‘Life of Pi’ Indian musician touches a chord with autistic children

An unsettling encounter with an 11-year-old boy proved to be a revelation for singer Bombay Jayashri Ramnath, who makes her Hong Kong debut on Tuesday

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 6:12pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 11:04pm

Oscar-nominated Indian classical music singer Bombay Jayashri Ramnath is used to receiving praise. But it was an encounter with an autistic child that made her reflect on the impact she had with her talent.

After a concert in Dubai 16 years ago, the 11-year-old boy approached Jayashri with his mother and told her: “You sang everything wrong.” He repeated the phrase three times, leading to a sleepless night and bruised ego for the singer.

The next day, she met the boy and his mother again at a farewell dinner, and Jayashri asked her why he had spoken in such a way. The woman apologised and said her son could not help it because he “only spoke the truth” due to his autism.

Months later, she received a video of her concert in Dubai and, after comparing it to a studio recording, realised the boy had been correct.

“I was angry with myself for making so many mistakes,” she said.

“And then something happened inside me where [I thought], if that boy came up to me and said that, it either meant that nobody in the audience knew or had the courage to tell me. It meant that the boy cared more than anybody else in the audience.”

I’m meeting the most honest, loving and caring people in the world when I meet children with autism
Bombay Jayashri Ramnath, singer

Since that encounter, she has met many autistic children who were positively affected by her music, including one boy “who kept her cassette under the pillow” when he slept, alleviating his sleeping issues. Seeing that her music was having positive effects on autistic children, she began holding specific workshops for them.

“I’m meeting the most honest, loving and caring people in the world when I meet children with autism and their parents,” Jayashri said.

An international spotlight shone on Jayashri after her song for Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi received an Academy Award nomination in 2013.

The Indian Carnatic vocalist will be making her first visit to Hong Kong for a performance at the University of Hong Kong on Tuesday, but it’s not her first trip to China.

Jayashri has held workshops and concerts in mainland China. Even though there was an obvious language barrier, “they loved the music”, feeling a connection with her music that transcended language.

“[When] they sang with me, and as the song rolled by, I opened my eyes to see everybody in the audience had closed eyes,” she said.

“I don’t really think they started doing it because I started singing with closed eyes, I really think they could feel something from deep within – a connection within themselves, a connection with music – they could feel something different, a bond.”