The school, originally named Plaza Music Academy, was founded by Swami Maa Chetan Jyoti in October 2005, on the rooftop of her ashram by the banks of Mother Ganga facing the Himalayan Mountains outside the Holy city of Rishikesh.
Maa’s goal was to develop the musical potential in local impoverished children. The children’s orchestra for classical Indian music – heretofore unheard of in India – was entirely her creation and love offering. She sought donations for instruments, offered free lessons and engaged her accompanist, friend and fellow world musician, Shivananda Sharma as their teacher and director.
The children could come every day, morning and afternoon for class with Shivananda, and at any other time the rooftop of the ashram was free for them to come and practice. It started with a few pupils, then grew to over fifty of them. To teach so many pupils, Shivananda relied on the most senior ones to teach what they knew to the youngest – but he guided them all, and as a talented multi-instrumentalist, he would teach violin, tabla, slide guitar, sitar, santoor and mandolin, as well as vocal.
After Maa Chetan Jyoti passed away in April 2008, the academy moved away from the ashram to a venue in the same area of Rishikesh. The new room was only accessible in the evening; however the children were still assiduous and most of them came for music class straight after school or college every day. Shivananda was alone running the school and teaching all fifty children.
Without Maa’s fundraising and direction, things became unsettled during this period of transition. However, a number of donors continued supporting the school, and Shivananda kept on teaching. He got married and moved into a larger home where the front room was transformed into the school room and where there was secure storage for the instruments.
In February 2012 Marie-Christine and Jérôme Chaumié, old friends of Maa Chetan Jyoti and founders of the Partage et Culture Sarasvati association, manifested Maa’s dream: the creation of a Franco-Indian group Mata Ganga Orchestra with some of the original pupils of the school who had started learning music because of Maa. The students spent a month in France, traveling around the country and sharing their music and talents. That experience was transforming for them, allowing them to see how music could be a vehicle for them to earn a living wage and be in a wider world.
During this time Shivananda continued to travel to the US in the summers, sharing kirtan and raising money for the school. Plans are now being developed for a permanent facility for the school. The budget has stabilized and donors are stepping forward to sponsor individual students, buy instruments and help with the non-profit application. As many hands make light work, the school is growing as the support appears. And the children are thriving in this environment of discipline and love.