The Unsung

The long neglected legacy of Christian Carnatic Music

Abraham Pandithar’s efforts have been instrumental in understanding the history of not only Carnatic, but all Tamil music. It is ironic that Hindu fundamentalists today are trying to erase the likes of Pandithar from this history. Courtesy RR Srinivasan / AR Rahman Foundation
16 November, 2018

The Carnatic musician TM Krishna was scheduled to perform a concert in Delhi on 17 November, organised by the Airport Authority of India and the non-profit SPIC MACAY. However, after being incessantly trolled on social media, the AAI decided to cancel the event. The trolls were incensed that Krishna had announced earlier that he would perform Christian Carnatic hymns. The grouse, as one anonymous Twitter handle put it, was “Carnatic music is identified only with Hindu religion and you have no rights to change it.”

Several musicians faced similar attacks earlier this year. On 25 August, the renowned Carnatic singer OS Arun was to perform at a concert called Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetham, or a Confluence of Jesus’ Music. When he shared the poster on social media, he was subjected to a storm of abuse and accused of being a stooge of the Vatican, out to lure Hindus into the Christian fold. He cancelled the event shortly after. Ramanathan Seetharaman, the leader of a Coimbatore-based organisation called the Rashtriya Sanathan Seva Sangh—which says on its Facebook page that it seeks “the welfare of all Brahmins in the world”—threatened artists with violence if similar concerts are organised in the future. A number of venues in the United States cancelled scheduled performances by Arun and a temple in the US cancelled a concert by Krishna.

The recent attack on Krishna is part of a concerted attack on Carnatic musicians who have sung devotional songs for non-Hindu gods. Right-wing Hindu organisations have called such musicians “traitors of Hinduism” and “shamers of Carnatic music.” Though these groups may have just woken up to the existence of the genre, it in fact constitutes an important chapter in the history of Carnatic music.

Mainstream Carnatic space has marginalised Christians much the same way it has excluded oppressed castes. How many connoisseurs, for instance, know of All India Radio’s a-grade performer and music teacher from the 1950s, T Mariyanandam, who was a Dalit Christian? It may well be true that the church first encouraged Carnatic music in a bid to convert upper-caste Hindus. But 300 years on, those practising the music cut across caste lines. Over the years, some from marginalised communities, though, have rejected the genre, preferring pursuing their own music—such as the playing of parai, an ancient drum—as a mark of resistance. Other Dalit Christians have marked their resistance, as the ethnomusicologist Zoe C Shernian notes in her book Tamil Folk Music as Dalit Liberation Theology, by becoming Carnatic keertanai—songs of praise—performers in a bid to confront as well as outshine their oppressors. It is time we finally acknowledged Carnatic music’s roots in its entirety.

Carnatic musicians revere three eighteenth-century “saint-composers” from Thiruvarur in present-day Tamil Nadu—Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri. Five decades before them came another trinity, known as the Tamil Moovar—Muthu Thandavar, Arunachala Kavi and Marimutthu Pillai. These pioneers laid the foundation for modern Carnatic music. They innovated and popularised forms such as the kritis and padams, which are still in use. Their songs are still sung and danced to. They are household names.

Another, albeit lesser known, trinity in Tamil Nadu made significant contributions to the development of Carnatic music during the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries—Vedanayagam Sastriar, Samuel Vedanayagam Pillai and Henry Alfred Krishna Pillai. Although Tamil Christians have been associated with Carnatic music for centuries, they have been sidelined in the Carnatic canon. Nevertheless, there is a robust tradition of popular artists occasionally performing Christian hymns.

Sastriar was the earliest of the Tamil Christian composers and Tyagaraja’s contemporary. Born in 1774, he was educated under Christian Frederick Schwartz, a Danish missionary who ran a gurukulam-style school at home. His fellow pupil was the future ruler of Thanjavur, Serfoji II Bhonsle. The two formed a close bond, and Sastriar would often perform in Serfoji’s court.

Through his life, Sastriar composed several Tamil Christian keertanais hymns as well as plays and books in verse. He produced 120 literary works, some of which are performed in the form of kathakalakshepams—an indigenous storytelling form that mixes music, stories from religious texts as well as commentary—to this day by his descendants, who use the title “Sastriar.” His most celebrated work, however, is the “Bethlehem Kuravanji.”

Kuravanjis, similar to operas, are an important part of the Tamil literary canon. They are still performed as dance dramas by Bharatanatyam troupes. Typically, in the most popular form of kuravanji, the nayaki, or the heroine, watches the procession of the nayakan, the hero, who is usually a god or a valorous king. The nayakan sits atop an elephant or on a chariot, accompanied by musicians announcing his arrival, as crowds cheer him on. The nayaki falls in love with the nayakan and pines for him. At this point a kurathi, a nomadic fortune teller, visits the nayaki and predicts her union with the nayakan, singing his praises. The arrival of the kurathi usually marks a shift in the mood of the performance. Kurathi cheers up the heroine, talks in a simple, unpretentious register, and endears herself to the audience. Kuravanjis’ popularity is often attributed to the charming presence of the kurathi.

Sastriar, it is said, was inspired by the Tamil writer Thirikooda Rasappa Kavirayar’s Kutralakkuravanji, a kuravanji on the Lord of Kutralam. He wrote the Bethlehem kuravanji with the Lord of Bethlehem as the nayakan. The nayaki is Deva Mohini (an allusion to the church), and the kurathi represented the faith.

Following the controversy last month, the popular Carnatic singer Sikkil Gurucharan posted a video of his 2015 performance of the Bethlehem Kuravanji. In the video, he sings in the Anandabhairavi raga, kurathi’s speech to the nayaki, who is addressed as Amme:

Aadhi malai engalukkor Eden malai Amme
Aandavanar engalaithan amaitha malai Amme
Needhi endra nal varam mun kudutha malai Amme
Nithiyamum sagama nindramalai Amme
Sadhanaiyai pei piragu kedutha malai Amme
Tharparanar emmai ange sabitha malai Amme
Pedhamaiyai naangal adhai vittadharpin Amme

Bethlehem engalukkor periya malai Amme
Our first mountain was the mountain of Eden, Amme
That is the mountain on which the Lord settled us, Amme
The blessing of righteousness was given to us on that mountain, Amme
Our undying Lord lived in that mountain, Amme
The wily devil ruined that mountain, Amme
The Lord cursed us on the mountain, Amme
In folly we left that mountain, Amme
Bethlehem then became our mountain, Amme

After he posted the video, Gurcharan was promptly trolled. In response, he disabled the comments on YouTube and wrote in the description, “Comments are disabled for this video because this is a video to just show a bit of the repertoire that existed in the 18th century scene of Carnatic music. The comments received so far painfully forget that it was a historic representation and bullies/abuses the performers unnecessarily. No amount of name calling or bullying can change the fact that this was the route that Carnatic music took to reach this far. Denial of truth will not help in any case. Thank you.”

Samuel Vedanayagam Pillai—the second figure among the trinity—was born in 1826. Pillai, also known as Mayuram Vedanayagam Pillai, was a district judge in Tranquebar. He also wrote the first Tamil novel, Prathapa Mudaliar Charitram and several clutches of Tamil keerthanais on subjects such as corruption and greed, and his work in the judiciary. He called his collection of songs Sarva Samaya Samarasa Kirtanaigal—secular songs for the unity of all religions—as these did not mention a god of any particular religion.

Several legendary Carnatic singers have performed Pillai’s songs. In the immediate aftermath of demonetisation, a particular rendition by Sanjay Subrahmanyan of Pillai’s song “Paname”—O Money!—on money’s tendency to run from the righteous towards the crooked, was a huge hit in a Chennai concert.

The Chennai-based historian V Sriram wrote in The Hindu of Pillai’s songs, “A perusal of the lyrics reveal a person who was shocked at the corruption and lack of ethics in his profession.” As Sriram wrote, Pillai quit his job in disgust in 1873, and spent his retirement in spiritual, literary and musical pursuits, passing away in 1889.

The third composer Henry Alfred Krishna Pillai was born a year after the other Pillai, in 1827, in the Tengalai Srivaishnava faith. Having been a priest all his life, he converted to Christianity. While his most important literary work is his Tamil adaptation of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress—Rakshanya Yatrikam—he is best known for hymns like Sathai Nishkalamai set in the Shankarabaranam raga, sung commonly by many devout Christians. Krishna Pillai is also credited with having written one of the earliest autobiographical accounts in Tamil—Palayamkottai Krishna Pillai Christuvanana Varalaru, on how he embraced Christianity.

Beyond the trinity, there have been several other Christians like the composer John Palmer and Abraham Pandithar who contributed immensely not only to Carnatic music, but also to mainstream music in a direct or indirect fashion. Pandithar, born in 1859 in Tirunelveli was a polymath who dabbled successfully in agriculture, traditional medicine, teaching, musicology as well as composing Carnatic songs on Jesus Christ. He conducted six musical conferences while at his organisation Sangeetha Vidhyalaya Mahajana Sangam. His roughly 1,300-page-long Karunamirtha Sagaram, published in 1917, is a first-of-its-kind exploration of Tamil music: it suggests that what is today called Carnatic music has a precursor referred to in Tamil classical texts that are at least 3,000 years old.

Last year a commemorative website set up by the AR Rahman foundation, run by the music director , who famously said the Tamil words “Ella pugazhum iraivanukke”—all praise be to god—in his acceptance speech at the Oscar awards, began a unique project to celebrate hundred years of Pandithar’s musical treatise Karunamirtha Sagaram. The project involves compiling the 3,000-year history of Tamil music building on Pandithar’s research. The poet and lyricist Kutti Revathi, along with Khatija, Rahman’s daughter, has been working on this project that has already accumulated around a hundred hours of footage. The foundation is currently seeking funds to showcase the research it has undertaken thus far. With interviews from Pandithar’s descendants as well as his Tamil biographer Na Mammudhu, the project is a fantastic introduction to Abraham Pandithar’s contributions.

“It was Abraham Pandithar who, through his book, first researched and explained the music mentioned in our epics like Silapathikaram, Tholkappiam and Sangam literature,” Mammudhu said in an interview to the foundation. “In a music conference held in Baroda he proved beyond doubt that the music referred to as Carnatic music in Tamil Nadu was in fact ancient Tamil music.” Pandithar showcased, using a conversation in the epic Silapathikaram, how ragas were born. It is through him that we know that the aalathi mentioned in the Tamil epics is today’s aalapana—a form of singing without words. “The raga Kurinji has been around for 2,000 years, without even a change in its name,” Mammudhu said. “Many things may have been lost. But Tamils have their music that has continued over these years with one person singing and another listening and reproducing.”

Pandithar’s efforts have been instrumental in understanding the history of not only Carnatic, but all Tamil music. It is ironic that Hindu fundamentalists today are trying to erase the likes of Pandithar from this history.