The remarkable story of a girl who defied disability to become an accomplished musician.
BENZY KUMAR, 10, swings gently to the rhythm of the Bollywood remix song she is singing, even as she concentrates on the keyboard of the synthesiser before her. A large poster of Hrithik Roshan stares down at her, one of the many pictures of the film star in the room. There are many children who can sing and play an instrument at a young age and many more children who are Hrithik Roshan fans but Benzy's story is an unusual one.
When Benzy was a year old, her parents, Kavita and Praveen Kumar, realised that she could not crawl, babble or maintain eye contact. Her left side was stiff and she could not grip any object. Doctors diagnosed her with cerebral palsy. "Doctors whom we approached said that Benzy's logic cells were damaged and that they could not do much. We did not give up hope and began exploring alternative therapies," said Praveen Kumar.
They took her to the Spastics Society of Mumbai for stimulation therapy, which consists of exercises and muscle toning. It helped make her body less stiff. Kavita Kumar, a State-level badminton player, tried getting Benzy involved in sports but her inability to grip objects or coordinate her movements made it difficult for her.
Praveen, who is a mechanical engineer with the National Thermal Power Corporation got a transfer from Singrauli to Delhi. Kavita, who has a bachelor's degree in education (B.Ed), decided not to hire anyone to take care of Benzy, even if it meant that she would not be able to pursue a career.
The couple noticed her interest in music at an early age. "When she was very young she responded only to musical toys. We noticed at a later stage that she remembered the sequence of songs on the Channel V countdown. So we decided to try music therapy," said Kavita. They approached a music teacher to teach Benzy on an experimental basis. "We told the teacher to sing for Benzy even if the music did not elicit any response. Benzy had a number of teachers, many of whom frustrated at Benzy's lack of response, asked us why we were wasting our money on her," said Kavita.
Nevertheless, they persisted and when Benzy was seven, two years after they started the music lessons, she began responding. Ramji Mishra, her present music teacher said: "If I play a recording for her or sing for her for two continuous sessions she is able to sing it in the third session. Benzy is soon going to give her fourth-year intermediate examinations in music." Being able to communicate through music made a big difference to Benzy. She became less aggressive and less hyperactive and was able to practise music for two hours continuously. "Benzy was no longer frustrated at her inability to communicate verbally as music became her medium of communication," said Kavita. "Music therapy helped her adjust to school - the Sri Ram School in Vasant Vihar. Recently, we shifted her to the special section of the Lakshman Public School in Haus Khas," she added.
Encouraged by her parents, Benzy gave her first performance at the age of seven at a competitive event in Delhi's Triveni Kala Mandir. Not only did she win the first prize she also won the hearts of the audience. "Initially Benzy would begin singing even before the audience settled in or she made a fuss on stage. Sometimes she refused to accept her prize. But after a while she began enjoying herself on stage," Kavita said.
As Benzy began giving more performances and won a number of awards, her parents decided to record her songs on an audiocassette. "We recorded a collection of basic ragas sung by Benzy in Mangaldhvani Studio. She sang at one stretch and had no concept of take and retake," Kavita remembers.
In June 2002, when Benzy was eight-and-a-half, she recorded her first album, Basic Raagas.
Although the cassette was not released commercially, it was distributed to all the special schools in Delhi. Copies were also sent to many people in the Hindi music industry. Singer Subha Mudgal was the first to appreciate Benzy's talent. The cassette also received good reviews from many others in the film industry, including Anuradha Paudwal and Anandji Shah.
Benzy's interest in music soon diversified to include Bollywood film songs. "We made it a point to take Benzy to a number of films. She was never able to sit through more than 10 minutes of any film. The first film that she sat through fully was Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai. Benzy became enamoured by the film and Hrithik Roshan's character, Rohit, in the film," said Kavita.
One day, after attending a Brian Silas piano performance, Benzy asked for a similar instrument. Her parents bought her an electronic synthesiser and soon she mastered the piano, harmonium and the tanpura on the synthesiser. Last year, Benzy composed a song on her own. Said Ramji Mishra: "Benzy has the rare ability to play any instrument, which shows the extent of her command over music."
Benzy's parents then planned a second album, a mixture of ragas, classical music and Bollywood songs. They approached many audiocassette companies but all of them refused to take it up on the plea that the project would not be viable. Only one company, Nupur Audio, expressed interest. It agreed to release the cassette and give Benzy a 10 per cent royalty for a limited period. Said Kavita: "Benzy had to train for six months to learn how to wear the headphones so that we could begin recording the songs."
The deal with Nupur Audio was struck with the help of Bobby Singh, a singer who helps the company choose artists to sign on. Bobby Singh convinced the company that it should position Benzy's cassette as a project to promote social awareness. He said: "Though Benzy could not interact with me she was able to sing an entire song at one go on one track," said Bobby Singh. "This is something that even big artists no longer do." The album, Khoshish, sold more than 5,000 copies and won praise from the likes of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle.
Although Benzy is still a Hrithik fan, she is now a star in her own right. She has performed for All India Radio and at a number of other venues. The National Abilympic Association of India, which is supported by the Ministry of Social Justice and Ministry of Human Resource Development, honoured her with a cash prize of Rs.15,000. She has appeared on a number of television channels. The Indira Gandhi National Open University has featured her in a documentary called Main Bhi Sakshyam Hoon, which it uses in its special education course.
BENZY'S parents were able to arrange a meeting with Hrithik Roshan in Mumbai last year. He was so impressed with Benzy that he met her again in July this year when he visited Delhi. Said Kavita: "We often joke that it was not music therapy, but Hrithik therapy that helped Benzy." There are many factors that have led to Benzy's remarkable transformation, not least among them her parents' willingness to experiment and pursue alternative therapy.