When she was only four years old, Dr. Tara Rajendran watched as her grandmother suffered from and eventually succumbed to leukemia. While certainly sad at this loss, she was taken, even at such a tender age, by how her grandmother seemed to feel less anxiety and pain whenever Carnatic music, the classical music of her native Southern India, was played in her presence.
Soon after, she began Carnatic voice training and at the age of seven, Tara began studying the Saraswati veena. Fascinated by the instrument, she continued her studies at Annamalai University, eventually earned both bachelor of fine arts (2016) and master of fine arts (2018) degrees in Veena.
Tara simultaneously pursued her other passion, medicine, ultimately earning her medical degree in 2019 from Kasturba Medical College. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in classical Indian music at Annamalai; she plans to complete her dissertation by 2023, to be followed by medical residency and training to become an oncologist in the U.S. Her long-term goal is to combine her two passions, medicine and music, to harness the power of music to help others heal.
Music Therapy for India
Tara strives for the creation of a nationwide program of music therapy (MT) in her home country, India, a discipline currently lacking there. This deficit, she said in a recent email exchange with MakingMusicMag.com, is based largely upon a trio of factors. One, the National Medical Commission, India’s medical regulatory body, has yet to develop an accredited training program for the field of music therapy. And two, India does not have a professional organization to perform research and certification, as the American Medical Therapy Association does in the U.S.
Thirdly, Tara said, India lacks “high-quality, peer-reviewed, randomized controlled trials on musical interventions that are tailored to India’s patients and its population.” While there exist some non-governmental organizations and private organizations that offer MT certifications, they do not have NMC accreditation. With its rich and diverse musical heritage, Tara believes India could successfully tap its musical resources to create and build a strong indigenous MT program to benefit not only patients, but caregivers and family members as well.
To accomplish this, several things must happen – the first being research and the collection of evidence as to the efficacy of music interventions among Indian patients.
I want to “create evidence using musical interventions that are tailored to the Indian population.” Tara said. “Integrative medicine interventions must be evidence-based, not anecdotal. Evidence ensures quality and safety, and safeguards against false beliefs and noxious practices.” She says that undergraduate medical students can take advantage of available grant and research opportunities toward gathering appropriate evidence.
Tara’s second priority is to “Provide music and encourage hospitals to play music on their floors, in reception areas, post-operative rooms, and chemotherapy rooms as a therapeutic, passive form of music therapy.”
In the longer term, she wants the NMC to appoint a professional group of physicians, musicians, and physician-musicians to establish MT guidelines and create a training curriculum, followed by the creation of a national organization to oversee licensing examinations and board certification for prospective music therapists, and then making MT services available at hospitals throughout India.
As Tara told The Indian Express in an article published last February, “India has a vast repertoire of indigenous music, yet we have neither explored its potential academically and clinically, nor ingrained it into our health care infrastructure.”
Oncology & Strings
Tara’s advocacy has manifested itself in a series of lecture-concerts she calls “Oncology and Strings.”
During a clinical rotation at Harvard University, her mentor encouraged Tara to “explore the intersection” between her medical interest in oncology and her musical interest in the veena. Later, during a stint at Stanford University, Tara played her veena for a patient, an experience that eventually gave birth to her lecture-concert series.
She described “Oncology and Strings” to The Indian Express as follows:
“The target audience is oncologists, pain and palliative care physicians, and medical students,” Tara said. “They could together create evidence for musical interventions specific to Indian society through randomized controlled trials. In the lecture, I illustrate the latest international clinical trial outcomes from the peer-reviewed medical literature, the neuro-psycho-endocrinology of music, the six major musical interventions, and the concept of melody/raga in Indian classical music.
“If the audience is predominantly medical students, I would explain the steps of randomized controlled trial and the sources of research funding,” she said. “This is followed by a Saraswati Veena recital/demonstrating the emotions evoked by ragas.”
[Note: As defined by “The New Harvard Dictionary of Music,” the term “Raga” refers to “Mode in Indian music. Besides the designation of a particular scale, a raga includes other modal prescription such as pitch ranking, characteristic ascent and descent patterns, motives, use of ornaments, performance time, and emotional character.”]
Tara sees great potential in her nation’s musical traditions.
“India houses a plethora of musical genres: [classical], folk, cinema playback tracks, independent albums, cultural and religious music, and hundreds of musical instruments,” she told The Indian Express. “In a day, around a thousand cancer patients visit a regional cancer center; imagine if we play therapeutic music therapy, live or recorded, how many patients and families in a year will have the impact? Annually, we also have thousands of young skilled classical music students graduating from prestigious universities. If we could use their prowess — either for passive live music sessions in the hospitals (therapeutic music therapy) or for clinical music therapy after their board certification from NMC-accredited training programs.”
“The medical community in India is really receptive and supportive,” Tara told MakingMusicMag.com. “That said, establishing a training program and setting up guidelines needs to be done from the administrative side and I don’t expect it to happen immediately.”
But she remains optimistic.
“Sooner or later, there will be a day in India, where a patient will wait in hospital reception while passively listening to a live musician, and that they receive a music therapist’s service as part of integrative medicine from day one, along with their standard treatment,” Tara said.
It is not often that a person can earn advanced degrees in two such highly specialized fields as medicine and music, yet Tara has achieved this remarkable feat. So, we had to ask, which comes first – doctor or musician?
“I think I am both, equally,” she replied. “Chronologically, music came into my life first. I was playing for an erudite and esoteric audience. But being in medicine gave me a unique perspective and purpose to my musical gift.”
Tara Speaks About Her Passions for Medicine and Music
Dr. Tara Rajendran: TEDx Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o1LHxTrhDHY
Dr. Tara Rajendran’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLPkTN9TOAAuWnZK0JYf55mT0JLOS_SsNc
[Photo courtesy Dr. Tara Rajendran]