The Unsung

The long neglected legacy of Christian Carnatic Music

16 November 2018
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
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

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.

Keywords: Carnatic music TM Krishna OS Arun Ramanathan Seetharaman Hindu right wing Christians Dalit Christians Vedanayagam Sastriar music history Kuruvanji Sikkil Gurucharan Samuel Vedanayagam Pillai Henry Alfred Krishna Pillai Tamil music Abraham Pandithar
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