning.
Archive Indian classical music: Hindustani and Carnatic, Bhajan and Devotional songs in the languages spoken in each state, age-old Lullabies and indigenous rhymes. Make it available as free-of-cost self-study courses or paid with-teacher courses.
Make a career in original music a viable and lower-risk reality for the talented youth in India.
Offer a platform for talented and enterprising musicians to create original music. Spread that music to music lovers across the online world, and help them earn through their original creations.