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Row over Christian ‘appropriation’ of Carnatic music aims to further the divide between the art and common people

I wonder what MS Amma was thinking about when she sang the composition of Kanchi Paramacharya on the occasion of the United Nations Day in New York, in October 1966.

The song conjures up imagery where all the people of the world are happy and prosperous. They are kind to one another because they look upon others as being similar to oneself. We are one. We share our wealth. We build cross-cultural ties between food, clothing and so on.

But music? Can we share music? Apparently, Carnatic music cannot be shared.

The recent outrage about the Christian appropriation of Carnatic music is yet another tool and tactic of persons with a narrow worldview who aim to further increase the divide between classical music and the common people.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Two Telugu Christian music albums that I produced in the world music genre are called Thrahimam which simply means – the thirst of the soul. My first album was a wonderful fusion of Western and Carnatic instrumentation, melodies and sounds. My second album introduced Hindustani, and Qawwali into the spiritual potpourri.

The first song that I produced – Yahova Na Mora – is a Telugu Christian hymn set in Raag Shankarabharanam to Adi Taal. The old hymn was set to new music to make it relevant and meaningful to a new generation of music lovers. To add to its universal aesthetic appeal, my dear friend Ms Kavitha Ramu, a civil servant and danseuse in her own right choreographed the song in Bharatanatyam. It has more than four million views on YouTube and it has further inspired at least 250 similar versions in India and abroad, all of which are circulating on social media. Everybody has their own take on it. People have taken what they see and love and made it their own by imitating, and creating anew.

Yahova Na Mora is a perfect example of the Christian cultural appropriation of not only Carnatic music but also Bharatnatyam. Here is a fun fact, Yahova Na Mora was written and composed nearly 180 years ago by a great seer of yore, Purushottama Choudary, a Bengali Brahmin who lived in Ganjam Orrisa and wrote in chaste Telugu. Oh boy!

Didn’t this just get better? I can see the delirious faces of the right wingers smacking their lips. But Carnatic music is not anybody’s exclusive property as trolls seem to imply in the tons of vitriol that has poured on social media since the controversy erupted. Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam belong to me just as it does to those enjoying it in a Sabha during the Margazhi season.

I reject all attempts that prevent making Carnatic music inclusive. By opening its doors for all people of all faiths and interpreting it in our own cultural and spiritual contexts, we have claimed a shared heritage that is equally ours. Efforts by music connoisseurs like me in broadening the width and depth of Carnatic music by the establishment that has always considered us outsiders must be welcome. This whole appeal to exclusivity and purity is a reflection of a caste and class bias that does little to enrich the genre.

I love Carnatic music and I love Christ. Why will you grudge me when I take the beauty of the two experiences and blend them together? In the past week, the ire of the forces were directed at the Carnatic musicians who sang the so-called guilty verses. Nithyashree can sing the folksy Kumbakonam Sandhayile but she cannot dare sing Samanul evaru Prabho.

As usual, there are some clever lies that are subtly parked in this debate. Let us now proceed to look at them objectively. They say that Carnatic artists have been “forced” to sing and perform in Christian Albums and concerts. With a double-barrelled gun or a poison-dipped dagger? They say that Thyagaraja Keerthanas have been altered and tampered with. They allege that the word Rama has been substituted with the word Christ. The only words that are common to both the songs in question are “samanulu evaru”. Other than this, the two hymns are as different from each other as the day from the night. As Tamil is from Telugu. They have a few similar sounding words. But they are totally different songs in their content and composition. They say that Carnatic musicians were “forced” to wear a cross when singing the Christian Hymns. This allegation can be thrown out simply on the basis of the bizarreness of the claim. Show us a picture?

And then they have hurled the C word. They say the songs are used for conversion. Guilty as charged. Every song is a manifesto of the songwriter. Any song that does not lay siege and convert the listener is bereft of creative merit. If a song has the power to enable a person to find his religion, why grudge her or him that right. If a song has the impetus to convert give it a Grammy! Give it a National Award, a Nandi Award or a Kalaimamani. Don’t punish it. Unless you think that the listener is an idiot who cannot think and does not know their left from their right. By the way, conversion is the last refuge of a hollow argument.

I would argue that every song evokes the soul. All communication is an attempt at conversion. Every political speech tries to convert the constituent to cross the party lines when they cast their vote. Every romantic song ever written tries to convert an indifferent audience to become a passionate lover. Every jingle aims to sell. Every devotional song aims to add to the flock. It is a cry to levitate the mundane to the realm of the divine. That is the purpose of a Bhakthi song. Besides that right is covered under the UN Charter of Human Rights and is endorsed by the Indian Constitution last time I checked. Which brings me back to the prophetic song Maithreem Bhajatham sung by MS Amma at the very altar of the UN decades ago. Live and let live.

I would urge you to go one step further. Sit back, relax and enjoy the song. If possible join the singing.

Dr Aishwarya Rao is a pediatrician and a public health expert

Updated Date: Aug 15, 2018 17:50 PM

Updated: August 15, 2018 — 11:55 pm
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