The Cultural Uniqueness of Indian Music Therapy: An Eastern and a Western Voice

Sumathy Sundar

Ancient Indian Sacred and Musical Traditions

India is known for its rich cultural heritage and traditions. If music therapy in India is to be understood one has to understand the science and sound of music which was studied so intricately and understood so deeply in ancient India. Additionally there is the countrys tantric religious philosophy with its higher levels of understanding of the expansion of different levels of human consciousness. Indian music therapy is strongly influenced by such ancient sacred and musical practices as Vedic Recitals, Raga Chikitsa, Nada Yoga and Nadopasana and traditional alternative healing systems like Yoga and Ayurveda. All these approaches integrate with music, spirituality adding uniqueness to the practice of music therapy, making it a holistic approach to the enhancement of wellness and health in the art of living.

A Western Voices

The uniqueness of music therapy practice lies in the multiple styles adopted by different practitioners across the globe depending on the colorful ethnic fabric of the region where it is practiced. This is unlike other health care approaches which are standardized. The flexibility in balancing broader aspects like life style, philosophical orientation, the musical traditions and cultural heritage of a specific region and integrating them in clinical practice drives us constantly to improve and develop the practice. There are also further complexities needing to be addressed with the demands of evidence-based practice. Another uniqueness is that the continuing education that is offered online through our international forum on hearing different voices on their experiences and approaches makes practitioners widen their perspectives in developing effective and fruitful practice.

I am pleased to introduce a western voice, that of Mr. Aurelio, Director of Svaram Musical Instruments Research Station and Director and Trustee, Mohanam Cultural Centre situated at Auroville Community, Pondicherry, India. He is a musician/composer, sound healer, music therapist and a cultural activist. Although educated in Austria in linguistics and music ethnology, he has settled in a community in Auroville and dedicated his life to a social cause through his work in music and sound. Svaram is one of the few places on the Indian subcontinent experimenting in the field of creating of new musical instruments that should be accessible to everybody, independent of talent or predisposition, directly bringing the joy of music into ones hands and heart.

Through this interview, he will share his explorations in music and consciousness, music therapy and harmonic science with Voices readers, which I am sure will be a great learning experience for music therapists on widening their perspectives.


Sumathy: I am pleased to introduce you Mr. Aurelio to our Voices readers. Can you please tell us what exactly attracted you to settle down in Auroville community in India as a sound healer and a cultural activist even though you have a very strong background in western music, having been educated and trained in Austria?

Aurelio: In many of my studies in the west on the healing potential and metaphysics of sound I found constant referrals to the Indian tradition and its deep knowledge and wisdom of sound. What attracted me was the contemplative and experiential approach, and I had a strong need to dive deeper into that unknown ocean of sound, to fathom its magic, discover its mystery, scrutinize the concepts and facts, so that through my own experience I would understand directly and be able to apply the healing power of sound on myself and others. Of course it became clear through many contacts, studies and practices that this is a life long journey, and that as in a true vidya, a deep knowledge and science of life - the secrets reveal themselves only according to inner capacity, dedication and discipline and the right timing.

Sumathy: What do you think about the status of music therapy in India? Do you find anything different?

Aurelio: It is interesting that in spite of many myths and legends about the magic of music we dont find very many direct references in the scriptures or contemporary music practice about healing with sound or music therapy. As is so typical in many other areas of the Indian tradition, much is shrouded in mystery of the sacrosanct past and there is also a strain of resistance of approaching the subject too directly and rationally. So I have some quite interesting anecdotes of encounters with musicians, nadayogis, occultists, spiritual researchers and scientists and it has been a long, adventurous journey to come to a kind of comprehensive view on the subject. As such there is not yet an established practice of Indian music therapy but, as in its religion and philosophy, a multifarious array of approaches and attitudes ranging from the primal sound magic of the tribal cultures, through the deep spiritual sound healing techniques of some mystery schools, to international acclaimed research on music and life force. Through all these shines the underlying principle of the creative, sustaining and transformative power of sound as an expression of the origin, interrelatedness and oneness of our existence. India could make through its holistic view and wisdom, essential and important contributions to the field of music therapy, as for example the total approach of Ayurveda as a science of life already contributes substantially to our understanding of individual, social and environmental health. One of the most important treatises on music, whose author hailed from a family of medical practitioners, starts its exposition of musical axioms, written in verse, with a whole cosmology and embryology of our human becoming and defines the ultimate role of music as being to lead us out of any bondage and suffering to the highest human potential of liberation and enlightenment.

Sumathy: Though a music composer, you integrate music therapy in all your activities in Svaram. How do you find integrating your western musical background into a typical cultural and traditional eastern setting?

Aurelio: It became so apparent in the grass roots work that one cannot separate the individuals state of health from his social upbringing, conditionings and present circumstances. The facts of big households and joint families and kinship patterns and clan and caste structures have to be understood and integrated for a wholesome harmonization to occur. It proved also extremely rewarding to work on instrument building directly, with the unemployed youth, to get hands-on with the craft work as this brought us plenty of learning opportunities about diverse materials and their sound properties, about acoustic principles, and the classifications and symbolism of the different instrument classes and genres of traditional and contemporary music. My western education and rational training was very helpful to discern, analyze, bring in context, develop step by step methodologies, overview and strategize our work and development process. I believe firmly that we are globally at a stage where we can benefit from all different approaches and traditions and discover afresh and develop a synthesis of the golden means and centre which brings together the right and left hemispheres, the eastern and western approaches, and the micro and macro views of our human perspective and world divide and prepare us for the next evolutionary step in this civilization of change. Music in the Indian tradition has been seen and heard as a powerful agent, catalyst, and bridge between the layers and spheres of the cosmos and therefore can fulfill a prime function towards a healing and emerging integral consciousness.

Sumathy: Have you ever thought that the western approaches of musical therapy interfered with the culture, life style and the philosophic orientation of this country?

Aurelio: We are actually quite fortunate within the practice of music therapy, with its renaissance either from the ancient wisdom tradition or from a postmodern holistic world view, that we can approach our subject from a more integral perspective. Even in the pure clinical work we work with the understanding of the whole phenomena of the client and not with isolated symptomatic treatments. Even if there might be pure physical phenomena and the possibility of treatments through mere vibrations and selected frequencies, the strength and future significance of music therapy is its possible integration of the physical, the emotional, vital field, the conceptional, thinking sphere and the spiritual dimension of our being, as exemplified in the Ayurvedic system. Be it with scientific methods, shamanic techniques, psychotherapeutic approaches or mystic means, it is in the perception and understanding of the fullness of our existence that we will have the capacity to harmonize discords and heal and bring the fragmentation and isolation into the natural symphonic state of our cosmic existence, individually, in the collective and the world. The global re-emergence of music and sound therapies is a clear indication of natures -human and planetary- need to realign to a deeper harmony and order of the cosmos. What a delight and responsibility to be instrumental in that work!

Sumathy: Where do western and eastern philosophies meet or do they meet at all in music therapy practice?

Aurelio: Philo-sophy east or west always meant to befriend with the truth, to find out more about the origin, reason and aim of our life. Whereas in the West with its preoccupation with rational thinking the methods were more speculative and reductionistic and pedagogic, the East relied more on contemplative experience, intuition and direct transmission. So this offers now a marvelous opportunity for a synthesis and integrative approach, bringing together the diverse strains of human explorations into the nature and expression of our highest ideals of love, beauty, knowledge and power. With the emergence of a new paradigm for a global civilization it becomes redundant to emphasize or stress the dualities and seems more important to discover and utilize the wisdom and achievements of any tradition. For music therapy this shall mean an openness to the rich traditions of healing through sound and music from all over the globe and at the same time work on research and methodologies according to the defined scientific parameters. The question for the future is probably not so much one of different philosophies but rather the finding, defining and utilization of a pragmatic science of an Integral Psychology.

For the field of music therapy in India that could bring a vast array of explorations and research into its rich artistic, medical and spiritual heritage, fresh and scientifically based experimentation and inspired and creative applications of one of the richest and most complex music systems of humanity. This invites international input and networking and I am personally happy to see some first steps and initiatives in the right direction.

Sumathy: What do you think Indian music therapists can do?

Aurelio: Here again it is not anymore a question of left or right, east or west, either or, but rather if we manage as contemporary conscious humans to take the leap into an understanding or should we better say over-view of our present situation and evolutionary crises on all levels of our planetary existence. We can take responsibility to grow in wisdom and compassion to heal ourselves and fellow sentient beings and co-create a more harmonious life in resonance with truly wholesome principles and universal values. The music therapist in India can take advantage of the deep wisdom traditions and practices of this special culture; be familiar with Ayurvedic principles and Yoga psychology and its diverse branches like Nada, Svara and Nidra Yoga, tantric, occult and indigenous practices; be deeply experienced in the classical Indian music, while also comprehending other systems and at the same time be trained and satisfy academic and scientific methodologies. In this way a really unique curriculum for trainings and courses could be developed which would also draw interest and participation from the international field.

Sumathy: What would be your view on the future of music therapy in India, and the possible contribution of your project work?

Aurelio: Many of the international researchers and spiritual seekers from abroad living in India share the perception that this culture has something very valuable and essential to contribute towards a functioning and more healthy future of our global civilization. This ancient tradition speaks about the Sanathana Dharma, a universal truth, law, way an expression of our deepest human longings and highest ideals of perfection. Music has always held the highest place amongst the arts, was sacred and revered as a gift from and a gateway to higher realms of existence. It was seen as a means for salvation. Many people in the world have experienced in the last decades the uplifting and soothing and soulful qualities of Indian classical music, and the vitality and charm of its folk forms. It will be a rewarding task to uncover and recreate, define and formulate a specific and yet organic system and discipline of Indian music therapy. At this moment there are some pioneering initiatives preparing the ground and we hope that our work with our instrument building and research in sound healing modalities will open a vaster field of interest, communication and international collaborations.

The ever present drone of the Indian soundscape is inviting for a free melodic and rhythmic flow.. healing spaces open meaningfully and time reveals the play of our precious life here on earth!

Sumathy: Do you do both sound healing and music therapy? If yes, is your sound healing in tune with the eastern culture and music therapy to the western?

Aurelio: I welcome the emergence of differentiation of the means and components of music therapy. What would be a clear distinction between sound healing and music therapy? Is it that the east placed more emphasis on the inner dimensions of sound and that the west explored more its structural manifestation, that the east approached healing through the essence and aim of our life, that the west was preoccupied with problem solving and therapeutic techniques? If we take it again from an integral point of view then all the factors work together in a successful treatment and process of positive change. Music is a total phenomenon and even if it and its impact can be analyzed and taken apart into its purely material, vibrational, sound components on one side and its structural, aesthetic, conceptional part on the other, and that we would say that one works purely on the physical and the other on the emotional and mental, if we don't account for all the aspects of the intricate process and relationship, the social, cultural and environmental conventions, conditionings and circumstances, then again we fall back into the separatist attitude of our predominant logical and therefore limited view. Music therapy will play a growing role in the future healing arts if it takes and incorporates the premises of its prime means: music, which is a unique and rare wholesome expression of human life exemplifying the full potential of our nature and connecting us with a world of harmony and perfection.

That is why it is crucial for music therapy and its proponents to approach this precious gift for our wellbeing and healing through a renaissance of the ancient wisdom and now again newly emerging paradigm of integrality and wholeness.

In that way, yes, we are looking for a synthesis, and have the amazing benefit, chance and tool with music therapy to work and live from and through the spirit of harmony of this higher or deeper, transcendent or immanent dimension of our existence, which is opening and communicating to us through the realm of music.


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Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy (ISSN 1504-1611)