Monday, May 26, 2014

Can art heal?

By  V. Ramnarayan

Baiju Bawra was the unlikely hero of the eponymous 1952 Hindi film, a legendary character loosely based on the life of a 16th century Gwalior court musician. Played by Bharat Bhushan, Baiju performs miracles through the movie, in the limpid voice of Mohammad Rafi, singing the lyrics of Shakeel Badayuni in tunes composed by Naushad. He is joined by such eminent Hindustani vocalists as D.V. Paluskar and Amir Khan in variously bringing tears to the eyes of a stone idol with raga Darbari, starting a fire with Deepak and dousing it with Megh, and making a bed-ridden guru walk with a poignant Malkauns. The ringing tones of Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar can be heard across rivers and mountains, though they can unite lovers only in death. It was a love story all right, but more about the power of art, of such sublime music that the viewer was more than willing to suspend disbelief.

Music in Indian films often breaks or melts hearts, reunites families torn asunder in childhood, heals the sick, settles arguments about the superiority of one or other school of music or artist. In one astonishing sequence in a popular film in the 1960s, a personal attendant sings in a hospital ward for the patient, accompanying herself on the veena. The screenplay did not suggest that the music had a hand in the recovery of the patient believed to be terminally ill, giving the credit entirely to the doctor working day and night to save him and dying in the process, but such a turn would have lent it a nice touch. This writer for one thought the scene was absurd, but had to eat humble pie as he twice became witness to similar scenes in real life.

On the first occasion, a young burns victim found solace in the songs of M.S. Subbulakshmi which she asked her friend to sing for her during her last hours on earth. The second instance had a happier ending, as the same woman visitor sang for another young patient the night before she underwent major surgery and made a complete recovery — at the very hospital where the film had been shot decades earlier.

Most of us have felt elevated by great music, often enough to wonder if music — and art in general — can indeed ennoble human minds and hearts, even lend a healing touch in times of sorrow and stress. Music has been used in therapy in both east and west through the centuries, though it is hard to explain to the skeptic how exactly the treatment works. Sruti has attempted to introduce some of the concepts of music therapy to its readers in some past issues (221 and 268 for instance). In this issue we present some ideas and case studies by men and women engaged in research and practice in the field.

According to the eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks, “Humans are uniquely able to produce and enjoy music — very few other animals can do so. But not only is music one of the fundamental ways we bond with each other, it literally shapes our brains. Perhaps this is so because musical activity involves many parts of the brain (emotional, motor, and cognitive areas), even more than we use for our other great human achievement, language. This is why it can be such an effective way to remember or to learn. It is no accident that we teach our youngest children with rhymes and songs. As anyone who can’t get an advertising jingle or a popular song out of their head knows, music burrows its way deep into the nervous system, so deep, in fact, that even when people suffer devastating neurological disease or injury, music is usually the last thing they lose.

Sacks frequently saw that music could enable a Parkinson’s disease victim to dance or sing, even though, in the absence of music, he could not take a step or say a word. Songs brought back words to people with aphasia, a loss of the use of language most commonly caused by stroke, Music could even help victims of Tourette’s syndrome bypass the embarrassing physical and verbal tics that afflict them. Sacks even itnessed people with extreme amnesia sing or play long, complicated pieces of music, or conduct an orchestra or choir, though their loss of temporary memory was often total.

”Perhaps most remarkably, people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias can respond to music when nothing else reaches them,” Sacks says. “Alzheimer’s can totally destroy the ability to remember family members or events from one’s own life — but musical memory somehow survives the ravages of disease, and even in people with advanced dementia, music can often reawaken personal memories and associations that are otherwise lost.”

Music has been used in medicine since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, who believed that it could heal both the body and the soul. Native healers in the West as well as the third world sing and chant as part of their healing rituals. In World War II, U.S. Veterans Administration hospitals employed music to help treat soldiers suffering from shell shock. In 1944, Michigan State University established the first music therapy degree course in the world.

There are claims that, when used with conventional treatment, music therapy can help to reduce pain, even relieve chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Studies indicate that music therapy can lower the heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.

Conversely, there can be little doubt that noise or loud music can cause serious health problems. Again this writer once saw a friend with a chronic ear infection literally collapse when exposed to deafening music at a wedding reception. At the very least, constant noise pollution has made our whole generation noticeably hearing deficient.

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