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Music that Heals and Spread Smiles

Music that Heals and Spread Smiles

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Music that heals believer Arnab Bishnu Chowdhury

Arnab Bishnu Chowdhury, a third generation Hindustani Classical musician practices Raga-based therapy. Inspired by the Hindu scriptures and Sri Aurobindo’s vision, he recently composed Aum Tat Sat, a dance-drama which was performed at Auroville, Puducherry recently

Circa 1999. Music composer and therapist Arnab Bishnu Chowdhury was part of the Music, Mind and Machine Group (affiliated to MIT Media Lab, Boston) based in Bangalore, when he got the news that his father Pandit Arun Bishnu Chowdhury was suffering from cancer of the brain. Arnab left his research work to join his ailing father. Back home in Puducherry, he devoted his time to serving his father and helped him cope with the illness.

It was at this time that Arnab began to use his training in Hindustani Classical music as therapy for his father. Pandit Arun Bishnu Chowdhury recovered and went on to live a healthy life for several more years than what had been predicted by the doctors. The doctors had given him only one year. He lived well for another eight years! As for Arnab, he found his calling as a therapist – who in coming times would blend music and yoga to heal thousands of individuals.

Meet Arnab Bishnu Chowdhury – a third generation Hindustani Classical musician from the Maihar Gharana and a certified Yoga practitioner. He grew up in a household with multifarious influences. While his paternal grandfather Moni Bishnu Chowdhury was a Hindustani Classical vocalist and a freedom fighter under Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Arnab’s grandmother Chabbi Bishnu Chowdhury (nee Ghosh) grew up in the ancestral house of Ghosh family of Sri Aurobindo at Connogore. Her brother was Pandit Rabin Ghosh – the renowned violin maestro, who was a direct disciple of Baba Allauddin Khan, the multi-instrumentalist and founder of the Maihar gharana. It was Pandit Ghosh, a contemporary of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, who later became Pandit Arun Bishnu Chowdhury’s guru.

Arnab Bishnu Chowdhury at the opening ceremony at 14th World Congress for Music Therapy-Vienna
Arnab Bishnu Chowdhury at the opening ceremony at 14th World Congress for Music Therapy-Vienna

While Arnab was guided by music at a tender age, he was also sub-consciously absorbing the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, as his grandfather – greatly influenced by the world renowned seer, philosopher, poet and nationalist, shifted bag and baggage from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Pondicherry (now Puducherry). It was here that young Arnab was introduced to Western Classical music, with orchestra and polyphony – the simultaneous combining of two or more musical tones and where he learned to play the piano.

Raga-based orchestra performing at Moscow Conservatory
Raga-based orchestra performing at Moscow Conservatory

Arnab grew up listening to and imbibing conversations around instrumental music and with considerable exposure to other well-known artistes like Dr Balmuralikrishna, whose concerts were arranged by his father. It came as no surprise then that by the age of 12 Arnab had begun composing music by “blending Raga motifs with harmony. I made my debut at the age of 13 during Madras Music Season accompanying my father on stage by giving him sangat on the tabla,” he shares.

Today, Arnab has taken this precious musical legacy several notches higher. He has founded Know Your Rhythm – a training programme which works with special educators, doctors and teaching professionals among other groups, guiding them to discover their own sense of rhythm, raising well-being, wellness, empathy, teamwork and leadership. It has engaged over 20,000 care givers globally including patients, professors, students, administrators through workshops and conferences in India, Austria, France, Belgium, Russia, Thailand and the US.

“Know Your Rhythm is all about inner sustainability,” explains Arnab, who is a researcher with Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Senior Faculty at Sustainable Livelihood Institute, a collaboration between Govt. of Tamil Nadu & Auroville Foundation at Puducherry today. “It has applicability in education, healthcare and in management. In essence, every practitioner of every gharana goes back to the yoga of music and sound. However, not everybody looks at it in this manner. We work with Nada Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Yoga of Raga Sangeet and Yoga Nidra too. Let’s say, we take a shloka from the Rig Veda. It has to be chanted using the right ucchaaran/pronunciation and the three swaras. while holding a mudra in sukhasana and with the right breathing technique. It does not matter whether you are a musician or a non-musician. This interdisciplinary approach between different streams of yoga helps the care-givers immensely. Know Your Rhythm is a ground up approach (the learnings of) which we encourage participants to apply in their lives. Ours is a patient-centered perspective.”

recorded-orchestral Raga-based music therapy application during surgery
recorded-orchestral Raga-based music therapy application during surgery

But this is not all. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Sri Aurobindo, Arnab also composed a three-act dance drama ‘Aum Tat Sat’, the script of which is inspired by the works of the philosopher-poet. Choreographed by the well-known Odissi exponents at Sri Aurobindo Ashram Madhumita Patnaik, Devasmita Patnaik and Grace Gitadelila – a dance and drawing Non-verbal communicator, “Aum Tat Sat evokes and invokes” in the words of Arnab, “the teachings of Sri Aurobindo’s vision through Mantra and Nritya Yoga. We try and embody his teachings and his vision into dance-form. I did this using Sri Aurobindo’s commentaries and interpretation of ‘Aum Tat Sat’ in Srimad Bhagavad Gita and the Mandukya Upanishad. The script is inspired by ‘Essays on the Gita’ and ‘Record on Yoga’ in which Sri Aurobindo presents his visionary interpretation.”

Aum Tat Sat includes movements from Odissi, asanas and Kalaripayattu. The orchestral music was recorded and performed by 30 musicians and vocalists from India, US, Russia and Europe in two separate performances at Sri Aurobindo Ashram International Centre of Education and Amphitheatre, Matrimandir in Auroville, in late August this year.

Arnab has also presented live composition at 14th World Congress for Music Therapy in 2014, University of Music Performing Arts, Vienna where the Vienna philharmonic has its roots and also taken Raga-based orchestral work to the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow (2021). This musical titled “The Magic Harp of Leela the Fairy” was specially composed for 150 children with special needs and orphans who were part of the audience.

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Despite his work being so diverse, Arnab has only a single aim in life: “How am I making a difference to me, my audience and how deeply can I bring them into this fold? How do we bring a smile to every face? Our endeavour is to evoke feelings. How do they feel when they listen to some music? Are we raising our individual and collective consciousness? We work with patients and doctors together and independently. The therapy includes a combination of Yoga Nidra, along with music, guided meditation and modern music – through visualisation.”

Using Guided Imagery in Music (also known as GIM) as a modality, the effort is to help individuals connect with an image from their past – a song or a  sound which is associated with an event that can help release endorphins in the brain. These images help connect feelings to thoughts and thereby assist in healing.

It is no surprise then, that Raga based therapy – since ragas are known to have potential healing properties, is such an important part of Arnab’s work today. The modalities he had learned and applied on his father back then are the cornerstone of his life’s purpose today. And unbeknown to him, he is already bringing smiles to more lives than he knows.


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