Music, Art and Neuroscience for South Asian History Month

26 July 2021


This podcast is part of the celebration of South Asian History Month here at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Dr Santosh Mudholkar explores thoughts on the interaction between culture, music and the brain. Historically, art and music have played a prominent role in South Asian culture in bringing people together and lifting mental wellbeing.


Ella Marchant (EM): Hello and welcome to the Royal College of Psychiatrists podcast with me Ella Marchant. This podcast is part of the celebration of South Asian History Month here at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The South Asian subcontinent is ethnically diverse with different regional dialects, customs, traditions and cultures. Historically, art and music have played a prominent role in South Asian culture and bringing people together. The global South Asian diaspora continue to value their traditions and appreciate various forms of art and classical Hindustani music, both vocal and instrumental. 

Art and music have played a prominent role in mental wellbeing which is so crucial in the current testing times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Santosh is a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and has served as the College's associate registrar of membership engagement between 2016 and 2021. 

He is the immediate past president of the British Indian Psychiatric Association and executive committee member of the Transcultural psychiatry Special Interest Group and has a particular interest in art, culture and neuroscience. In this podcast, I will be interviewing Santosh and exploring thoughts on the interaction between culture music and the brain. Okay, so, Hello, welcome to the podcast Santosh. Could you please introduce yourself?

Santosh Mudholkar (SM): Yeah, so I'm Dr Santosh Mudholkar. And I was associate registrar for membership engagement until end of last month. And currently I'm consultant forensic psychiatrist and work with Nottinghamshire mental health NHS Trust.

EM: And today we're going to be discussing music, South Asian music and art and its role with mental healing and mental well being so would you mind just speaking to me about the relationship between music, art and neuroscience?

SM: Yeah. Firstly, thanks a lot for inviting me Ella for this podcast. I'm aware…I'm aware that the Royal College is celebrating South Asian History Month and it is so, wonderful opportunity to have a discussion with you regarding the role of art and music which has played…the role of art and music in neuroscience and mental wellbeing. 

See, art and music have been integral part of South Asian culture for centuries. The mythological stories which you see in Asian literature, they have been depicted through paintings through carvings and art and music as a recreational method has a long history. 

It is not only vocal music, but different kinds of musical traditional Asian musical instruments were played to entertain guests during the time of Asian dynasties and then the Mughal rule. And over the years, they have continued to play a huge role in bringing people together, supporting communities, but also celebrating the diversity and culture. 

Music, in particular, has an important role to play in mental well being. It is not often recognised that how music can be an important factor in mental wellbeing because it is not actually prescribed as medications. But many of us will identify how certain kinds of music are soothing, and calming to the mind. 

There are some music…there are some aspects of music therapies called as neurological music therapy, often called as NMT, which play an important role in cognitive rehabilitation as it engages the auditory motor language, cognitive and emotional functions. Across cortical and subcortical areas of the brain, it activates the brain. 

And there's a lot of literature about how there is interaction between certain areas of the brain and music. In fact, Franz Joseph Gall, the founder of phrenology, identified music as one of the 27 faculties of the mind. This was way back in 18th and 19th century really. 

Around the same time, British neurologist John Hulings Jackson made a observation about children who could not speak, but could sing. So, I think researchers for several centuries now have acknowledged the role - the interaction - between music and brain. 

You also wanted me to mention something about art. And when we look at art, it's such a huge topic, I thought it would be relevant to mention the role of drama, painting, films, various forms of art, and again South Asian culture has a rich, rich tradition of all these forms of art over several years, really.

EM: And what do you personally believe is the role of music and art in helping with mental healing?

SM: Music definitely has a role in mental well being and healing. Because, different kinds of music. Like I'll give you examples that in ancient culture you have different kinds of instruments, but also different kinds of music. 

There are certain vocal music which you play at dawn. Certain musical instruments like shehnai, which is like trumpet, which you usually listen to either at dawn or around the time of sunset. 

There are different other instruments like sitar, made famous by the master Rio Pandit Ravi Shankar and the drums are often called the tabla to go along with it. There are different sets of 'tala' which is the rhythm and different set pieces of music called 'ragas' which are played for different occasions, mood, time of the day and seasons. 

At the same time, flute is another instrument which is played which can be quite soothing and supports mental wellbeing. So, it depends on what musical instruments one is interested in. I mentioned the commonly used traditional musical instruments, of course, now with westernisation of the Asian subcontinent, most of the Western music is also widely appreciated in the subcontinent.

But I think it's important to highlight the rich Asian culture and music. I also would like to mention something about dance. There are different kinds of dance forms from kathakali to kuchipudi to bharatnatyam, the different kinds of dance and, and they are also quite therapeutic. These are more refined into more recent Indian cinema or films, often called as Bollywood as well. So there's lots to it really.

EM: Yeah, it's an extremely broad spectrum. Earlier we spoke about the relationship between music and the brain in terms of music stimulating certain areas of the brain. Is music something that you use in your personal therapy with patients?

SM: See, music therapy is offered as a treatment in inpatient settings. I first became aware of it as a trainee when working in a large psychiatric hospital and there used to be a music therapy department. 

I think as we moved out into the community services, I think we've lost that connection of having a separate special department for music. But music appreciation and music groups are still organised in day to day clinical practice by occupational therapists.

I think it would be a luxury to have music therapists like in the olden days. But nowadays, most of our service users have access to various forms of music which are available digitally. And also on the television or on MP3players. 

So yes, both mental health service users, mental health professionals, appreciate the role music has played in mental well being. So I would definitely endorse that. 

As part of mental well being focusing specifically on the South Asian culture, I think there is still lack of awareness about some of the traditional forms of music, and whether it is vocal or instrumental in mainstream mental health services. And I think it's a good opportunity when we are celebrating South Asian history month that we showcase and highlight some of these forms of music. And we are going to give a short demonstration of short pieces just to introduce to the audience some of the different forms of music during this podcast.

EM: On the topic of music, what's your favourite instrument and why?

SM: See I got introduced to music at an early age, but I have to admit that I I'm not actually… I'm not a practising musician, but I appreciate some of the traditional Asian music as well as Western. 

As for the musical instrumental Asian Music,  sitar is something which I really like. And I do follow the music map and Ravi Shankar as you know. The Beatles visited India in the late 60s, I think it was around '67, and George Harrison was really quite interested in learning sitar. 

So Pandit Ravi Shankar has a huge, huge…has played a huge role in increasing awareness of traditional Asian Music particularly sitar to the Western audience and also gave live performances along with Western musicians. 

So, sitar is basically an instrument which is made from gourd and then it has got different strings and has different…it's a long instrument with which is…you can say similar to guitar but larger. I think it is very difficult to describe - maybe we can show a picture of sitar as part of the podcast. Generally any Asian family who are into music would own a sitar and value it really.

EM: Earlier you were saying an important part of art is cinema. Could you talk to us a bit about your knowledge of Indian cinema and Bollywood?

SM: Yes, of course. See, I grew up in Mumbai and the term Bollywood is now loosely used for Indian cinema which originates in Bombay. And so, this industry is over 100 years old. 

I think the first Indian cinema which was filmed was called Harishchandra. That was in 1913. And since then, the industry has grown exponentially. And at the turn of last century, there were about 800 films being produced every year in Mumbai.

It has got a global audience. And that is why in Mumbai, the filmmakers or the film producers, directors, they're called dream merchants. Most of the films…the topics are varied, but what has become quite popular in the West and the global Asian diaspora are films with dance, music, romance, and love stories, but also aspects of the social life which has evolved dramatically over the last 50 years or so. 

So Indian cinema, again has played a huge role in mental wellbeing. And you'd have also heard of some of the films based on Indian stories like the Slumdog Millionaire, maybe you heard about Monsoon Wedding or about the Marigold Hotel.

So I think these are the popular ones. So I think Indian films and Indian cinema have played a huge, huge role as recreational and mental…a source of recreation and mental wellbeing. 

I think it's also worth mentioning that there are other film posters like the one in Hyderabad and Chennai who produce films in Telugu and Tamil films in Chennai really. So Bombay is not the only one, but by and far, leading in film production.

EM: So, do you think with films like Slumdog Millionaire, that even though that came out quite some time ago, do you feel like Indian cinema has started to become more popular in the UK?

SM: Indian cinema has always been popular in UK with the immigrant population. I've heard stories of families going to watch an Indian movie in Southall in the 60s because there has to be just one film, one cinema hall where the Indian movies used to be filmed… used to be shown.

And then they've moved into various parts of London and now there is opportunity to viewbBollywood movies in prominent metropolitan cities in UK. So they've always been very popular with the Indian diaspora. 

What has changed more recently is the western fascination for Asian stories and also Asian way of life. And I think there is now a good mix of Western producers, directors who are producing films on Asian topics and stories really. Some of the directors like Danny Boyle is a British film director and so is Gurinder Chanda who directed Bend It Like Beckham and Mira Nair, of course, US-based Asian who produced this wonderful Hollywood well, Western movie. So yeah.

EM: Yeah, I think Bend It Like Beckham is one of my favourite films. Absolutely love it. It's amazing. Just going back to mental health and the relationship between healing and music and art, what would you say to psychiatrists who are not currently using art and music as part of their practice? As you were saying, it's probably quite a lot considering it's more OTs and people working more closely in the community that will be using music and art. But what would you say to psychiatrists who are currently not using it or not encouraging it as part of their practice?

SM: I'd absolutely endorse and encourage prescribring music really. If we can prescribe psychological therapies, I think there is no reason why we can't prescribe art and music as a form of treatment. And it does help in mental health recovery. It is also quite empowering for our patients. And for some, it may also be a way to cope with the emotional pain and the distress which they are going through when they are mentally unwell. 

So promoting…well facilitating access to Asian music and art is one thing but I think I'll go one step further and say that we also need to look at providing access to musical instruments, traditional Asian musical instruments and/or music therapists in the mainstream mental health services in UK

EM: Okay, so providing service users with access to instruments is something that you would prioritise?

SM: Yeah, I think encouraging it because the music is now available digitally on any digital platform, so I think it is easy to access these things but I think we need to increase awareness that there is a therapeutic value in music as part of mental wellbeing. But in addition to just listening, I think if someone wants to play a musical instrument, then that is also something which should be encouraged.

EM: Thank you, Dr Santosh for speaking to us on culture, music and the brain for South Asian History Month. If you'd like to find out more about South Asian History Month, please go to our website Go to About the College then select Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and choose South Asian History Month. 

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