When you have been involved with something for most of your life, you come to recognize this: the longer the relationship, the more things there are that you realize you do not know. And also: you can meet some people every day, for years on end, share laughter, tears and memories with them, live right next door to them, but there are aspects and areas of their lives that remain complete mysteries to you, lived behind doors that only a select few people have the keys to. Let me explain.
But just yesterday, I discovered a - if you will pardon the geographical metaphor - whole new continent, a New World that was not new at all, but one that had developed and bloomed over several centuries, unbeknownst to me, a neighbor, yet a stranger. This is the world of Christian Carnatic music.
I am ashamed, but not really surprised, that I had never heard of this genre of music before. How many of us really know our neighbors, those who are different from us in the religion they practice, the language they speak, the food they eat, the way they conduct their day-to-day lives? We make assumptions, often appallingly wrong ones based on horrible stereotypes, we poke fun at them, all the while smugly ensconced in our narrow silos, convinced that our way of doing things, our beliefs, our food, our music, all evolved from our superior endowments, are the best, with all of us as living proof of that. We have no idea of the richness of the textures of the lives of others, and we judge them only from a few superficial aspects that our myopic vision has allowed us to glean. All humans all over the world are guilty of this, but in today’s world when whole new worlds are being opened up to our eyes, it is a crime to close them and remain blind to the abundant diversity of our fellow humans. Unfortunately, it seems to me that as the world becomes more unstable and dangerous, we are reacting by burrowing further into our barricaded identities. Music, for me, is one of the most beautiful ways to learn about and appreciate another culture.
Oh dear. I beg your pardon. I got carried away, and have digressed, as usual. I was talking about Christian Carnatic music. The very name intrigued me. Even without knowing anything about it, I loved the idea of it, the syncretism, the entwining of cultures, that the name implied.
Christianity is believed to have come to India around 52 AD, soon after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The apostle St. Thomas arrived in Kerala then, and Christianity took root first in Kerala, and then spread on to other parts of the country.
Much of my education took place in Christian missionary institutions in Madras. In school and college, I listened to the beautiful devotional music of Christian hymns, sung by choir groups in high-ceilinged churches with whitewashed walls that were tinted with sun-splashed reflections of brilliantly hued stained glass. It was western style music, with four part harmonies and piano or organ accompaniment, and the voices singing the praises of Jesus Christ touched me with their fervor and soaring, mellifluous tunes. I loved the sound of the basses, tenors, altos and sopranos stacked atop one another, converging and diverging, the contrapuntal harmonies blending together in symphonic perfection. Major and minor keys imparted an atmosphere of glory and triumph, or intense pathos. Often, the only means of “Indianizing” this music was by translating the lyrics into Tamil, or Malayalam. It still sounded very “western”, without any of the microtones, modes, gamakas, or ragams, the soothing drone of the tambura, the percussive intricacies of the mridangam, the hypnotic melodic and rhythmic cycles, of Carnatic music.
This, then, was my conception of Christian music in India. This was their music. My music was Carnatic music, with its kirtanams in a staggering variety of ragams and talams, extolling the likes of Vinayaka, Rama, Krishna, Lakshmi and Devi, compositions of people who were household names in the Carnatic music world, like Muthuswamy Dikshithar, Thyagaraja, Syama Sastri, Sivan and Muthiah Bhagavathar.
A couple of days back I received an email with an invitation to a “Christian Carnatic” music concert at a church in New York, to be performed by Father Paul Poovathingal, an ordained Catholic priest from Kerala, who had learned Carnatic music from the renowned K.J. Jesudas. The music would be “Carnatic” in flavor, the email said, but the songs would be in praise of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity. The concert was yesterday.
Of course, I went for it. Carnatic music concerts are all too rare in New York, and I was very curious and eager to learn more about Christian Carnatic music, something I’d never heard of earlier. And so it was that my husband and I arrived at the Church of All Nations, where a small crowd of Indians had gathered. I could hear murmurs of Tamil and Malayalam. We were greeted warmly by the organizers, and we seated ourselves in the church, where the usual last-minute tweaking of the sound system was being done. This seems to happen at every Indian concert that I have been to that is not in a big-name venue. The adjustments are never-ending. When the mridangist is finally happy, the violinist finds something to complain about. Then when that is fixed, the vocalist’s mike stops working. In the ensuing chaos, the ghatam player’s mike is forgotten about, and just when the vocalist is finally ready to start singing, the ghatam player pipes up that his mike is not working. An ear-splitting screech echoes through the hall as that is sorted out, and in fixing the ghatam mike the technician inadvertantly messes up all the other mikes and the whole cycle is repeated. It is a good half an hour after the stated starting time that some semblance of order is finally restored.
No Indian function happens without a speech, and the one given to introduce the program and welcome the audience was mercifully relatively short. From this speech I learned about the strong tradition of Indian Christian music in rural and small-town churches. I learned how the Christians, particularly of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, felt a strong affinity to both their religion and their local culture, and the genre of Christian Carnatic music was born of the marriage of the two. And I learned a little about the very interesting and unusual background of Father Paul Poovathingal, the evening’s singer. He was awarded a PhD by the University of Madras for his thesis, “The Influence of Karnatic Music on Christian Music of Tamil Nadu and Kerala”. He was a vocologist, one who specialized in vocal science, and the founder and principal of the Chetana Natya Academy and Chetana Music College in Thrissur, Kerala.
(Apologies for the poor quality of the photo: it was taken with a cellphone camera)
The stage was set in the apse of the church, under a beautifully ornamented vaulted ceiling, as for any Carnatic music concert. There was a violinist, a mridangist, and a ghatam player. Father Poovathingal was dressed in his priest’s white robe. The concert began with a lovely song in Reethigowla, Amaldayapara Arul Kuraya in Tamil, a composition of Vedanayagam Sastriyar in praise of Lord Jesus. Vedanayagam Sastriyar? Composing a song on Jesus? Apparently he was a court poet in the palace of the Thanjavur king Serfoji II in the 18th century. A devout Christian, he had part of his schooling along with the future king, Serfoji. A firm friendship was forged, a friendship that was sustained in spite of their different religions, and when Serfoji II became the king, he appointed his old classmate as his court poet. Vedanayagam Sastriyar composed hundreds of songs and poems, integrating Indian musical traditions with Christian theological and literary ones. His song that Father Poovathingal sang was lilting and sweet.
This was followed by a lovely assortment of songs that covered the gamut of lively and slow cadences, and a variety of ragams, including Vakulabharanam, Kunthalavarali, Hindolam, Jog and Mohanam. There were more compositions by Vedanayagam Sastriyar, and others by Father Abel, Savarirayan Yesudasan, Vedanayagam Pillai, and Poovathingal himself. These were names I was encountering for the first time. Most of the songs were in Tamil or Malayalam, with a couple in Hindi. Poovathingal performed one “traditional” Carnatic music song, Thygaraja’s dulcet and mellow Sobillu Saptaswara in Jaganmohini, a song tailor-made for Poovathingal’s interest in vocology: this songs is in praise of the divine form of the seven musical notes that glow in the navel, the heart, the neck the tongue and the nose of the human body. Thus did Thyagaraja meditate upon the voice and vocal production, and the five parts of the body that are instrumental in making beautiful sound. Poovathingal explained that in western music, voice production is thought to rely on three elements: the actuator, the resonator, and the vibrator.
There was a vigorous and enthusiastic tani avartanam by the mridangist and ghatam player, and the concert ended with a couple of patriotic songs in honor of Gandhi’s birthday, with the finale being Subramania Bharathi’s rousing Sen Tamilnadu Enum Podhinile. It was an apt choice, given Bharathi’s far-thinking, progressive, open-minded views.
It was an enjoyable evening. Father Poovathingal has a rich, deep voice, and he is clearly passionate about his music. I wouldn’t say that he is anywhere at the level of the top professional musicians, but if he were, he would be better known, I guess. And the music itself was good, the lyrics were accessible and easy to follow, but, to me, it lacked the spine-tingling moments of musical ecstacy, the grandeur and majesty, that I have experienced in other Carnatic recitals. But I see a promising future for Christian Carnatic music, and the warmth, enthusiasm, dedication and joy with which Father Poovathingal performed it only reinforced to me the uplifting and inspiring power and glory of music.
I am one who heartily endorses the intermingling of lifestyles and traditions. Listening to Christian Carnatic music made me aware of just one more way in which human beings have harmonized and reconciled different aspects of their lives and environments. After all, much as some people would like to deny it, syncretism is in large part responsible for the way we think, dress, eat and act today. I was so happy to get a glimpse into another musical world. And now I have one more way to love my neighbor.
(C) Kamini Dandapani