Let the New Year usher in minds, which have many talents

As unbelievable as it is, 2018 has come to a close, almost. The last column that I wrote on musicians and mental health seems to have struck a chord with many, and I am now hopeful that this issue can be addressed more systematically. One of the calls that came as a response to this was from a musician who highlighted the problems faced by generalists, polymaths and versatile talents. In a world and a community that increasingly slots professionals into easily recognisable tags, what happens to those who are good at more than one thing?

The answer is dismal. Contrary to what you might expect, polymaths are not revered. They fall into the ‘Jack of all trades’ categorisation, with stakeholders and functionaries preferring to choose the specialists over the multi-track talents. This seems wrong. For instance, M. Balamuralikrishna was known to be a composer, viola player, keen games enthusiast and percussionist in addition to being the star vocalist that he was. His forays into popular and contemporary music in addition to classical music is also known.

In my own case, 2019 opens a new door for me as I join Krea University as faculty. I hope to be working on cross-disciplinary collaborations in this new venture set up for interwoven learning. I write, I speak and I play the piano across multiple styles — classical, jazz, popular and contemporary music. Many of our readers are aware of my work in education and philanthropy. Since I have never really thought of myself as proficient in all of these, I have been content in being labelled ‘that piano player.’ But I see where that would affect certain votaries of the community, and I can certainly see how unfair that would be to musicians who have an ability to do more than one thing.

Indeed, the common anecdote that I get to hear from parents of gifted children is that of music teachers telling their wards to focus “either on singing or on instrumental music — you cannot do both.” Sometimes, it is “either on Western music or Indian music — the vocal chords might get corrupted if you do both.”

Through history, polymaths were indeed highly respected. Leonardo Da Vinci for instance — painter, sculptor, scientist, writer, materials scientist — the list goes on. We also know that he pioneered aeronautics in his own way. Literally, the sky was his limit. Bertrand Russell — mathematician, writer and artistic genius is also frequently cited as another example. Einstein was as gifted on the violin as he was a scientist and humanitarian.

In the last couple of centuries, the quest for ‘specialisation’ commenced from European research universities and pervaded popular thinking in such a deep way that today we find that value judgments are often imposed on those who are not considered ‘slottable.’ The world that is veering towards the 22nd century is definitely calling for more polymaths or versatile talents. The premise at Krea University, or Ashoka University or any of the new education paradigms is about multi-disciplinary prowess and thinking.

Let us usher in 2019 with the promise that we will be kinder on ourselves. And encourage our children to explore as many talents and paradigms as they find themselves interested in. Polymaths may well become par for the course.

The writer is a well-known pianist and music educator based in Chennai

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