What do mummies, blue jeans, and Yo-Yo Ma all have in common?
The answer is a brilliant blue pigment that has been around for centuries: indigo.
The famed cellist and 1976 Harvard graduate was at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) to explain the connection as part of a series of events in a three-day Silk Road Project residency sponsored by HGSE and Harvard’s Office for the Arts.
Taking the stage in Longfellow Hall Tuesday (Oct. 20), Ma said the vivid dye is at the center of an educational effort developed out of his Silk Road Project, an initiative that aims to promote the transfer of knowledge and ideas through artistic exchange.
The new project, Silk Road Connect, is a pilot program involving sixth-grade classes in five public schools in New York City. Over the next year, students and their teachers will explore the bright blue dye in-depth, examining everything from its chemical components to its place in history.
Subject areas such as chemistry, art, music, history, geography, and economics all can be explored and examined through the in-depth study of indigo, said Ma.
Instead of bringing a separate arts curriculum into the school, Ma and his Silk Road colleagues realized that they “had a way to experience the concept of [blue] jeans, the indigo that is in Pharos, [and] Gandhi … [who] actually started the nonviolent movement by going to India when there were indigo growers rebelling.” They would try to accomplish all of this by studying indigo.
On Thursday (Oct. 22), in collaboration with the University’s Public Service Week, Ma, together with the Silk Road Ensemble and selected Harvard student musicians, will give a concert at the Memorial Church at 6 p.m. Ma and the Silk Road Project will receive the Thelma E. Goldberg Arts in Education Award for their contributions to education and the arts. This event is open to the Harvard community with limited seating; doors open at 5:30 p.m.
Founded in 1998, the Silk Road Project was created with a strong educational mission and the goal of connecting people to a broader understanding of the world through the examination of topics related to the Silk Road, the vast trade route started in the second century B.C. that connected China with the Mediterranean.
The new effort, said Ma, which was developed with input from several Harvard scholars, also involves the collaboration of a variety of museums and institutions in New York, places that students can visit to broaden their understanding of the dye and its many dimensions.
Ma’s own interest in learning developed in part from his deep connection to teachers through his own musical work.
The cellist likened his passion for music and his effort to offer a listener something that continues to “live inside” to the role of a teacher who tries to inspire students with a “spark” that leads to curiosity and passion. Ma said he hopes the new project will inspire a similar passion both in the teachers and the students involved.
“Passion is great,” said Ma, because you share generously your knowledge of what “you are passionate about.” People who care deeply immerse themselves in a subject, Ma added. “The deeper you go into anything, you actually find the world.”