05 October; St Thomas's High School for Girls

Posted: 5 October 2017


The promised heavy rain during the night hasn’t materialised and I wake up to another very heavy, hot day. At breakfast I chat with another guest, a young man named Philip from Dorset, who is travelling the length and breadth of India on his bicycle. He is aiming to get to Goa, about 700 miles away, to join his parents there next week.
     ‘Will you make it?’ I ask him. ‘What about the heat?’
     ‘I should do,’ he replies confidently. ‘It’s really nice when you are pedalling, it’s only when you stop that the heat hits you.’
     I wish him the best of luck and go and wait for my taxi.

     Today I am at St Thomas’s High School for Girls where I will take two classes, one group aged between 7 and 11 and another between 12 and 16. I have to admit that I am a little nervous. Dealing with giggling teenage girls is not something I have any experience of; at least not since I was teenager.

     My first class of about thirty girls is shown into the room by one of the sisters who run the school and I am once struck by how polite the girls are. As they pass me each girl bids me good morning. When everyone is seated one of girls steps forward and presents me with a red rose.
     ‘Happy Teachers’ Day, sir,’ she says. ‘Welcome to our school.’
     ‘Happy Teachers’ Day, sir,’ echoes her classmates.
     ‘It is National Teachers’ Day today,’ explains Sister Agnes. ‘They are very pleased that you have chosen to spend it here.’

     I am tempted to tell Sister Agnes that if she was a nun in an order in Scotland she would probably be Sister Senga but, excellent as her English is, I didn’t think she would understand. I turned to the rows of smiling faces, holding up my rose like some kind of trophy.
     ‘Thank you all very much. I am very pleased to be here today.’ A statement which brought me far more applause and cheering than I have ever had at a concert. It was all a bit overwhelming, completely unexpected and in its own way very humbling.

     I am sure that when Robert Coltart wrote the original ‘Coulter’s Candy’ in the 1800’s he had no idea that one day it would be sung in schools in India in the 21st century. But that has proved to be the case and proves to be just as popular with children here as it ever was with children in Scotland. It is just one of those songs, the perfect mix of words and music, that make it easy to learn and easy and lovely to sing. If ever I release a song in India, this is the one it will be. 

     Now bearing in mind that these are young girls whose first language in not English and who have never heard the tune before, the response to the song was amazing. Not just in the very quick way they learnt the song but the beautiful way in which they sang it. Sweetly, tunefully and their lovely Keralan accents giving something to the lyrics which you had to hear to fully appreciate. 
     During the hour we had, we sang our way through a few more songs and each time they sang along as if they had known them all of their young lives. As we neared the end of the class, without any kind of introduction, and as a sort of test, I began to play ‘Coulter’s Candy’ and immediately they sang along. These are the moments you treasure. These are the times when you think that maybe you have done something right.

     After a break, Masala tea served by a nun in a white habit, and that’s not something that happens to you every Diwali, I spent some time with the older of the two groups. And they weren’t at all giggly. 

     I was curious to see if ‘Coulter’s Candy’ would work with teenagers. Would they like the pure simplicity of the tune? Would they be embarrassed by the thought of sitting on their Ama’s knee? Would they like to sing at all? As it turned out all of those fears were completely unfounded, so much so that I thought we might try something a little more ambitious.

     Anna Tabbush’s ‘The Tree Song’ has always been a great favourite of mine ever since I heard it sung by Pandorra’s Handbag at a Burns Supper in Yorkshire. No, really. Anyway I put some words on the blackboard, sang it through and then took the girls through the song, line by line. The result was truly astonishing. Sure the timing wasn’t exactly as it should be and the melody wasn’t quite there but these girls had the song. 

     Sometimes, something will happen that stops you in your tracks. You will experience something you know will never happen again in quite the same way. And that is what happened when I decided to teach the class my own ‘Sail On’.
     I can’t begin to describe how I felt to hear these not-at-all giggly teenage girls singing one of my songs. For a few minutes I was at once proud and emotional and totally at one with a group I had only just met an hour before. That’s what music can do.

     Later I told Sister Agnes that I was very impressed by the singing of both groups.
     ‘It’s because they have a hunger for it,’ she told me. ‘They have very little exposure to the arts and especially to the arts from Western cultures. They are hungry for more.’
     If these children are hungry then I am so pleased and feel so privileged to have been able to help feed that hunger.


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