Grapefruit Music

A Brief History of Time 

My work and life in Matli has resulted from a series of ‘accidents.’ If it sounds better, I’m willing to negotiate substituting ‘accidents,’ with ‘beautiful coincidences.’ Much of this holds true for my own process as a therapist. I can’t claim to have ever had a clear sense of calling to be a therapist, let alone a music therapist. In fact, the term music therapy ‘came to me’ relatively late in life, while listening to one of my professors lecturing on human development in 2012.

I first arrived in Matli as an English teacher, and while here, would occasionally do google searches for ‘Music Therapy training in India.’ The early search results were not overly convincing, and it was only after several random searches that I stumbled across an option which seemed worth pursuing, with the Chennai School of Music Therapy. Given my somewhat loose ended, ‘lets see where this goes’ interest in music therapy, my only sense initially was that I could return to Matli after my training, and possibly apply my learning in my classrooms. This is not to say that my teaching prior to becoming a therapist didn’t include a heavy dose and reliance on the arts. Rather, now being ‘officially’ trained and all that jazz, could give me a license to use the arts even more liberally in my work as a teacher.

The first significant ‘coincidence’ was while raising funds to start a small music therapy clinic in Matli, while completing my internship in a hospital in Pondicherry, South India. When the fundraising came to an end, I had raised about 2500 USD. I cant to this day, know why or how I ended up doing what I did next, but I sent out one more proposal, to a handful of people. I received an almost immediate response, from a donor who to this day requests anonymity, pledging 24,000 USD. Given that this is ‘only just’10 times more than I was expecting, it shouldn’t take an overly huge stretch of the imagination, in terms of the options this opened up for me. I travelled back to Matli with a sizeable collection of therapeutic resources. Actually, more accurate would be that I ‘lied’ my way back to Matli, given the quantity of luggage that I was carrying. A few indignant train conductors and bus drivers, and an ex army personal driving close to 18 hours non stop on the back roads from New Delhi to MAtli, including refusing to stop at a police checkpoint, and I was home. I suppose I should add that I wasn’t smuggling drugs, it’s just that India has rules in terms of the amount of luggage certain vehicles can carry when moving from state to state. I had a rough idea where I wanted the clinic to be, and hoped to apply my newly acquired training in education, but aside from this, the game plan was as open ended as ever. My training was in medical music therapy, and while we did encounter elements of training that would be a part of an arts focused degree in music therapy, these were brief. I still saw myself as a teacher in Matli, and working with individuals from within a therapeutic relationship was not something I had given serious thought to.

This all changed a month after returning to Matli, when I made friends with Ankur who was in Matli after completing high school. He had 4 months of waiting before he began college, and the school where I taught closed for its month long summer break. Ankur I soon grew to discover was exceptional with his hands, and had a somewhat hard to believe capacity for dependability and carrying responsibility. We spent the summer holiday designing the room for the clinic with the help of a few hoys from the village. I then had this brilliant epiphany to begin conducting twice weekly drum circles in the village and surrounding vicinity. This is undoubtedly ‘brilliant,’ because I had never sat in a drum circle myself, let alone received the training to facilitate one. This turned out far better than any of us imagined, and for the next 6 months this is what we did, twice a week after school was over for the day.

I the mean time, I moved to a different house in Matli, and one of my new neighbours was Deepak, a boy with a severe case of Cerebral Palsy. I would see him several times a day, not in the capacity of a therapist, but simply because he would be plonked in a ramshackle wheelchair in his garden, and whenever I walked to school and back, he’d be there with his remarkably cherry grin, and delightfully unconventional sense of humour. I had good experiences working with Cerebral Palsy children during my internship, but my teaching and new drum circle schedule meant that I didn’t launch into working with Deepak immediately. In fact, I cant remember exactly when I started working with Deepak as a therapist, and perhaps this is an indication of the organic nature of life here. I do know that I worked with Deepak as my only ‘client/patient’ (both are a poor choice of words for this context, and will require a separate reflection to explain why). Those were fun early months with Deepak. Apart from seeing him weekly as a therapist, I organised Sunday play groups, communal movie nights, took my classes to sing to him, under the pretext of community work, but at heart what was really important for me was that Deepak would have a gala time. I am acutely aware that me being able to think like this, is thanks largely to the setting in Matli. Deepak for me wasn’t a bundle of problems to be fixed or goals and treatment plans to be meted out. Life is too sophisticated to be approached that way, and a setting like Matli only accents this all the more. I must of course add, in case all you therapists reading this are rolling your eyes and pulling your hair out, that this doesn’t mean I discount the value of, or work without treatment plans. I just tend to approach these with strong views, that are loosely held.

I eventually moved to working full time as a therapist, and for a period of a few years, had at best sparse and sporadic contact with other therapists. My circle of well wishers and donors compromised of almost no therapists, which meant I wan’t getting much in terms of feed back and peer supervision with regards to the essence of my work. What’s great about working that way for an extended period of time, is that I learned to do without affirmation. The first truly meaningful affirmation I received was when I underwent a years training in Integral Sound Healing in 2018. We had to present research we had undertaken at the end of the year, and when I shared footage from my work, I was deeply moved at the response. For this I am indebted to Aurelio Hammer, who mentored us. It is hard to adequately capture the sense of faith and value which I began to have towards my work, given his weight of experience, and that his stamp of approval was generous, and given free of agenda and fine print. This one spark gave me a deeper quality of appreciation for the work I had been privileged to do in Matli. As is the nature of a spark, one has a way of lighting up the way for others, and I have since been a glad recipient of the support and interest subsequent people have shown towards my work.  

                                                                                                                                                      Stephen Philip
                                                                                                                                                   April 5th 2021