CHENNAI:Despite threats from Hindu fundamentalist groups, ‘Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetham’, a concert envisioned by renowned Carnatic artist T Samuel Joseph (Shyaam) went on as planned in the city on Saturday. Singer Kalpana Raghavendar filled in for OS Arun, who backed out following threats and criticism from fundamental groups, who alleged he was being used to spread Christianity.
The controversy began when Arun allegedly received a phone call from Ramanathan Seetharaman, founder of a Hindu fundamentalist group on August 6, demanding that he refrain from taking part in the concert. Ramanathan also targeted Magsaysay award winner T M Krishna and singer Nithyasree Mahadevan. Ramanathan confirmed to The Wire that it was indeed his voice.While Krishna has come out strongly against the attempt to make Carnatic music exclusive to one religion, Arun and Nithyasree seemed to have succumbed to the threats. Nithyasree even offered an apology through an FB post ‘for inadvertently hurting your sentiments if any’.
According to Paul Wilson, Head of the Department of Chemistry in a private college near the city and his wife Jasmine Wilson, who has an MFA in Indian Music from the Tamil University in Thanjavur, these threats stem from the false notion that Carnatic music has no Christian heritage. “We were very disturbed after the controversy and decided to do some research,” said Paul, also a musician.One of the most obvious yet unspoken contributions of Christianity to Carnatic music is the violin. This stringed instrument, which is an integral part of any Carnatic concert today entered the fray through Christian proponents.
Vedanayagam Sastriar, a Christian, who is known to have composed hundreds of Carnatic keerthanas, learnt to play the instrument as a 12-year-old from German missionary Friedrich Schwarz in 1786. He went to pass on the art to Vadivelu Pillai, who became the ‘Asthana Vidwan’ in the court of renowned Carnatic composer Raja Svati Tirunal of Travancore.
Baluswamy Dikshitar, brother of Muthuswamy Dikshitar, one of the Carnatic trinity, is known to have been the first person to infuse the violin into Carnatic compositions using the ‘Sa Pa Sa Pa’ string tuning which is still followed today.But like Vedanayagam Sastriar, Baluswamy Dikshitar also learnt the violin from European Christians. “He is said to have learnt to play the violin from a band in Fort St. George,” said Paul, explaining the role that Baluswamy’s patron, Manali Muthukrishna Mudaliar, played in arranging the interaction with the East India Company.
In addition, Christian artists have also helped preserve the music with notation.Chinnaswami Mudaliar, a Christian, brought out Oriental Music in Staff Notation in 1870. This was the first large-scale attempt to record tunes of Carnatic music, which had till then been passed down through oral traditions. “Tyagaraya owes his immortality to Mudaliar, He approached the shishya-parampara of Tyagaraja like Walajahpet Krishnaswami Bhagavatar and transcribed 800 pieces of Tyagaraja and other composers in Staff Notation, checking his scripts with the help of violinists trained in Western music, who were asked to play them by sight,” said Jasmine, explaining that Mudaliar was also instrumental in ensuring the original compositions of Muthuswamy Dikshitar were preserved.
The contributions of Christian proponents also continued into the 19th and 20th century. The contributions of Abraham Pandithar, a Siddha doctor from Tirunelveli and his seminal work — Karunamirdha Sagaram, a 1346-page book continues to be a reference material for research on Carnatic music.While Samuel Joseph believes “Carnatic music is like the air. Free for everyone who wants a breath”, Paul believes it “will only get more diverse by borrowing and evolving”.