Music sans borders, a distant dream

When the 18th century composer Thyagaraja sang “Endaro mahaubhavulu, andariki vandanamulu…”, I wonder if he had a premonition of the ugly controversies that would trouble Carnatic music down the years. In this beautiful ragamaalika, he appeals for respect, not only to musicians, but to the practitioners of all the great faiths, creeds and religions of the world. It is a sad irony that this same music is being flogged and used today to promote hatred and violence.

Musicians who sing Christian themes and use spaces other than temples or sabhas have been harassed and intimidated over the last few weeks with threatening messages on social media to make them yield to the dictates of self styled custodians of culture and religion.

When the Carnatic musician Aruna Sairam sang Subramania Bharatiyar’s popular ragamalika “Chinnan chirukiliye Kannamma….” to the accompaniment of the 10th century Gregorian chants, there was not a murmur of dissent from Christians. Nor did the Roman Catholic church object to this “profanity.”

Again, when nadaswaram player Sheik Chinna Moulana Saheb performed in the Srirangam temple — that most sacred repository of Sri Vaishnavism where he was later made the ‘Asthaana Vidvan’ too — did the Muslim community condemn him as an infidel?

Carnatic music has thrown its doors open to all religions and to all nationalities at all times. It has embraced a Yesudas with the same warmth as it has an Ariakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.

It even conferred the title of “Bhagavatar” on Jon Higgins and welcomed his presence in the hallowed precincts of Tiruvayyaru during the annual Thyagaraja Aradhana.

Apart from this absorption of musicians into its fold, it has also absorbed compositions based on western classical formats like the popular English note composed by Muthiah Bhagavatar or the lesser known yet extraordinary English compositions by no less a vidvan than Dikshitar – one of the Trinity of classical Carnatic music.

Against this remarkable background of tolerance coupled with an artistic acceptance of diverse forms of music which has enriched its own repertoire, the recent trend of trying to confine Carnatic music into a small, exclusive space that denies freedom of expression to musicians is totally unacceptable.

An ugly controversy regarding where, when and how musicians should sing is blown out of all proportion with established artists being bullied, threatened and cowed down on social media these last few weeks.

The same custodians of culture and religion have verbally attacked musicians for singing in churches instead of temples; threatened them with dire consequences if they sang about gods other than those in the Hindu pantheon; bullied some of them into submission by ensuring that their sponsors do not support them.

Sabhas have also been warned not to entertain them. These threats have reached other countries too where our musicians used to be welcome. A temple in Washington has cancelled its summer programme featuring one of our most talented musicians. This is very disturbing. It is also disturbing that other musicians of this genre have not expressed any dissent in the matter. Their silence is deafening.

Unless artists, their sponsors and – more importantly – their rasikas take a united stand against forces that threaten to destroy this art, the future of Carnatic music looks bleak. It will become a political tool instead of a pleasurable experience.

In this context, musicians and rasikas of the Hindustani gharanas are more broadminded. They have discarded petty religious controversies as far as their music is concerned. It remains, as music should, pure and unsullied by politics.

Bismillah Khan

I recall a story related by the one and only Bismillah Khan. He was invited by rich South Asians in America to relocate to that country where they promised him a music school, residences for his families with handsome allowances for their upkeep and anything else that he wanted. The maestro replied: “Can you give me the Ganga and the temple of Varanasi?”

Again, when I asked sarangi player Ustad Faiyaz Khan what inspired him to sing as well as play his instrument, his one word answer — “Saraswathi” — spoke volumes.

The religious squabbles surrounding Carnatic music appear ugly and mean in contrast to these gracious attitudes. Our musicians have been persecuted time and again, if not with religious fanaticism, with language chauvinism.

Even MS Subbulakshmi was not spared when she was greeted by shouts of “Go back, MS” by Kannada fanatics during a Ramanavami festival in Bengaluru where she was singing Telugu kritis by Annamacharya. She, however, remained unfazed.

In contrast, her sublime performance during the centenary celebrations of a Jesuit institution in the city moved a priest to exclaim: “MS has taken us all one step nearer to God today.”

Perhaps, that statement is the answer to the present conflict in Carnatic music. If music can move hearts and minds, does the religious denomination matter?

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Music sans borders, a distant dream

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