It’s another day in Bangalore — pleasant skies, life in full, and a long line of traffic. If you’re an insider, you get some music going, think happy thoughts, and wait indulgently knowing this too will pass. The phone rings and it’s a voice I know well. In a tone I have come to recognise.
“What you doing?” he asks, “… and where are you?” This is just what I need on my long drive home — an engaging conversation with someone who thinks and sees things, different to the rest of the world. An outlier who likes to question things. What’s could be on the menu today?
“Hi Kamal!” I respond, and the conversation begins. It only ends a week later, when he has verbalised all thoughts, and arrived at a clearer path to saving the world — sporadically, of course — as he navigates life and work, and coffee.
Music therapist, Kamal Singh can unsatisfactorily be described as someone who’s saving the world, one therapy session at a time. But does he see it like that? No. And for that matter, few others do. On the surface, he’s a recluse, a non-conformist, an ‘other’. Music lovers will remember Singh’s stardom days with bands Lounge Piranha and 3 Sevens and confirm this. Though today, his personality is intact, the driving force of that day is distant for the man who today spends time and breath, not writing music, but rewriting hope for children and adults on the fringes — of society, of mental health and death. Yes, the fringes of death.
Music therapy is his bridge to reach them, and his goal is better emotional health for all. Or at least more of a focus on the emotional component of health. Singh’s areas of therapy include mental illness, terminal illness and learning disability. While the world that addresses the needs of these exact same individuals (institutionally) focuses on facilities, performances and accomplishments, Singh looks deeper. And with
There is no doubt, this world is ugly. “It doesn’t conform to our aesthetics,” he says. It has children and adults behaving ‘abnormal’, not fitting in, bringing family expectations crashing. ‘How can she become like this? She has had a good childhood!’ is a common complaint Singh hears about those with depression, for example. There are also references to karma, he notices. He looks amused at people’s shallow perceptions.
For Singh, the outside is indicative, but not always reflective of the inside. He looks through all that is obvious, and focuses on the only person that he believes we need to be true to — the ‘patient’. “If we call a child ‘special’, let’s figure out what that ‘special’ thing about him/her/them is. There’s so much talent and uniqueness in any person, and we need to show enough love and acceptance so they feel comfortable to show us who they really are.” Unfortunately, the raw truth is that ‘special’ is often a sweet replacement for ‘retarded’ or ‘useless’, he says.
Is that all music therapy is about? Finding innate talent? Singh agrees there’s more. Teaching skills is needed and required, he agrees (like getting patients to ‘talk properly’, for example), but he asks without missing a beat, “Whose ‘need’ is that? The parent’s? The school teacher’s? The child is already communicating… but probably in a way that the world doesn’t find appealing.” And that seems to be the core belief of his that clashes with establishment. He finds truth and beauty in the ugly and confusing.
Here’s what I noted. An expression from a patient that could insult or irritate another person is an exciting clue for Singh. It is, in fact, an inroad for him to reach out with a musical instrument. His quiver is full of percussion, string and wind instruments. Now these tools, precious to him, are not always handled well by his clients, but he doesn’t seem to care. His goals are not to keep the instruments safe, just as he’s not working on the outcome being a pleasant song. Singh is looking further. Hearing stories of his sessions, I want to hand him an imaginary badge for patience. From what I hear, I realise that many would recoil from experiences he’s had, behaviours he’s witnessed. After all, he’s a solid, trained professional with pots of experience (and fame). That’s got to come with a little head weight? How does ‘Kamal, the musician’ fit into this avatar of ‘Kamal, the music therapist’. The two roles/lives, as I understand, are totally different. He replies quite simply, “no connection.”
So was it worth losing the musician to this, I ask. “Actually, this gave me more confidence. There is so much in the unknown that made me feel secure,” he says, “I guess it’s the same with everything … the limitations that ‘knowing’ put on me.” It seems the singer is gone, but the songwriter still lurks.
It’s fair to say that his prime focus is building a foundation of trust as a secure base. Many patients he works with, especially children, have lost this chief value, thanks to various events connected to their circumstances, and sometimes, the family’s desperation to see them well. Singh builds trust with his indulgent and extravagant use of time. “As a professional, I know this is what it takes. This is the only way you can see progress,” he says, brushing off my compliment.
So what’s his big dream? “A wellness space,” he says with excitement rushing in, “a place where parents are supported (they really need all they can get), children are accepted and the community contributes. I’d like to involve nature, trees and animals into the healing — simple stuff — it’s all therapy.”
He also dreams of seeing like-minded professionals working together to contribute time, ideas, space, money, or encouragement — whatever is in their capacity — to help another.
In a world of ‘me first’, it is definitely worth changing up the game as often as you can, to recognise and respond to the needs around us. To even just notice them, and see how you fit in, because we all do. It must not take an ‘other’ to comprehend another.
As we complete the interview, Singh grins at my conclusion. “I guess I am an ‘other’ and that’s why I get it. I want to have hope for another,” he says.
If hope is a waking dream, may this dreamer dream on.
For more information please contact Kamal Singh at +919902723377