Although I must have befriended Mangala Wagle sometime in 2009, about a year after we relocated back to Goa from the UK, it feels like I’ve known her even before that. There was such a sense of timelessness and agelessness about her.
As some of you will be aware, my wife Chryselle and I returned to Goa in 2008, and uppermost among the reasons for this move was the setting up of our music charity for disadvantaged children, Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org). In fact, even before we made the move, we had begun looking at schools and children’s shelters and charities that would be willing to partner with us. We explored several possibilities, but none seemed to ‘click’, as it were.
The months after our return went by in a blur, what with the transfer of residence and the arrival of all the books, music and other personal effects I had accumulated in the decade of my life in the UK, the birth of our son and the registration process of Child’s Play. After several false starts, we still hadn’t found a partner to work with. And then someone recommended we go to Mangala Wagle at Hamara School in St Inez.
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. To borrow a line from the classic film Casablanca, it was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”, between her and me, and between Hamara School and Child’s Play.
We must have met on innumerable occasions, either in passing, or more often to iron out some problem in scheduling of classes, or storage of instruments, or working out a steady daily practice schedule for the children, etc. What I appreciated about her is that she would try as much as possible to accommodate our needs and schedule.
The world over, music educators constantly have to bargain with parents and with mainstream academic curriculum teachers and tutors to defend the sometimes ever-shrinking daily time allotment for music learning and practice in a child’s waking hours. It is particularly bad in India on account of the obsession with frequent exams and tests, rote learning, the competition for entrance into higher tiers of learning or employment, and the low value attached to anything deemed ‘extra-curricular’.
Therefore, music educators everywhere value more than gold any rigorous research-based evidence in support of the argument that time devoted to music is actually beneficial, rather than detrimental, to a child’s academic performance.
So, whenever I mined further research information on this topic, I’d go armed with this to my next meeting with Ms Wagle. She would patiently hear me out, with an amused smile on her face, and then gently remind me that I was preaching to the choir! She already knew of the power and importance of music in general and music education in particular in enriching our lives. And she would then cite examples of children from Hamara School in our Child’s Play music project whose school grade had improved remarkably after they had been introduced to music lessons with us. It was always heartening to hear this.
The fact that she valued our partnership would become evident whenever she introduced me to visitors either at her apartment or at Hamara School. She would tell them that we were among the rare partners of Hamara School who had stuck it out despite all sorts of odds and obstacles, in contrast to so many others who had begun initiatives only to quit shortly after, or were only involved on a sporadic or periodic basis.
I grew to cherish and look forward to our meetings and telephone conversations; they became much more than mere trouble-shooting sessions, and evolved into a close friendship bond. We would talk about issues which at first glance might have seemed far beyond the scope of our music project; but on another level, they were also all interconnected. For instance, we would sometimes discuss career education and employment prospects of some of the children, but social empowerment is also one of our aims, right up there with pursuit of musical excellence.
Barely a day after Wagle passed away, the results of the HSSCE board examinations were declared. Among them was Irfan Shimphighar, from Hamara School, and who was in the very first batch of students when we began our collaboration there, almost a decade ago. He scored an impressive 89.5 per cent. The result would have gladdened the heart of Madam Wagle so much!
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. Madam Wagle understood this.
It turned out that her brother, the freedom fighter Pundalik Gaitonde was a friend of my own father during Goa’s Liberation struggle. Madam Wagle was not one to flaunt her family or her own life history, but it would sometimes come up in conversation, and the vignettes from the trajectory of her life mirrored the story of an India emerging from British rule and later of Goa from the Portuguese. The stories of life in Canacona in the 1940s, and her later years first in Mumbai and then in Goa were fascinating, and I regret not having written them down. I hope others have.
An emotional farewell to you, Madam Wagle. We’ll all miss you terribly, but will continue to work by your principles and example.
There will be a condolence meeting (open to the public) in memory of Smt. Mangala Wagle today (Sunday May 6 2018) at International Centre Goa, Dona Paula at 10 am.