The music scenario in Dakshin Bharat today, especially Tamil Nadu, has been engulfed by the controversy of a few prominent singers singing songs on Christ set to Carnatic music. Allegations of singing for money, fame and coercion by the Church have been made against many singers. While singers like Nithyashree have apologised, many like TM Krishna have charged those accusing them of being narrow and following a Hindutva agenda! As the singers and connoisseurs fight it out, the Church which has played a dirty role in appropriating yet another Hindu tradition is emerging the winner.
Attempts to appropriate Hindu traditions are not new to the Church and is certainly part of its well planned out agenda. Using native practitioners for its purpose has always been a part of its plan for long. The schematic of Church is increasing every day- if it was Jesus Sahasranama yesterday, it is Jesus Kirtana today. The method changes but the purpose of enculturation and subsequent digestion remain the same.
Roots and Distorts
More than 500 years ago, Purandara Dasa, considered the Pitamaha of Carnatic music, formulated the basic lessons in teaching Carnatic music much like Veda Vyasa organised the Vedas. Purandara Dasa structured this genre of music into Swaravalis and Alankaras and introduced the Raga Mayamalavagowla as the first scale to be learnt by beginners and also composed simple songs for novice students. All his compositions were in praise of Hari or Vittala. In the 18th century, a trio of Carnatic music Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri composed new Ragas and Talas. Their most famous compositions like ‘Jagadānanda kārakā’ by Tyagaraja or ‘Kāmākṣhī anudinamu maruvakanē’ by Shyama Shastri were in praise of Rama and Kamakshi.
All Carnatic compositions since then have been in praise of deities and temples these composers visited. Their compositions form the bedrock of Carnatic music even to this day. But little did these doyens of Carnatic music know that a few centuries later attempts to hijack their rich contributions would be made for the sake of paltry sum of money and fame by the very same people who profess to be the inheritors of the Carnatic music tradition.
The said controversy of misappropriation came to light about a week ago when it became public that prominent Carnatic singers like Nithyashree Mahadevan, OS Arun, Srinivas and Unnikrishnan would be participating in concerts organised by Christian institutions where Carnatic compositions altered to praise Jesus or Christ would be sung by these singers. Specifically, it was charged that Thyagaraja’s traditional compositions were tempered by substituting “Rama” with “Yesu” (Jesus). Such brazen attempts to appropriate Carnatic music and undermining the emotions attached to the compositions are what has angered every connoisseur of Carnatic music today.
It is but ironic that the Catholic church which tortured, persecuted and hounded Goans who converted to Christianity but followed their ‘Hindu’ traditions, makes brazen attempts to appropriate every Hindu tradition, from Yoga to Bharatnatyam and now Carnatic music too. While the singers have claimed that they agreed to participate in bolstering communal peace and harmony, a cursory look at the agenda of the organisers seems anything but that.
Singer Nityashree, for example, sang for an album titled ‘Might of Christ’ with the tagline ‘To glorify God—To impact souls of his creation’. OS Arun was scheduled to sing at a Christian music event titled ‘Esuvin Sangama Sangeetham’ which supposedly had Carnatic compositions altered to praise Yesu (Jesus).
Swindling the Legacy
“Replacing ‘Rama’ with ‘Prabhu (Jesus) in one of the most famous Carnatic compositions is a sure attempt to hijack a genre of music by the Church for its nefarious purposes”, decries a Tweet by one Karthik. Several such posts expressing similar sentiments over the recent turn of events depict the displeasure and anger among the listeners of Carnatic music. The backlash on social media and open letters have forced few singers to apologise and rescind from participating in such motivated events.
Speaking to ANI, Ramanathan of Rashtriya Sanatan Seva Sangam of TamilNadu categorically said that, “Carnatic music belongs to Hindus, recently we found musician OS Arun singing Christian hymns based on Carnatic music, we condemn it. Nithyasree Mahadevan did the same, but she apologised. So, we oppose such remix of Carnatic music”. It has more or less been the gist of the message the connoisseurs of Carnatic music have been trying to convey to the singers.
While few singers have apologised keeping the sentiments of their listeners in mind, those like Magsaysay Award winner TM Krishna have tried to play the ‘Liberal’ and ‘Secular’ card. He tweeted, “Considering the threats (sic) issues on social media regarding Karnatik (sic) compositions on Jesus, I announce here that I will be releasing one Carnatic song every month on Jesus or Allah”. TM Krishna has always played the secular card to score a political point and stay in the news. But this attempt to further his agenda seems to have backfired. Taking the cue from the online and on the ground backlash, SSVT Temple, the organisers of the TM Krishna’s concert in Maryland in Washington, have cancelled his concert that was slated for September 9, 2018, for ‘trying to denigrate Indian culture’.
Likewise, there have been calls to Carnatic music sabhas not to engage with singers who have agreed to be part of the programs organised by Christian institutions and sing modified Carnatic compositions. Those who oppose are of the unanimous opinion that any Carnatic musician is free to sing any song in praise of Jesus or Christ in Christian music, but they are definitely in opposition to altering Carnatic compositions to suit the agenda of the Church. They argue, and rightly so that Carnatic music has its traditions and goals that have evolved as part of the Hindu way of life and has nothing to do with Christianity.
In an open letter, written by Shobana Anand, a connoisseur of Carnatic music, to singer TM Krishna that has gone viral on the internet, stresses the point that Carnatic music brings one closer to their deity and that bhava and the bhakti that a musician brings to the table is as important as the raaga and Shruti.
Carnatic music was bequeathed to us by the devout Haridasas who flourished under the rule of many kings and empires. It’s called Carnatic music for this very reason. Anyone would be proud of this rich heritage bequeathed to us by the great composers and singers.