When it comes to music—Who gives? Who takes?

Written by Dr Neeraja Raghavan on 04 November 2021

The quality of mercy, said Shakespeare, blesseth him that gives and him that takes. He could well have said the same of music.

Shankar Mahadevan Academy (SMA) runs a program called SMA Nirvana, which was inspired by the age-old practice in Sikh Gurudwaras called langar. This is a beautiful tradition where freshly-cooked meals are provided to anyone and everyone who visits the Gurudwara during mealtimes. It doesn’t matter if you are Sikh, old or young, rich or poor: all you have to do—when you crave a healthy, hot meal—is to show up at a Gurudwara and they will do the rest for you. 

But nourishment can be of many kinds, thought the people at SMA: for often, isn’t it a lonely heart that seeks some form of fulfilment? Some ray of hope? A fresh dose of joy? Interestingly, the idea arose in a dream during the wee hours of the morning. It was during the Covid-19 pandemic. Sridhar Ranganathan, cofounder, SMA, was perturbed by the huge number of affected people—‘affected’ mentally as well as physically. What could one do, apart from making monetary donations? Could SMA do anything to alleviate this kind of suffering? Sleeping with this thought running in his mind, he woke up around three o’clock after a dream that gave him this idea. Anxious that he should not forget it, he quickly scribbled it down on a notepad beside his bed.  

And this is what gave rise to SMA Nirvana: a program where musicians from the Academy (and volunteers from outside the Academy, too) perform free of charge for the terminally ill, the aged, the sick, the depressed—or just those who crave some entertainment during times of crisis. In short, they offer Langar for Loneliness.

In keeping with the Mission of the Academy, to uplift lives through the Joy of Music, its Founder, Shankar Mahadevan, has created the Shankar Mahadevan Academy Trust, which launches projects such as this to spread the Joy of Music. 

What constitutes this program? Two parties are brought together: usually online. SMA Nirvana partners with hospitals, care centres, senior-citizen homes and NGOs that work with street children to stage these music concerts, by musicians both from within Shankar Mahadevan Academy and independent musicians.

And now, the magic begins.

Audiences—old and young—get to hear musicians of high calibre perform online specially for them. Not surprisingly, this sets off a festive mood in the place—be it a hospital, a hospice, a care centre or a home for the aged. If anyone wishes to see for themselves the power of music, SMA Nirvana offers a convincing experience. In that hour or more of fun and joy, all aches and pains are forgotten, sadness melts away, the weight of suffering falls off unconsciously, and there is a lightness that suffuses every vein in the body. Life suddenly holds hope, promise, joy...

An old woman with a scarf tied around her head, holds the microphone and sings along in a shaky voice, as she watches the smiling performer from SMA. An old man reclining on his hospital bed smilingly waves his bony arms about, as he follows the performer on the screen opposite him. Masked attenders and patients in their hospital attire hold hands and dance in a circle inside the cramped ward, unmindful of the limited space, keeping beat to lively music inside the four walls. 

Whether it is Covid-19 or cancer, it doesn’t matter. The music holds everyone riveted. The atmosphere has turned into one of joyous celebration. And is it any wonder, when such talented musicians are singing from the depths of their hearts? 

And the icing on the cake? The Master himself: Shankar Mahadevan often makes an appearance and sometimes even sings for them! The thrill that this gives people has been articulated repeatedly in very touching testimonials, and why wouldn’t this happen? How often do celebrities shed the glitter that surrounds them to engage with common folk—and that, too, from an empathetic space? When a world-renowned musician takes time out to interact with those who are in need of solace, and spontaneously shares his gift with them, there is no need to say more. His generous act has said it all. As Ramesh Narayan, President of Mumbai Rotary Club aptly put it, aptly put it, this is a magical combination of art and heart.

As for the musicians, when they see patients jump out of their beds and dance to their music, they are deeply impacted by this amazing quality of resilience and sheer joy-in-the-moment. It is profoundly moving to see old and sick people dance without caring how well they can perform the moves. Unwittingly, the ‘sick’ have healed the ‘healthy’—by showing them the truth in the statement that a large part of suffering is merely the mind’s resistance to one’s present condition. If terminally ill patients can tap their feet to music, sway to its rhythm on their beds and even rise out of it to dance around the hospital ward—what are we complaining about?

When music has this immense power to turn around our perspective—to help us enjoy this moment—and leave aside all our worries and illness, we can only celebrate the blessings that it showers upon grateful listeners! This initiative transcends age, language, gender—as testified by Anurag Ladse, teacher, Hindustani Vocal, Shankar Mahadevan Academy who sang in Hindi to audiences in Karnataka, and the two parties bonded at the deepest level. No words needed to be spoken. Music has its own eloquence.

So if you wish to experience a lifting of your spirits, or would like to lift another’s spirits by performing for them, or simply contribute financially to such a noble initiative—get in touch with SMA Nirvana!

Centres that host SMA Nirvana.

Here is the complete list of institutions where concerts under SMA Nirvana have touched the hearts of people: 

  1. Karunashraya (a centre that gives palliative care for advanced-stage cancer) 
  2. National Sports Club of India’s (NSCI’s) Dome in Worli (a temporary centre where people coping with cancer and COVID received care in 2020) 
  3. Ashram Kanya, Mumbai
  4. Vrudhashram, Mumbai
  5. Ananda Yaan Elder Day Care (Project of Rotary Club of Mumbai, Byculla)
  6. Ananda Yaan Elder Day Care (Project of Rotary Club of Mumbai, E Moses Road)
  7. Lighthouse (Project of Rotary Club of Bombay at Machimar Nagar slum)
  8. Bhavishya Yaan (which has 6 municipal schools under Rotary Club of Bombay)
  9. Salaam Baalak (takes care of kids who used to live on the streets of Mumbai) 
  10. Dignity Foundation, Bangalore (a care centre for the elderly)
  11. Shraddhanand Mahilashram (a home for orphaned girls)
  12. Shraddhanand Vrudhashram (elders in the Old Age Home at Virar)
  13. Seva Adult Care (a centre in Atlanta, US, which takes care of ageing Indians)
  14. Cope With Cancer (an NGO that assists families to meet hospital expenses for cancer treatment)  
  15. Access Life India (an NGO that has set up 6 centres to give accommodation and food to families who bring their children to Mumbai for cancer treatment).
  16. Athashri Foundation, Bengaluru (a residential facility for elders)
  17. Vishranthi Foundation, Bengaluru (a residential facility for elders and children)
  18. Sant Gadge Maharaj Dharamashala, Mumbai (an NGO that gives shelter and food to families who receive cancer treatment at Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai)
  19. Happy Feet Home (an NGO that takes care of children who come from low-income families and who cope with blood disorders)
  20. Parents Association for Differently Abled Adults (an Association of parents and guardians of differently-abled adults).

And many, many more institutions across India will become gracious hosts of SMA Nirvana in the months to come.

Dr Neeraja Raghavan, Founder Director, Thinking Teacher

I love teaching, learning, writing, music, children and philosophy.