Ilayaraja and Ambedkar, nagaswaram students at Government Music College in Thiruvaiyaru, have no plans to come to Chennai for the Margazhi festival — one of the most significant events in the Carnatic music calendar.

For sure, these Dalit students are proud to study in a town that is closely associated with the Trinity of Carnatic music. But they joined college, not to graduate into concert artists, but to earn basic means of livelihood. “Most of the students in our college are from the underprivileged section of society. When I conducted a survey among first-year students on why they wanted to join the music college, more than 90 per cent of them expressed their intention to play in films,” said P. Uma Maheswari, principal of the college.

The college teaches vocal, veena, violin, nagaswaram, thavil, mridhangam and dance. Out of 234 students, 96 are Dalits. Suganthi and Sundaramurthi, two of the toppers, also belonging to Dalit communities, represented Bharathidasan University at the South Zone Inter-University Festival at Gulbarga in Karnataka.

A. Shanthisheela, a Dalit student from Koothanur in Tiruvarur district, first learnt music from a nagaswaram player before joining the college. “My progress has become an inspiration for many of my relatives and they also want to learn classical music,” she said.

Another community that contributes many of the students is the Isai Vellalar — a Most Backward Class whose traditional occupation is music and dance — and many of them preferred this college for its nagaswaram teacher — Kalyanapuram Srinivasan. According to the teacher, Raghu and Maruthupandian could be concert players.

College principal Uma Maheswari says the objective of her institution is to build the confidence level of the students.

She says that many students come without much basic education. At the time of admission, this got reflected in their personality. However, the college enables them to acquire confidence. The college teaches sound engineering, stage management, maintenance of music book shops, among others.

The students may have joined the college to pursue a career in film music. “But as the lessons progressed, they often change their mind and talk about seriously pursuing music,” she says and adds that many end up becoming teachers.