Carnatic music should not be the carrier of those Gods. Carnatic Ragas are carriers of specific deities, particularly Vedic deities
A huge furore is being witnessed now in the social media and among ardent followers of Carnatic music over reports of popular Carnatic singers singing songs on Christ set to Carnatic music. The reactions have been varied but one cannot deny the agenda of cultural appropriation behind this trend. Having tried many techniques for harvesting the Hindu souls right from the times of Roberto de Nobili of the 16th century by donning the Hindu symbols, the Christian marketing team seems to have come around to getting popular Hindus of the day to don the Christian robe. That these Hindus happen to be or are supposed to be the torchbearers of Carnatic music is the reason behind the instant outrage against them.
Dr Nithyasree Mahadevan says that she sang the songs to “to bolster communal peace and harmony”
For the Carnatic music lovers, taught by the Tyagaraja Kriti “Sangeeta gnaanamu” that devotion is the purpose of music this response is something odd. Aren’t there others to take care of communal harmony? As one who grew up in gurukul type of learning from her own mother and illustrious grandmother Smt D.K. Pattammal, she owes an explanation whether this was the goal with which she was groomed in Carnatic music. Her grandmother had sung for national causes but could she ever have thought that her prized granddaughter is going to use the skills learned from her to praise Jesus someday? Let Nithyasree do soul searching.
Another musician, Chitravina N Ravikiran came in support of O.S. Arun with a justification that
“..more listeners from diverse religions are likely to end up becoming Carnatic fans where they may end up getting hopelessly impacted by the predominantly high majority of songs on Hindu deities!”
What a childish thought! Is there any missionary compulsion for Carnatic musicians to increase the number of Carnatic fans? What they could not achieve by their songs on Hindu Gods, they want to achieve by singing on Jesus Christ! By his own logic, the new fans are going to come for the songs on Jesus and Carnatic music is only a means. The popularity quotient of these musicians is an additional attraction. And these musicians are willing to sell their image to attract more people sing their songs on Jesus!
In support of his view, he quoted his concert at Madison Square accompanied by artists from different religions and wondered if it made them betrayers of their religion?
They aren’t, for, they gave the instrumental support only to show their talent in fusion music. It was meant to be an entertainment in which they set the music to their tunes and not to Carnatic tunes.
Similarly he or Nithyasree or any other Carnatic musician is free to sing any western song or a song on Jesus in Christian music, but definitely not in Carnatic music. Carnatic music has its own tradition and goals confined to Hinduism.
This is unacceptable to the Magsaysay awardee T.M.Krishna for whom the current uproar “comes from an RSS-BJP, a very extreme right-wing kind of thought process.” He says that “music belongs to everybody; it belongs to Rama, it belongs to Jesus, to Allah and even to atheists. The best thing musicians can do is sing and I’ll do the same”.
He is free to sing about any God, but should he use Carnatic music for that is the question. He rejects the idea of Moksha or Bhakti related to Carnatic music and accuses that Carnatic music is not taken to masses. This kind of thought processes of modern day musicians had led to the current situation.
In this backdrop let us look at the basic questions heard around us.
- Should Carnatic musicians sing on Gods of other religions?
They can sing if they want. It is individual freedom.
- Can they use Carnatic music for songs of other religions?
No, they can’t. Carnatic music should not be the carrier of those Gods. Carnatic Ragas are carriers of specific deities, particularly Vedic deities. There is a tradition still continuing in our temples to invoke Vedic Gods by means of specific Rāgas meant for them. In a temple ritual called “Nava Sandhi Koutthuvam” approved by agamic tradition, the nine directional Gods (including Brahma at the centre) are worshiped by means of specific Rāgas and Tālās. In Srirangam temple, akasha is worshipped as the 10th direction!
Rāga is a unique Indian innovation that traces its origin to Sāma Veda. The multi-tonal Vedic chants with different notes called svarita, udatta and anudatta are the basis for rāgas. The folk music of Tamil Sangam age has a parallel to this system and one finds that each of the 5 landforms of that period had their own Paṇ (Rāga) and Tālā. They were all directed at the deity of this land. What is important is that the Paṇ of a land and deity was not used for another land and another deity. Will Nithyasree and others take a leaf from them? Nithyasree’s song on Jesus is in Sankarabharanam, the Rāga of Jewel of Sankara! That much for their respect for Carnatic music!
Before they want to step into singing for other Gods, they must know that there is so much to explore in Carnatic music and folk music, a facet of it is found in the 17th chapter of Silappadhikaram. Here is a sample from the lecture- demonstration of S.Swaminathan and Uma Swaminathan titled “Indian Musical Heritage”.
- Why shouldn’t they, after all, isn’t music Universal?
The straight answer is no for Carnatic music for other religions. Music is universal, but the only common music for all people is perhaps the lullaby that calms down a child. But it has an identity in Carnatic music as Rāga Neelambari. Once the child grows up music becomes exclusive for regions, developed by the indigenous people. Every religion has its own music. Christian songs are best heard in their music. Would it sound good to hear about Rama and Krishna in carols? The same holds good for Jesus in Carnatic music.
There is also the concept of Metres that can be traced to Vedas. All the poetic creations including Ramayana by Valmiki are set to certain metres and were musical in rendition. Why a certain metre is given preference over the other is by itself a subject for research. The development of Carnatic music from metres is also worthy of research. A highly trained and successful singer is expected to be a guardian of these concepts and through that the musical tradition itself. It is comparable with how the Vedic pundits are expected to safe guard the Vedas and the temple priests, the temple tradition. When a singer violates this, it is proof enough that he or she has not imbibed the concept and tradition of Carnatic music.
- Do we complain against persons of other religions singing on Hindu Gods – a popular example being K.J.Yesudas?
We don’t find fault with anyone singing Hindu Gods. Nor do we find fault with those singing gods of other religions. We only say sing in the say that is suitable for those Gods. Yesudas didn’t sing Hindu Gods in Christian music. His long innings in Carnatic music has a lesson for all those who want to take Carnatic music to Christianity. By his continuous connect with Carnatic music Yesudas had become a Hindu himself which we could see in his trips to Hindu shrines and recently to Sabari Mala by following due rituals meant for that pilgrimage. It underlines the fact that one becomes what one sings or thinks.
The Christian songs that the new age singers promote would definitely alter their receptiveness to Hindu Gods in due course. Their followers from Hindu fold would also fall a prey to that trend by starting to sing their songs on Jesus. So a reverse osmosis is very much possible. This is in addition to the underlying motive of conversion by cultural appropriation. Will the singers realise that they are becoming tools of conversion?
1. Text in Blue points to additional data on the topic.
2. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.
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