A Noteworthy Life: Doctor Luis Dias Is Empowering Underprivileged Children Through The Power Of Music

Luis Dias gave up his medical practice in the UK to set up Child's Play, a school that teaches western classical music to underprivileged children in India

Rima Datta,Rima Datta Holland Updated: Jan 9, 2020 13:28:36 IST
A Noteworthy Life: Doctor Luis Dias Is Empowering Underprivileged Children Through The Power Of Music “Music touches the soul of a person like nothing else,” says Luis Dias (front, centre). Seen here with Child’s Play students in Panjim, Goa (Photograph by Kailas Naik)

July 2007. A BBC concert showcasing the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The performance ends to thunderous applause. The dancers and musicians in the orchestra stand, look proudly around, smile and bow, while the audience claps on and on. Calls of “bravo!” echo through the hall. Among the crowd, transfixed, is 41-year-old Dr Luis Dias. He had heard of this ensemble and knew it consisted solely of children from South Africa’s poorest townships, but had never seen them performing live. Speaking about it years later, his voice still filled with awe, he says: “That concert just blew my mind.”

Born in 1966 to an illustrious family of Goan doctors, Dias followed in his family’s footsteps and pursued medicine, specializing in gynaecology and obstetrics. Trained in the violin from the age of five, music was an integral part of his upbringing, and has remained an overwhelming passion ever since. In 1998, he went to study and work in London, a city he loved for its rich music culture. In the same year as the Buskaid performance, Dias came across a similar project—El Sistema—a programme that offers classical music training to underprivileged youth in Venezuela. If he had wondered how successful such orchestras could be, all doubts were now put to rest. These were living proof that children who had never held a musical instrument, whose lives were far removed from classical music, could be trained to play with expertise and enthusiasm. Encouraged by the achievements of Buskaid and El Sistema, Dias began to explore the possibility of starting a similar effort for disadvantaged children in India.

Among others, Dias approached David Juritz, a South African violinist, who started Musequality, a foundation that promotes music education for children in developing countries. With the organization’s support, Dias’s plans began to take concrete shape. In 2008, he and his wife, Chryselle, decided to give up their comfortable life in the UK and return to their home in Panjim, Goa, to try and realize what many thought was an impossible dream. In just one year, the duo founded their charity Child’s Play India Foundation. The name was carefully chosen for its dual meaning, as was their raison d’etre: Every child is noteworthy.

Realizing that setting up the project and teaching music would be a full-time endeavour, Dias abandoned his medical career, swapping the life of a successful physician for that of a poorly paid music teacher—a move some would consider foolhardy. A quiet, unassuming man of medium height, dark-haired and bespectacled, Dias is transformed when describing the power of music, the depth of his commitment shining through. “Music touches the soul of a person like nothing else,” he says with a smile. To those who wonder why he didn’t continue with his medical career, he replies, “There are many who can provide medical care, but few who teach western classical music in India. I know what I’m doing now is what I was put on earth to do,” he responds.

Yet, as he explains, it was not easy getting such an ambitious enterprise off the ground. With Chryselle managing the administrative side, Dias began to build the foundations for Child’s Play. Aside from getting the necessary funds, it was important to find a place that would safely house the children, teachers and equipment. They eventually found the perfect partner in Mangala Wagle, the powerhouse woman behind Hamara School, a shelter for disadvantaged children in Panjim. Their collaboration started in 2009 and classes began with 12 children and one teacher in the shelter’s dusty front yard, next to a noisy street, bustling with traffic.

From these humble beginnings, Child’s Play gradually grew in spite of being solely dependent on private funding. Instruction is now offered to about 120 children. True to their motto, no child is turned away, for Dias firmly believes that all children have the innate capacity to play music. A core group of five or six faculty members hold it together, instructing the children in violin, viola, cello, flute, piano and choir. “We’d love to introduce more instruments if we only had the teachers,” he says regretfully.

Dias’s excitement when he teaches the children is palpable. He demonstrates how a piece should sound, explains a bit of the history, asks them if they remember what ‘adagio’ means, which language it comes from, which note he’s playing, sharp or flat. These children, their lives circumscribed by their social status, are making leaps far beyond the limits fate has imposed on them. Dias and his colleagues not only teach them music, they broaden their horizons with every session. They teach them endurance and discipline, persistence and patience. Reflected in the children’s faces is a sense of pride at being able to play an instrument and, with every smile of approval and pat on the head from their teacher, their growing self-esteem.

Child’s Play puts on at least two concerts a year to which the children’s families and general public are invited. The parents, many of whom are street-side vendors and labourers from nearby slums, while initially wary, feel nothing but pride once they see their children on stage as any parent would be. Never had they imagined that their children, condemned to a life in the wings, would find a place on centre stage, in the limelight and applauded by a wildly enthusiastic audience. It matters little to them that it is western and not Indian classical music that their children are playing. What matters is that their children are displaying their hard-won skills and that they are appreciated.

“It is not just the life of a child that we may be changing. Music can have an effect on generations to come. Orchestral music teaches children to work together to create a thing of beauty. It has the power to create harmony in a community,” Dias says. It is clear what he means when he says playing music together can foster unity. Children in Dias’s violin class come from different religious communities: Muslim, Christian and Hindu. However, when the bow touches the strings, their fingers find the same notes, their hearts pulse to the same rhythms and their spirits surge in harmony. “This work does come at a personal cost. But when I go to meet my maker,” he says with a wry grin, “at least I can say, I did what I could to make a difference.”

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