Carnatic music’s recent discordant note!

In the ultra-fast moving news cycle these days, the rage over few Carnatic musicians singing songs on the Christ, is already behind us. Have not seen any vitriolic or otherwise WhatsApp forwards or posts on Facebook on this, in the past few days. Except for an update that, a group of volunteers from Washington DC have managed to organise a concert of T.M.Krishna at the same date and time as his earlier cancelled concert at Maryland temple. The organisers at the temple unilaterally cancelled his concert after Krishna tweeted out that he will from now on release a new Carnatic song on Allah, Christ,… every month!

To back up a bit, the trigger for Krishna’s announcement was the uproar among Carnatic music rasikas and right-wing apologists on social media over a proposed concert of O.S.Arun (titled ‘Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetam’ on the 25th of August in Chennai and its aftermath.  Arun quickly announced that he was backing out of the programme. The controversy didn’t end there. Other Carnatic musicians like Nithyashree and Aruna Sairam were also dragged into the muddle, citing some past instances of them singing Christ songs. They had to issue disclaimers, which they did.

One person who went against the grain was T.M.Krishna. As we all know, Krishna has been the rebel with a cause in the classical music scene these days. I don’t agree with him completely on some of the issues he has raised over Carnatic music but we will keep that for another Sunday afternoon blog! On this issue though, I tend to agree with him. He went on to say that there is nothing wrong in Carnatic musicians singing on non-Hindu Gods.

The furore over these Carnatic musicians were around few points and the goal post kept changing as the debate ensued.

First, it was about how can Carnatic music be used to sing songs on other religions? Is it not blasphemy? I understand completely where this argument is coming from. Carnatic music has its strong moorings on the Bhakti rasa. Invariably the compositions of the Great Trinity of Carnatic music – Thiagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri are all on Hindu Gods. For that matter even the other composers outside the Trinity like Swati Tirunal, Bhadrachala Ramdas, Annamacharya, Papanasam Sivan and so on basically sang on Hindu Gods. This doesn’t mean that Bhakti rasa of Carnatic music cannot be used to invoke Gods of other religions and cultures.  If we accept that Carnatic is a form of classical music and music is universal, we must be open to it being adopted by other cultures.

While we are quick to denounce Carnatic musicians adopting other cultures, our hearts swell with pride when others adopt our culture. While on this, the oft repeated example is of K.J.Yesudas a born Christian who learnt Carnatic music under Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and till today revered as a top notch Carnatic vocal singer. As I know, his rendition of the famous Harivarasanam song is used every day in many Ayyappa temples in India and may be outside when the temple nada (door) is closed in the night after the day’s proceedings. And I have lost count of the times, I have been forwarded the clip of him singing the song live at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala as a matter of extolling the virtues of our tolerance and secular credentials.

And who can forget John Higgins, originally a famous Jazz musician who learnt Carnatic music out of his passion and love for the art. There is a story of him being denied entry into the Udupi Krishna temple because he was not a practicing Hindu.  The authorities relented after he sang the popular Kriti ‘Krishna Nee Begane….’ sitting outside the temple! Until fate snatched his life too soon, Higgins Bhagavathar, as he came to be known, was a celebrated Carnatic musician in India.

Similarly, when we forward the clip of the Malay-Chinese singer, Chong Chiu Sen singing ‘Ninnu Ko ri…, with the associated diction, body language of a veteran Carnatic singer at Puttabarti, we do that with a sense of pride and happiness that our culture is being adopted by others. So if the reverse happens, why the insecurity?

When these were logically pointed out, the argument then shifted from blasphemy to plagiarism. That these singers of the like of Arun, Nithyashree,.. were plagiarising songs of the great Thiagaraja by replacing the word Rama with Jesus/Yesu and so on. As much as I heard those songs, I didn’t find this. The songs were indeed based on ragas of popular Thiagaraja Kritis on Lord Rama but I didn’t see the virtues of Lord Rama being mapped to the Christ. While I accept that swapping words of Hindu Gods with others is a matter of gross impropriety, lifting tunes (ragas) isn’t such a big crime. In matter of composing music, imitation is the best form of flattery!

Then after, the discussions took more ominous turn. That of Christian organisations using Carnatic music and thereby musicians for their long-standing agenda of “conversion” in India. The whole issue of conversion is a complex topic with social, economic and cultural overtones. So, without getting into justification of the same, my limited point would be – To popularise Christianity and promote the religion, will not a more popular and mass music/art form be more effective than Carnatic which, as we know today has a limited following and reach? So, I find this conspiracy theory a bit far-fetched. Here again, I would like to point out that for a country which has withstood the onslaught of different cultures fairly successfully, the kind of insecurity is bereft of wisdom.

I am an ardent follower of Carnatic music and the subject matter of the composition doesn’t come in my way of enjoying the same. As we know there are many compositions in Carnatic music overflowing with Sringara rasa, patriotism and so on and we do enjoy all of them. In any concert, compositions of Subramania Bharatiyar which are not necessarily on Hindu Gods are a big hit!

The unfortunate part is, fearing a major backlash, except for T.M.Krishna who held his ground, all other musicians apologised on social media. It was tragic to hear a viral audio clip of a telecon between O.S. Arun and a Right wing activist who threatened of dire consequences if Arun didn’t mend his ways. Arun, who in that call initially tried to justify his position, later cowed down!

In this context, it is heartening to see that there are more mature and level-headed supporters of Carnatic music who managed to organise an alternate concert of T.M.Krishna when his original programme was cancelled.

Music has no boundaries. Carnatic included. Listening to his piece by T.M.Krishna on Allah which he sang in Mumbai in raga Behag is a case in point.

As a closing, I would only like to invoke the words of the great Thiagaraja in his fine composition – Pibare Ramarasam, Rasane,.. the translation of which goes like this:
“Drink the essence of the name of Rama, o tongue!
It will help you remove or be distant from association with sin or be distant from those who cause you to sin and you will be fulfilled with many kinds and types of rewards/gains”

If only those who took offence, follow this in letter and spirit and cut the bile.

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11 thoughts on “Carnatic music’s recent discordant note!

  1. Cadavasal S Kumar says:

    The writer hopefully should understand that people of other faiths sing carnatic songs as it is not changing or replacing words whereas our characters sing the original songs of Great composers by replacing Hindu Gods Names with those of other religions which means they lack basic originality and means stark plaguirism. That no sensible person will accept however tolerant one may be! This much intelligence the writer should have before sounding Godly and tolerant.

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    • Hi Kumar Sir, How are you? Good to hear from you and thanks for reading and posting your feedback!

      On plagiarism- I’ve mentioned this in my post – “While I accept that swapping words of Hindu Gods with others is a matter of gross impropriety, lifting tunes (ragas) isn’t such a big crime. In matter of composing music, imitation is the best form of flattery!”

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  2. Nagarajan says:

    Like you I am a great fan of TMK including his totally different concert format and unusual selection of songs. I had thoroughly enjoyed KVN mama singing Vedanayakam Pillais songs on Karthar. You are intelligent enough to know that the issue is not (only) about singing odd songs of other religions in Carnatic concert. It may be your wishful thinking it stops there. Have you heard of Yesu sahasranamam, Christ Bhujangam, Yesu Suprabhatm? Don’t you know they are all based on the prosody meters (chandas) of Hindu Chanda Sastra – like Anushtup Chanda for sahasranamam, Gayathri Chanda and complicated Bhujangam Chanda? Do you know about Dwajastamb, Garbhgraham and Abhisheka/ Archana in churches? These are all signs of inculturation. They are used for massive incentivized conversions. Is it anything wrong in Hindus trying to save our dharma from gradual decay and possible extinction like great Roman culture. Why are you branding only Hindus as rightists and bigots so extensively that they have become a badges of credit to wear. I give below my initial reaction to this whole controversy.

    ““OS Arun, Nithyasri et al, agreeing for concerts in Christian Establishments
    ———————————-
    I have heard Sri KVN singing in his regular concerts, to predominantly Hindu audiences, excellent Krithis of Vidwan Vedanayakam Pillai on “Karthar”, the Jesus. I have also seen many Christians attending Carnatic vocal concerts, where songs predominantly on Hindu gods were sung. We have seen many Christian artists singing and playing in Carnatic music concerts, including Sri Jesudas, Sri Jose (on Viola) and Sri Higgins Bhagavatar. But then, where is the problem?

    None of the above secular rasikas and artists were concerned or interested in religious propaganda or conversion. They were truly secular in that they practiced their religion without minding the religion practiced by their listeners. But the situation has changed a bit in the last 20 years, since a dominant political party of India and the government fell in the hands of a catholic foreigner. Though she became a ‘secular’ Indian, it has not stopped the political back biters in pandering to (apparently) please her, by encouraging conversions and promoting Catholics to prominence. It even encouraged some people to Hindu-bashing to attract the attention of the so called secularists. This has led to expected reaction from Hindus, some of them even violent. The present regime, which is trying to check such tendencies, is not very successful. On the contrary the Hindu elements have started over reacting. The opposition is trying to exploit this situation by further encouraging Christians and other minorities with their appeasement policies. This is resulting in religious polarization, caused by whom, l leave it to your guess and opinion.

    Now let us come to this Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetham: Here is a need to unite our Tamil and Dravidian community. (Dravidam = Tamil+ Telugu + Kannada + Malayalam + others).

    1. Let the Yesu program organisers announce publicly: “We have great respect for Hindus and their music composers. We are not for propaganda or conversion. This is just our efforts to promote Carnatic music among all communities”

    2. Let them say “The selected artists are allowed to sing songs of all religions Hindus, Buddhist, Chiristians and Islam”

    3. Let them openly declare that any artist not convinced about this, may withdraw without any financial or contractual constraints.

    If organisers are adamant in refusing to do the above, then, they share the blame in polarizing Tamil/Darvidian communities.

    Hope good senses prevail on both sides.”
    lvnaga@yahoo.com

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  3. Nagarajan says:

    I know Mr. Kumar very well, as he was my ex-colleague in Tatas. His wife Ms. Banu is a playwright and his daughter is a great dancer. Now I am encouraged to give my 2nd reaction to this episode as given below:
    (After observing for a few days we wrote another mail to all artists and organisers as below)

    “இசை என்பது பல வகையானது. நுண்ணிசை, மெல்லிசை, சேர்ந்திசை, நாடக/நாட்டிய இசை, இறைஇசை, படை இசை என்று பல விதங்கள். எல்லாமே இசை தான். எல்லாவற்றிற்கும், ராகம், இசைவு, தாளம், பாடல், மேலும் உணர்வுகள் தான் அடிப்படை. இருப்பினும், இசைகள் வேறுபடுவது இவற்றில் எதற்கு அதிக முக்கியத்வம் தருவது என்பதில் தான். மாதிரிக்கு சேர்ந்திசையில் இசைவுக்கும், இறை இசையில் பாடல் மற்றும் உணர்வுக்கும், படை இசையில் தாளம் மற்றும் உணர்வுக்கும் முக்கியத்வம். நுண்ணிசையில், ராகத்தோடு இவை எல்லாவற்றுக்குமே முக்கியத்வம் உண்டு.
    நுண்ணிசை, மெல்லிசை இரண்டுமே மத சார்பற்றவை. அனைத்து மதத்தினரும் கேட்டு ரசிக்கலாம், இசைக்கலாம். இறை இசை அப்படி அல்ல. அந்த அந்த மதத்தினர் தான் முழுமையாக ஈடுபட்டு ரசிக்கமுடியும். இசைப்போரும் அந்த மதத்தை சேர்ந்தவராகவோ அல்லது பெரிதும் மதிப்பவராக இருக்கவேண்டும்.

    இறை இசையை நுண்ணிசை போல பாடலாம். ஆனால் நுண்ணிசையை முழுவதும் இறை இசையாகவே மாற்றிவிடக்கூடாது. அப்படி இல்லாமல் இருப்பதால்தான் கனிமொழி போன்ற நாஸ்திகர்களும் கர்நாடக நுண்ணிசையை ரசிக்கிறார்கள். அவர் நிச்சியமாக இறை இசையை விரும்பமாட்டார். (அவர் ஏன் இந்த கிறித்தவ இறை இசை நிகழ்ச்சியை ஆதரித்தார் என்று தெரியவில்லை).

    நமது திராவிட கர்நாடக இசை ராகங்களை இந்த எல்லா இசை வடிவங்களுக்கும் பயன்படுத்துகிறார்கள். இனிமை கருதி சற்றே இலக்கணம் மீறியும் இசைக்கிறார்கள். நுண்ணிசையாளர்கள் அதைச் செய்ய தயங்குவார்கள். பல தேச பக்தி பாடல்கள், ராகங்களில் மெட்டமைத்து பாடப்படுகின்றன. ஒரு பாகிஸ்தானிய தேச பக்தி பாடலை இந்திய கலைஞர்கள் பாடுவதை நாம் ஒத்துகொள்வோமா?
    ஆனால் ஒரு இந்து மதத்தை சேர்ந்த ஒரு கலைஞர் மற்ற மத பாடல்களை பாடுவதை நாம் ஏற்றுகொள்கிறோம், அது ஒன்றிரண்டாக இருக்கும்வரை. அதுவே ஒரு மதப்பிரச்சாரமாக, பல பாடல்களை பாடுவதற்கு, அவர்கள் ஒரு கிறித்தவ கலைஞரை பாடவைத்தால் இன்னும் கூட உணர்சசி பூர்வமாக பாடுவார்கள் அல்லவா? முன் காலங்களில் திருமதி ஜிக்கி அவர்கள் பாடிய “எல்லாம் ஏசுவே”, “எனை ஆளும் மேரி மாதா” போன்ற பாடல்களை இன்றும் அனைவராலும் ரசிக்கமுடிகிறது. இல்லையா?

    இன்று என்ன நடந்திருக்கிறது? பெயர் பெற்ற நுண்ணிசை கலைஞர்களை வைத்து அவர்களை இயேசு இறை இசையை பாடவைத்திருக்கிறர்கள். அவர்கள் இறை இசை பாடகர்களே அல்ல. பணத்திற்காகவும் நட்பிற்காகவுமே பாடியிருப்பார்கள். இதைச் சிலுவை அணிந்து வீடியோ காட்சிகளாக வேறு. இது முழுக்க முழுக்க அவர்களின் ஜனரஞ்சகத்தை (popularity) மதப் பிரச்சாரத்திற்கு பயன் படுத்தியதாகத்தான் தோன்றுகிறது. இந்த மறைமுக நோக்கம் நமது நுண்ணிசை கலைஞர்களுக்கு தெரியவில்லையா, என்ன?

    நுண்ணிசை கலைஞர்களே, உங்களுக்கு பெயரும் புகழும் யாரால் வந்தது என்பதை மறக்கலாமா? சிந்தியுங்கள்.

    நாகராஜன். 08/08/18”

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  4. Um says:

    We carnaticmusic lovers are extremely tolerant. We will equally appreciate a song in praise of lord Krishna in a Christian congregation at church or in a mosque. Hope TM Krishna does that too…

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    • Thanks Um for writing in. Not carrying a brief for TMK but in Mumbai he recently did a full fledged kacheri at the Afghan Church where he sang carnatic compositions which were on Hindu Gods!

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  5. PK says:

    Carnatic music can be sung for any God. Agree.. I say he should not use existing kritis anf just replace Hindu God’s names with Allah or Christ. Let TM Krishna compose own new songs on Allah or Christ.
    Else it is just plagiarism for the sake of money and ‘popularity’

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    • Thanks PK for reading and for the comment! On plagiarism, I have mentioned this in the piece – “While I accept that swapping words of Hindu Gods with others is a matter of gross impropriety, lifting tunes (ragas) isn’t such a big crime. In matter of composing music, imitation is the best form of flattery!”

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  6. Um says:

    It is rather interesting that u will brand those who are against this corruption of carnatic musuc as right wing. What are you? A left wing maoist?

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