Monday, March 20, 2006

Of hymns and morning assemblies

One of my friends had his status message in yahoo set to the first two lines of this hymn. It's called 'Make me a channel of your peace' and I remembered when I was in school and used to sing that hymn for the morning assembly.

All children from the fifth grade and above could attend the morning assembly. The Morning Assembly is this gathering for the whole school, all the 'older' kids and the teachers, in the school auditorium. At 7 45 every morning, we assemble outside the hall, in single-file and at the head (well, actually, standing in the corridars outside the hall and facing the line of students) is the class teacher. There's a grand piano in one corner of the massive hall and someone or the other to play on it - I remember I once did, and hit quite a few wrong notes much to my chagrin. When the first strains of music waft thru, we all file in and seat ourselves on the floor. Then the assembly commences.

It's usually prepared by some class on certain days of the week. The other days it's the headmistress who leads us in prayer. And on Fridays, all the non-catholics usually have a prayer ceremony, which means we file in and instead of being seated in our usual positions sit around the traditional kuttuvellaku. Then all the lights are switched off except for the orange glow on stage, and the light of the kuttuvellaku. Then it's a series of small readings and prayers and usually followed by a hymn.

Now the hymn, a staple of any morning assembly, is sung by everybody. I never realised how profound an impact this ritual had had on me till I left school. There's something soothing and reassuring of meeting every morning some thousand odd schoolmates plus teachers and staff and other odds and ends, and praying. We always picked 'secular' themes - tolerance, love, fratenity, compassion - followed by a reading from the Bible, and then one from the Koran and the Gita. This worked well for everyone because most Fridays anyway we had Mass for the catholics and while they disappeared into the school cathedral, the rest of us would have a beautiful, intimate prayer ceremony which was almost always preceded by the symbolic lighting of the lamp.

If the morning assembly were staged by a class, they usually enacted a skit. And it always always ended with a hymn or two. I wish I had kept my school diary, it had some lovely prayers and hymns in it. I remember this particularly beautiful one:

I have come to thee to take thy touch before I begin my day.
Let thy eye rest upon my eyes for a while.
Let me take to my work the assurance of thy comradeship, my friend.
Fill my mind with thy music to last through the desert of noise.

and then there was Rabindranath Tagore's "Where the mind is without fear". I don't know if this was in the hymn book but I do recall singing it quite often. Such a lovely melody.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; Where words come out from the depth of truth; Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by Thee to ever-widening thought and action – Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

I remember ear-marking this particular prayer as 'lucky', always seemed to perform better in an exam if I had said it that morning in the assembly.

Ah, the cathedral. I think one of the reasons why I stay away from temples is because since I was 4 years old, I had associated God and prayer with quiet and solitude. The hindu rituals and prayer ceremonies seem the absolute negation of every idea I had ever formed in my head. Our school was founded by the Presentation Sisters way back in 1841. So there is the nunnery and the cathedral and the graveyard and the fish pond and the grotto, all within this beautiful, large, thickly-foliaged park. The schools - the English-medium catholic convent where I studied (and we had a whole lot of Irish nuns who taught us when we were much younger), the Tamil medium for the disadvantaged children, Saint Ursula's Anglo-Indian convent, the teachers training school and the Women's self-empowerment wing (I forget the actual name, but I remember peeping in once and seeing rows and rows of sewing machines and these young ladies in sarees, diligently at it). Read up on the school and its founder here if you like.

But I digress. I hope to write a post - or a series of posts - on the school sometime later. But then, I've hoped to write a lot of things that I've never really gotten around to doing. I miss walking into school at a quarter past seven, earlier than most other students, so that I could slowly make my way across the sprawling campus to class, stopping on the way to watch the sunlight filter thru the trees or look at some ladybug make its way across a leaf. I vividly recall the sunlight bit, we have this enormous mud court where we play kho-kho and other team games, it's at a far end of the school and almost forgotten. Except for the clearing in the centre, it's thickly covered with trees and at a quarter past seven, I always made it a point to walk that way so I could watch the beams of lights fall on the ground. I had a belief when I was younger that if I were standing on a spot when the skies clear and a ray of light fell on me, then I would be blessed and my day would go well. I stopped walking by that side when I reached the 9th grade. I was older and I knew better then.

I miss the morning assemblies. I miss the little skits that the children used to put up. I miss the bursts of laughter that would ripple thru the audience from time to time. Those are the moments that you remember, the times that you connected intimately with some thousand-odd people, when you knew everyone by their first names and you all laughed at the same things and you all shared the same secrets. I miss singing horribly out of tune to the morning hymns. Somehow when there are so many children singing together, despite being out of tune and sometimes because of it, the end result is always harmonious.

I miss running to the cathedral everytime I was scared or just before a test or when I was sad or I really, really wanted to ask for something. I remember the long walk across the park to the cathedral, I knew every pathway, every tree, every bench. And then I'd walk into the cathedral - this massive structure with stained glass windows - and kneel in front of the altar and pray oh so passionately. It was such a simpler time, I'd merely put all my fears and sadness and inner turmoils (whatever turmoil a six-year old could have) into a little box and place it at the foot of the small statue of Mary in the cathedral. On the way back, I'd loiter around the graveyard a bit because it was always so quiet and so beautiful and stop by the fish pond and the little grotto of Mother Mary. I miss the nun who used to always sit by the fish pond with little bits of bread that she'd hand out to us so we could feed the fishes too. She, who we used to run up to just before exams and ask her to bless us and pray for us so we'd do well. It was more than a school, it was such a protective bubble where you could take refuge from any storm.

Ah well...

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