When invited to write an OpEd on the ongoing debate I gave it the title The Christian in Carnatic Music. I however think whoever it was who came with the title that was used, really hit the nail on the head. Anyway, since the article appeared, I have been flooded with twitter replies, fb responses, emails and phone calls. The general trend has been one of acceptance, which makes me happy. There are a few brickbats but that was only to be expected.

Here is the article in full, as it appeared in The Hindu in this link:

The emergence of a raging controversy around a Carnatic singer who recently announced a concert dedicated to Christian songs is an issue to ponder over. He was hounded — subjected to abuse on the phone and on social media — till he cancelled the programme. Another group of eminent artistes was accused of helping proselytisers in their task when they sang Christian songs set to Carnatic tunes.

Artist’s impression of Tyagaraja, courtesy The Hindu

Falsehood and abuse

It soon gave rise to fake news. It was said that the songs of poet and composer Tyagaraja had been plagiarised, with the word ‘Rama’ changed to ‘Jesus’. Nothing could be more false than this. The similarity of lyrics in just one song does not make for concrete proof; all the artistes accused of this falsehood have denied such a charge. The propagators of the false claim have not been able to back their allegations with any evidence either.

There was more to come. Old photographs that showed a prominent Carnatic artiste in the company of a well-known Christian priest made an appearance which fuelled demands that the performer ought to be stripped of all awards and titles for having committed such a heinous offence. The artistes concerned were subject to vile abuse. Some Sabhas upped the ante — based on hearsay — by deciding to boycott these ‘tainted’ musicians. What they chose to conveniently ignore was that these performances had been recorded five years ago and were all along on YouTube. Nobody cared to take note of this.

A rich association

Vedanayagam Sastriar

What is the threat they have posed to Hinduism? How can this music, which is predominantly Hindu, be used this way is a prominent question in many minds. Forgotten in the midst of all this is the fact that there has been a long-standing Carnatic tradition in the church and which goes back to the time of Tyagaraja himself. The composer’s contemporary, Vedanayagam Sastriar, created songs and operas in the Carnatic style. Some of the tunes are very closely modelled on Tyagaraja’s songs. ‘Sujana Jivana’ (Khamas) has a parallel in ‘Parama Pavana’. At this point in time it is impossible to state who borrowed whose tune and made it his own.

The works of Sastriar, such as the ‘Bethlehem Kuravanji’, continue to be performed by his descendants as ‘Kathakalakshepams’ in various churches. Since the time of Sastriar, there have been several Carnatic music exponents in the Christian community, and who propagate the art in the church.

Gopalakrishna Bharathi, by S Rajam

The interest of Christians in the art form was encouraged and nurtured by many traditional artistes. The 19th century composer, Samuel Vedanayagam Pillai, had all his songs vetted by Gopalakrishna Bharati, the author of ‘Nandan Charittiram’.
Tamil scholar Meenakshisundaram Pillai and the pontiff of the Thiruvavaduturai Mutt, Melagaram Subramania Desikar, were Pillai’s close friends.

Vedanayagam Pillai’s bust, RC graveyard, Mayiladuthurai

In the late 19th century, the lineages of Tyagaraja and Dikshitar saw merit in A.M. Chinaswami Mudaliar, a Roman Catholic, and taught him what they knew. When Rao Saheb Abraham Pandithar convened the first ever Carnatic Music conference, in Thanjavur in 1912, helping him was Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar.

Abraham Pandithar from Somerset Playne’s 1914 Southern India

In the 1930s, Pandithar’s son, A.J. Pandian, set about composing Christmas carols in Carnatic style. Muthiah Bhagavatar, who would later compose many songs in praise of Devi and Shiva, helped in their tuning. The work was praised by Kalki Krishnamurthy, and Pandian was asked to present his music in the form of an orchestra at the Music Academy’s December festivals in Chennai, in 1935 and 1937.

Prof P Sambamoorthy

In 1918, Rev. H.A. Popley began a Summer School of Music to teach Christian men and women; P. Sambamoorthy became a lecturer here, in 1924. A year later, he became its vice principal, eventually rising to become its principal. Nobody saw anything amiss in an orthodox panchakaccham-clad scholar teaching his art to Christians. D.K. Pattammal did not feel out of place in joining this school to further her knowledge of music. For that matter, the prima donna of our art, Veena Dhanammal, saw merit in Calcutta’s Gauhar Jan and Abdul Karim Khan and taught them some songs of Tyagaraja. These were even released as gramophone discs.

More examples

Not many know that the Tamil Isai Sangam began life in the parish hall of St. Mary’s Co-Cathedral in Chennai. In the 1950s, K. Narayanaswami Iyer, grandson of Patnam Subramanya Iyer, turned composer. His works, compiled as New World Songs, include pieces in praise of Christ.

In the world of films too, there were productions set to Christian themes. Papanasam Sivan composed the music for a song in Gnanasoundari (Citadel Pictures). P. Leela (to many, the voice of the Narayaneeyam), sang ‘Enai Aalum Mary Matha’ in Missiamma. M.L. Vasanthakumari sang a similar piece, in chaste Carnatic style, for the film, Punyavati. If anything, the impact of film songs would have been more widespread than any Carnatic concert featuring Christian songs. Ten years ago, Sister Margaret Bastin, a nun, made a fantastic presentation on the life of Karaikkal Ammaiyar at the Music Academy.

Times were different and nobody saw the need to raise a hue and cry, which is why the present outcry does not make sense. Started by fringe elements and milked for what it is worth by publicity hounds, the controversy now has only obscured the facts. It is high time that those who perceive threats to Hinduism from these songs pondered over the facts and initiated course correction. And if they thought that Carnatic music is the means by which other religions can attract people, they are grossly overestimating the reach of this niche art.