A shorter version of this article appeared in the July-December 2020 issue of Indian Quarterly magazine (so far available only online, at https://www.magzter.com/IN/I&E-Engine/The-Indian-Quarterly/Art/)
Pictures on this post courtesy Luis and Chryselle Dias, Child’s Play (India)
Sometimes, serendipity brings together events, people, and ideas in one’s life in such a fortuitous manner that it’s difficult not to imagine the hand of some larger Providence at play. Such a period occurred in Luis Dias’s life in 2007, when everything fell into place in such a way that the path ahead became singular and inevitable.
At the time, Luis was a doctor in Britain’s National Health Service, leading a taxing but well-to-do existence in a London suburb. But an idea that had been bubbling away in his brain for a long time boiled over after he read about an exhibition of photographs by street children who had been given point-and-click cameras and some basic lessons in photography.
That evening, he asked his wife Chryselle, “What if we were to give street kids musical instruments?”
Luis had always been musically inclined. He came from a family like that of many Goans, where learning and playing instruments was an integral part of home life. In his particular case, it had been the violin that he had grown up playing. “We learnt solfege along with catechism,” he says. “I was surrounded by music at all times.”
The Dias home often played host to visiting musicians. The lawyer and violinist Vere da Silva, moving force behind the Bombay City Orchestra in the 1950s, would sail into town (literally – he was also a keen sailor), and visit when he did. He would tell Luis, “My boy, get out your violin”, and the two of them would play together. Luis’s father, Manuel Francisco, who studied and later practiced medicine in Germany (Luis was born there), was an avid follower of the Berlin Philharmonic, drinking his fill of its performances under the baton of the great Herbert von Karajan.
In London, Luis too quaffed deeply of the banquet of good Western classical music laid out before him. The eight-week extravaganza of the BBC Proms were top of his to-do list every year, and a couple of months after he started the conversation with Chryselle about giving street children instruments, the Proms schedule for that year announced the presence of two orchestras with exactly that composition.
“We went to see the South African one [the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble],” Luis recalls. “It was made up of a bunch of teens from Johannesburg and Soweto, and they were playing with such poise and intonation, my jaw dropped!”
After the concert, Luis and Chryselle popped into Kensington Gardens, and by coincidence, some of the members of the group were also there. The Diases got to talking with them, and a casual comment by one of the young men struck deep into Luis’s brain. “Music saved my life,” he said, in an offhand manner, as if it was taken for granted.
“The idea of music as a social tool,” explains Luis, “was something new to me at that stage. The notion took root in me, combining as it did two of my passions / peeves. From that day onwards, I started working on figuring out how to make it happen.”
Before we go ahead with the story of the Diases and Child’s Play India, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) they would soon set up, it’s important to go back in time, to an incident that occurred when Luis was just a young boy, but which left just as indelible an impression on him as the remark by the young South African musician. He had been given a 10-paisa coin and sent by his mother to pick up some sweet buns from a stall near his house in Panjim. At the stall, a beggar was asking for something to eat, but was turned away because he had no money. “I clearly remember it as the first time I made the connection – these coins or notes, and how they are equal to whether you go hungry or not. I felt it should not be like this, and the injustice of the situation stayed with me.”
The sense of “the injustice of birth”, as he refers to it, sprang up again when he took up obstetrics and gynaecology (or ObGyn, as the docs refer to it), as his medical specialty. He would see babies born to different households and think about how the circumstances of their birth would shape their lives. “My mind often strayed to the thought of switching babies, like it happens in Hindi movies,” he says. “I think of the baby as potential energy. It can develop into anything at all. The nurturing it receives is going to shape it into what it finally becomes.”
Medicine, like music, was an inherited trait for Luis. His mother and father were both doctors. His mother Elvira (who at the age of 88 still runs a consulting clinic out of the ground floor of their splendid Goan house) is one of Goa’s most respected gynaecologists. If you live in Goa, every once in a while, you will come across someone who will tell you, in a tone that makes it clear that it’s a badge they wear with pride, that they were “delivered by Dr Elvira”.
The medical thread in the Dias family winds back through several generations to more than 150 years ago in the village of Zuem or Santo Estêvão, located on an island in the Mandovi river. Known by nicknames such as the Konkani Xhakecho Zunvo (Island of Vegetables) and the Portuguese Ilha de Verde (Green Island), Santo Estêvão is famous for its cultivation of ladyfingers, so much so that its inhabitants are sometimes referred to as ‘bhenddekar’ (‘bhendde’ being the local variant of ‘bhindi’, meaning ‘ladyfinger’).
That was the occupation of Luis’s great-great-grandfather Manuel Francisco Dias, who grew and sold vegetables out of his island home. But when his son Miguel Caetano was born in 1854, he envisioned a different life for him. Miguel was an exceptional student. When he did very well at the secondary school level, his father bought him a big watermelon from the neighbouring island of Divar as a reward. And then, at a time when forging one’s way in the world separate from one’s family origins was fraught with difficulty, he sent Miguel over the seas to Lisbon to study medicine.
The social constraints were easily ignored, the economic ones not so. Miguel struggled in Portugal. “We’ve always been told of his tribulations,” Luis remembers. “When we were young and left food on the plate, we were reminded of the times he had to go hungry.” Though Miguel was in Portugal, the medium of instruction was French, so he had to learn the new language. Most daunting for the young medical student was that he couldn’t afford to buy textbooks. But he got over that by spending nights in the libraries copying out entire books by hand. Luis’s father located some of these, and had them bound. “They are still with us,” says Luis, “stored away in a cupboard.”
After graduating, in the mid-1880s, Miguel was sent to Mozambique, where his reputation for “conducting heroic surgeries in the middle of nowhere” grew quickly. In 1888, the Portuguese colonial authorities sent him back to Goa, where he rapidly rose to the position of Director of Medical Services. He was also appointed Dean of Escola Medico-Cirurgica de Nova Goa, the Goa Medical College, which had been established in 1842, the first school of Western medicine anywhere in Asia. As medical services were tied to the military, he also received a military rank, eventually becoming the only Goan to achieve the rank of General.
There’s quite a litany of achievements to Miguel’s name. One – a minor one in the larger scheme of things – strikes Luis. “He performed the first appendectomy where the patient survived,” he says. This was a rarity at the time, when a burst appendix was almost always fatal. The irony of this feat on Miguel’s part was that one of his own sons died in Lisbon while undergoing the same operation.
In recounting his great-great-grandfather’s storied history, Luis makes mention of a small aside that underlines the sort of person he was, a characteristic in him that informs Luis’s world view. In the middle of a glittering felicitation ceremony for him, attended by the local nobility, Miguel pointed out his father – seemingly out of place in such a gathering in his rustic farmer’s garb – as the greater man.
Illustrious as Miguel’s life was, his son Vitor Manuel’s was perhaps even more storied. “He took the family to its zenith”, says Luis. “He was the essential polymath – he qualified in law and medicine in the same year!”
Vitor Manuel was a pioneer of radiology in Goa, made the first-ever radio broadcast from the Estado da India Portuguesa (the Portuguese colonies in India), invented an incubator for egss, and ran his own medical laboratory in which he prepared his own drugs, sending them out to Bombay and elsewhere. His greatest contribution to Goa’s history, though, was cleaning up the plague-ravaged Goa Velha (Old Goa), the erstwhile capital, in his role as Director-General of Health Services in pre-Liberation Goa. ‘“City of Death” Brought Back To Life’ proclaimed a newspaper headline of the time, in acknowledgement of this momentous feat.
This was the ancestry that impelled Luis towards medicine. But from his father, Manuel Francisco Dias, came a different sort of predisposition – a rebellious, non-conformist streak. “My dad was very anti-establishment,” says Luis. “He became involved in the Goa liberation movement. Given that his own father was very much a part of the authorities, that must have led to some awkward conversations at home.”
Manuel went to Poona (now Pune) and then to Lisbon to study medicine. India was independent by then, and making strong moves to reclaim Goa from its colonial overlords, while Portugal fought in international forums to retain control. Asked by the Portuguese to sign an anti-Nehru letter, Manuel refused, and moved instead to West Germany to continue his studies. During his short stint in Poona, he had met a brilliant young student named Elvira, and a fledgling romance had taken wing. She moved to West Germany as well, where her career flourished. The two were married in West Berlin in 1962 – symbolically, on India’s Independence Day, August 15. Their first child, Victor, was born in 1965, and Luis a year later.
By that time, Goa had been liberated from Portuguese rule, and Manuel was keen to come back ‘home’. Given how well she was doing in her career, Elvira was not too keen, but Manuel prevailed, and the family moved to Goa in 1970. Luis, of course, had no say in this first homecoming, but the move was to profoundly influence his world view, and in that sense, inform his own return.
A bust of the pioneering patriarch, General Miguel Caetano Dias, stands in a small park in Tobacco Square, next to the Panjim General Post Office. Installed at the Escola during his lifetime, it was shifted to its current location soon after his death. Behind it is Casa da Moeda, the house in which Luis lives with his mother Elvira, Chryselle, their young son Manuel, and the occasional visiting feline. The house itself is a historic one – its name means Mint House (or more literally, ‘House of Coins’) in Portuguese. The name harks back to the building’s function in the mid-19th century when this part of Panjim was the hub of commercial activity.
It’s a home layered with history. As children, Luis and his brother Victor would play with the antiquated radiology equipment in what would later become their mother’s clinic (“who knows, maybe we irradiated ourselves”, Luis laughs) or try and dig out old coins that had become embedded in the stone floors and walls. Growing up in Goa was a fount of pleasurable experiences, and those memories were part of what inevitably drew Luis back here more than three decades later.
The genesis of the move can be traced back, strangely, to Venezuela some three decades further back. In 1975, economist, educator, composer, and conductor José Antonio Abreu, decided to combine his expertise in music and education and do something new – use classical music as a means of social change. The idea that he came up with was the Fundacion del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela. That’s quite a mouthful, and even its acronym FESNOJIV doesn’t slip easily off the tongue. Hence, El Sistema (The System).
Abreu’s life-altering approach was to get children from the slums of his country, and bring them together to form first one, then more and more orchestras (a 2017 article mentioned that there were 827,000 musicians enrolled in El Sistema). Through this genius move, not only would the youths be shown a way of exiting the cycle of poverty and crime that was otherwise their vicious fate, they would also perforce have to acquire – given the ensemble nature of orchestral training – valuable social skills and values that are, in Abreu’s words, “virtually non-existent in the crime-ridden, drug-infested barrios of places like Caracas”.
While El Sistema’s primary purpose is not to produce top-quality classical musicians, it ends up sometimes doing so – glittering diamonds like Gustavo Dudamel, who joined El Sistema as a 10-year-old, and was conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic by the age of 24! Its success has inspired several other such initiatives around the world, one of them the Buskaid Soweto Ensemble that Luis and Chryselle went to see at the Royal Albert on that fateful summer evening in 2007.
Another person whom El Sistema had propelled into action was South African-born British violinist David Juritz, leader of the London Mozart Players and guest conductor with several renowned orchestras. At the same time that Luis was having his extended moment of epiphany, Juritz was taking a five-month sabbatical to travel around the world, busking to raise funds for a non-profit called Musequality inspired by El Sistema. Juritz’s vision for Musequality, though, was quite different – he planned to raise funds for other organizations around the world that would do in their country what El Sistema had done in Venezuela.
By the time Juritz returned to Britain after a 96,000-km trip through 50 cities in 24 countries, Luis was ready for him, having worked out the framework for setting up an El Sistema type organisation in India. “I already had the name figured out – Child’s Play, and even the slogan ‘Because every child is noteworthy’. I was ready to make the move.” With financial, logistical, and most importantly, moral support from Musequality, the Diases returned to Goa in May 2008, the andante pace of their Buckinghamshire lives about to explode into the prestissimo frenzy of setting up an NGO here.
Back in Goa in the summer of 2008, the nascent organization wasn’t the first baby that they ushered into the world. In February 2009, Chryselle and Luis’s son Manuel (named after Luis’s father, who had passed away in 2000, and also referencing the great-great-grandfather whose foresight had directed the family’s fortunes) was born. The two of them, with help from Luis’s mother Elvira, got down to the business of raising Manuel, and at the same time setting up the organisation.
It was a whirl of lawyers, trustees, bureaucrats. Anyone who’s dealt with the bureaucracy in India (and which adult Indian hasn’t had to at some point in their life?) knows that the credo they operate on is that no good deed goes unpunished. So it was with Child’s Play. “We hadn’t bargained for so much,” says Chryselle. “The NGO had to be registered in Delhi. FCRA clearance [required in order to receive foreign funding] had to be obtained from the Home Ministry of the Central Government. Our lawyer in Goa couldn’t figure out what to do. We were told that we would have to have a ‘godfather’ in the corridors of power, but we didn’t want to do that.”
Luis and Chryselle battled on, refusing to take the smoother byways that corruption offered. Eventually, in June 2009, more than a year after they had started proceedings, the Child’s Play India Foundation was registered. FCRA clearance, though, took another eight years!
Alongside the bureaucratic battles, a hunt was also on to identify a partner organisation, one that already worked with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. “We were going to various children’s charities,” says Chryselle, “and were eventually so lucky to be welcomed by Mangala Wagle.”
In the mid-1990s, Mangala Wagle was moved by the sight of ragged urchins trying to survive by stealing fish in the Panjim Fish Market, and poured her energy into setting up Hamara School, a home for children from impoverished families that ensures a decent education along with life lessons and a stable environment. Upon her death in 2018, Luis wrote in a heartfelt paean to their decade-long association, “At the very first meeting, she totally ‘got’ what we were setting out to do. This was such a change from other heads of charities we had met before. This is why, no matter how big Child’s Play eventually becomes, I will always have a special soft spot for Madam Wagle and for Hamara School. She was the first to welcome us readily, with open arms.”
In Hamara School, Child’s Play had found a natural home. In January 2010, armed with instruments that had been donated or purchased through fundraising, Luis and Chryselle brought together a group of some 15-20 kids from the school for the first lesson, and the journey of a thousand miles took its first step. It was a suitably spiritual experience, with the enthralled children, in Luis’s words, “gathered around a violin as if it had come down from heaven”.
A full decade later, Luis showed me around the Hamara School premises, and introduced me to the current crop of children and teachers. The school operates out of a ground-floor apartment in the St Inez suburb of Panjim. The challenges faced by the children of Child’s Play are immediately evident. For the number of kids who study, eat, play, and sleep here, the space is quite cramped. Shelves are overflowing with foodstocks and other supplies. But, for the school’s young residents, the alternative is far worse. Little wonder that some of the members of that group who attended that first lesson ten years ago are still around.
Irfan Shimpigar, nine years old at the time, was a part of that gathering. He is Child’s Play’s poster boy, an accomplished violinist now. Alongside his musical prowess, his academic graph also rose. In 2018, he took the Higher Secondary board exams, and scored an impressive 89.5 per cent. The results were declared the day after Mangala Wagle passed away. As Luis wrote in his homage to her, “The result would have gladdened the heart of Madam Wagle so much!” Irfan is now doing a four-year accelerated masters’ programme in commerce, and aims to become a chartered accountant.
Irfan’s story bears out a contention of Luis’s – backed up by scientific studies – that a musical education can have wide-ranging benefits for one’s mental faculties. In one of his regular weekly columns for the Goa-based Navhind Times newspaper, Luis wrote, “Irfan might well have got a similar score even if he hadn’t been learning music and playing an instrument all these years. It is impossible to turn back the clock and assess his academic performance without the intervention of the music education he received, and continues to receive. But there are huge extra-musical benefits accruing from an education in music which are extremely useful in academic performance: important life lessons such as discipline, perseverance (practice makes perfect in music and elsewhere as well), the rewards of incremental progress at any given task, etc. When you play an instrument, you are only as good as the sound you are able to produce. No amount of money, power or influence can ever change that, or help you to produce a sweeter tone, better intonation or phrasing. This can come only from hard work (with proper guidance, of course) and nothing else. These lessons can be extrapolated not just to school and college, but for life.”
He extends this line of thought during our conversation. “Scientific research has shown that music can wake dormant parts of the brain. The brains of people in a coma, unresponsive to anything else, will see some sparks when a familiar tune is played. There’s a reason all the religions of the world have music as a part of their rituals. It’s also an excellent form of protest.” With a proselytiser’s zeal, he adds, “Music nourishes me like nothing else. Zakir Hussain has this saying that ‘a well-tuned tabla takes you to God’. I feel the same way, and I want to convert other people to the faith.”
This belief in the value of what they were trying to do was essential in the face of the challenges they faced early on. The path was completely untrodden, and they had little idea of where it would lead. “I had been living with blinkers my entire life,” says Luis. “I had little experience of caste hierarchies, religious differences. I was completely clueless about the dreams and desires of the people who have nothing, or the sort of problems they face on a daily basis.”
The biggest hurdle was the first step – to try and bring an understanding of what Child’s Play was all about. “In the rest of the world,” says Chryselle, “parents know what an orchestra is, know what they are in for if their child joins one. The parents of our kids are construction workers, housemaids, balloon sellers. They had no clue. It’s very tough to reach out to kids whose parents don’t know about this music.”
Even once the children are in the programme, it’s not easy. The conditions they live in, it isn’t possible for them to take their instruments with them, which means they can’t practice at home. During his stint in the UK, Luis had come across a popularisation scheme called ‘Bring a musician home for tea’. He thought about implementing a similar idea here, to acquaint the families with what the kids were up to. But his efforts were met with reluctance, not open arms. “People are embarrassed about their living conditions,” he says. “They resist my coming to their place. I once went to a child’s home. It was so pokey. We rehearsed standing up in a space about the size of a large refrigerator. On one occasion, I practised with a child in a scooter shed with cats around.”
Other eye-opening lessons came his way. One of the most poignant was when he was teaching violin basics to students at the Auxilium School, which admits kids from all socio-economic backgrounds. “I was using ‘Here Comes The Bride’ to explain intervals to the kids, but saw that they were looking blank. I said, ‘You must have heard this tune at weddings.’ ‘No one invites us’, they replied.”
Luis’s intention had been to address the inequalities between social classes, and it was slowly becoming clear how extensive and jagged those gaps were. It wasn’t just the kids who were learning – their teachers were too. Child’s Play’s struggle throughout its existence has been to eliminate discrimination in its own dealings, and Luis is happy with how far it has come.
“Our Hamara School kids play alongside peers from other schools, from more privileged backgrounds,” he says. “When they are sitting at the same desk, one of them might be wearing smart Adidas shoes, while the other is in chappals. But what matters is – can you play that note? Their backgrounds may be different, but they are both doing the same things, playing the same pieces. There’s a sort of equality there.”
Harking back to his metaphor of the newborn baby as potential energy, Luis continues, “I strongly believe that it’s nurture, not nature that shapes one’s destiny. Manuel has followed me into music, and it’s true he has a natural affinity, but if he rests on his laurels, others will quickly become better than he is.”
To bridge both the social and knowledge gaps, they also invite the parents of the children to their concerts. In the beginning, they would stand outside the windows – they were just used to the idea that they would not be let into places. Over time, things have changed. “Irfan’s parents started coming, and they would bring his siblings and step-siblings. Then other relatives and friends joined in. Some of his step-siblings and nephews also enrolled in the programme. ‘Irfan bhaiya is there, we will also come’.”
The other front on which a running battle has had to be fought is the financial one. Funding has always been a big problem. Initially, the Diases had put in a lot of their own money, bolstered with some help in different forms from Musequality. But the struggle is incessant. “We rely heavily on donations, much of it from individual donors who believe in our work. Concerts help a lot. The public sees evidence of our work. Funding goes up after each concert.”
There are two big Child’s Play events every year – the Monsoon and Christmas concerts. “There are hundreds of children practising privately, but they don’t get the chance to perform. We offer that opportunity. We open up our performances to the public. Anyone can come.”
Their Summer Camps are also popular, with parents happy to get kids out of their hair during the holidays. As the takers for these are often more well-off, fees charged for these help fill the coffers to some extent. “People don’t mind donating instruments,” says Chryselle. “When we started our cello programme, we needed 17 cellos, and got them in no time. We’ve also had a fair bit of success with our Adopt A Musician scheme, in which donors defray the amount spent on a single child.”
Corporate sponsorship would seem to be a potentially more stable source of funds, but the Diases are careful about whom they are associated with. Both of them are very vocal in their opposition of a number of pressing issues that plague Goa, most of them related to the state’s government and businesses, and don’t want to take support that would require them to make compromises on those stands.
Government policies add to the money woes. “Teacher salaries are our biggest expense,” says Luis, “especially the foreign teachers we bring in. The employment visa rules require that music teachers are paid a minimum of Rs 16.25 lakh a year. Alternatively, people can come on a volunteer visa, where they are not allowed to make more than Rs 10,000 a month. There’s nothing in between. Other teachers are exempt from this limit, but music teachers are not. Some organisations are lobbying for including music in the employment visas for teachers, which would bring down the compulsory salary limit. As of now, we can only afford one such overseas teacher at a time.”
When I visited the Child’s Play office, across the road from Hamara School, an American volunteer teacher, Michael Hudson Medina, was doing a one-on-one session with Irfan in one of the rooms. In another, Gudrun Theodora Sigurdadottir, former cellist in the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, was teaching cello to three members of the booming cello programme. In the hall, a quintet of older girls trained by flautist (and full-time ophthalmologist) Dr Valerie Menezes were practising Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” arranged for five flutes, which they were to play in concert a few days later. It isn’t exactly Carnegie Hall, but “practice, practice, practice” is nevertheless the mantra here.
It’s been a long and winding road, but there have been many rewards to pick up along the way. In December 2010, with Child’s Play still finding its rhythm, Luis was invited to make a presentation about its work at the INK Conference 2010, rubbing shoulders with James Cameron, Sunitha Krishnan, Matt Groening, Raghu Dixit, and a line-up of other luminaries. In 2016, when the INK Conference was held in Goa, he was able to bring members of the orchestra to the stage. Their performance was met with a standing ovation from the delegates present.
Luis pinpoints another highlight: “One of the big things in the foundation’s life was performing at the Monte Festival in 2014.” The Fundacao Oriente, Portugal’s cultural emissaries in Goa, asked Luis to assemble the orchestra for the event. Luis got together the musicians – besides locals, a couple of students from Oberlin College, Jaime Feldman, a cellist from Canada, and Lee Anderson, an American violist, all of whom were working with Child’s Play at the time.
Child’s Play’s work has won it followers around the music world, and Luis often gets queries from performers from distant lands about potential fund-raising concerts. Being a part of the Sistema network helps in this regard. At the Sistema Conference in 2015, Luis got friendly with the members of the Sångföreningen Qöhr, a Swedish choir, who, Luis says, “would start singing at every opportunity – the Swedes are big on singing. We got talking, and one of them said, ‘We’re coming to Goa anyway, so let’s do something together’.” Eventually, that led to a concert in March 2016 called Bridge of Voices, featuring the Swedish choir alongside Child’s Play singers. The Swedes loved the experience, and came back again in 2018 for a second concert.
A couple of weeks after my tour of the Child’s Play training sites, I listened to the orchestra perform a delightful programme that ranged from a couple of show tunes, through the light-hearted ‘After Hokusai’ suite by Carey Blyton (Enid’s nephew!), to the India premiere of the relatively unknown German composer Johann Valentin Rathgeber’s Concerto 11 in G major, a concerto grosso for strings and cembalo.
It was the Child Play orchestra’s 10th anniversary concert, and the hall at the Institute Menezes Braganza in Panjim was packed. Much of the audience was of the type you would expect at such an event – the elite, well-to-do (and predominantly Catholic) patricians of Goa. But it was heart-warming to also see, near the front of the long hall, friends and relatives of the Hamara School kids who were up on stage. Irfan Shimpigar was the featured soloist on several of the pieces, and members of his family were there to watch him – like the rest of us, in awe and admiration. At the end of the concert, the applause was loud and enduring; it was not just for the quality of the music that the people has just heard, but as much for the miraculous institution that Luis and Chryselle Dias have nurtured through its first decade.
Postscript: The Covid-19 crisis has, of course, dealt a huge blow to all plans. There have been no concerts this year, no visiting teachers. There have not even been any classes since India went into a state of suspension in mid-March. “Our office has been shut since the lockdown started,” says Luis. “It’s only prudent that it be so, considering the risk to the kids as well as the residents of the building. Hamara School has also been shut, and there’s a knock-on effect of that.” Given the background of many of the children the organisation works with, online classes are also not an option. And with all the pressures on the children during these times of pandemic, practice has not been a priority for most of them. For the time being, the music has died down. When the crisis passes, hopefully it will swell up again.