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There Is A Need To Debate Over The ‘Christianization of Carnatic Music’ Controversy

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In response to Ms Anahita Nanda’s article ‘How TM Krishna Is Changing Carnatic Music By Acknowledging His ‘Male Brahmin’ Identity’, I would like to offer my considered opinion. If you haven’t read her article, I strongly recommend you read it first before proceeding with mine.

The insinuation that “Male Brahmin identity” matters a lot in Carnatic music (I will use the abbreviation CM) does not seem very logical and contemporary to me.

Let’s address the gender aspect first. Yes, in the past, women were discouraged from performing CM in public. But in those times this was true of any pursuit that involved public appearance, so it would be unfair to specifically target CM as an art form or a group for this. Women artistes were then also considered by some as inferior, particularly in laya (rhythmic aspects). The “male bastion” was breached in the first half of the previous century by the irresistible troika of DK Pattammal, MS Subbulakshmi and ML Vasanthakumari, as well as by other outstanding artistes like NC Vasanthakokilam, Brinda and Mukta, etc. All of them were, and still are, regarded highly in CM for their music. For that matter, Veena Dhanammal (1867-1938) was highly regarded for her musical scholarship and tradition, and her veena-playing, even back then. Much water has flown down the Kaveri since, and today we have a large number of highly regarded women in the field, performing around the world, winning awards (including the coveted Sangeeta Kalanidhi) and teaching. So, to paint TM Krishna (whose music I am a big fan of) or any other contemporary artiste as a modern-day mascot of women’s emancipation into CM seems misplaced. Those who claim that gender discrimination exists in CM of today’s times should point out specific instances, and the next logical step should be to identify if it such examples represent a general malaise or are isolated cases of discrimination that one can find in every field.

Even outside of Carnatic music or in other art forms like Bharatanatyam, the South Indian Brahmin (SIB) community has, in general, and despite its undeniable conservatism, over the last few decades been relatively much more forward-thinking and liberal when it comes to bettering the status of women. It can safely be said that this community is well above the Indian average. Be it in terms of education, pursuit of career, choice of life-partner, property inheritance and so on, I think there would be few communities in Indian society that are on par or better. Pretty much every SIB I know today has one or more instance(s) of inter-caste, inter-faith, inter-state (two states!) or inter-national marriage in his or her extended family. You will not see instances of honour killing or ostracism in this community; more often than not, in such cases, you will find that parents and relatives have made peace with their children’s decision (even if they initially had, or might still have, reservations).

Next, let’s look at the bogey of “Brahmin-domination” in CM. I would humbly refer to CM as Brahmin-cultivated (a positive reference) rather than Brahmin-dominated (a term which offers negative vibes to anyone other than a statistician). Yes, it is true that a majority of CM performers, organizers and rasika-s are from the SIB community. But that is largely on account of their dedication to the art and not because of a conspiracy to suppress others from getting in and doing well. Artistes from other communities who have embellished CM are several in number; at the certain risk of missing many important names, here is a brief list: a galaxy of Nadaswaram giants led by TN Rajarathnam Pillai, Sembanarkoil brothers, Karaikurichi Arunachalam, Sheikh Chinnamoulana; Veena Dhanammal, her descendants and proteges (Brinda, Mukta, Balasaraswati, T Sankaran, T Viswa); MS Subbulakshmi (though her fortuitous marriage to a Brahmin, rather than a “more than supportive husband”, is bandied about as a necessary step in her success); Kanchipuram Naina Pillai and Chittoor Subramaniam Pillai; laya maestros such as Palani Subramania Pillai, Dakshinamurthi Pillai and Haridwaramangalam Palanivel; and in more recent times, TM Thyagarajan, Neyyatinkara Vasudevan and KJ Yesudas (whose guru was the orthodox Brahmin Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, who demonstrated exemplary broad-mindedness in taking KJY under his wings).

If the number of CM performers and students from non-Brahmin communities has declined in the recent past, it is symptomatic of the general decline in interest in and dedication to the art in society, whereas the preponderance of Brahmins in CM is on account of their stubborn and painstaking efforts to keep the art form alive by making their children learn and appreciate the art, patronizing the artistes, running organizations and sabha-s devoted to the art, and so on. It is unfortunate that somehow Brahmins are seen as deliberately dominating the field at the expense of others. The reasons for the “domination” are to be found elsewhere, not in conspiracies or supremacist tendencies.

Thus, much as I appreciate and savour the music of TM Krishna, I am not in agreement with his activist side which I feel is needlessly confrontational. His views would be far more palatable if they were somewhat balanced. For instance, saying that “while a lot of positive things have happened in the CM world that showcase inclusion of women and communities other than Brahmins, I’d like to see more of it” would generate more positive vibes than saying something to the effect that “we’ve been in the dark ages all this while and now we need to bring about drastic change.”

Now allow me to share my thoughts on the recent controversy over the issue of Carnatic vocalists lending their voice to Christian songs and the like. I believe that at a deep level, spirituality is a very personal thing and how one chooses to connect with the Supreme is a private matter. Indic thought has always accommodated an infinitely large number of approaches and viewpoints, and inherently supports cultural and religious diversity in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Hence, under reasonably ideal circumstances, I do not personally have a problem with a Carnatic  song in praise of Jesus or Allah, per se.

The real reason behind the opposition that we’ve seen from many quarters is the current context in Indian society, where there is considerable concern about many parallel trends that are seen as threats to our demographic composition in general, and the Hindu community in particular. There is genuine concern about rampant conversion by some aggressive and foreign-funded evangelists using insidious means in many pockets of the country, in the name of religious freedom and secularism. There is genuine concern about vote-bank politics pursued by the Grand Old Party and many regional parties that has resulted in massive problems of illegal immigration and demographic change. There is genuine concern about the distortion of history and the national narrative by left-funded historians and media over the decades since Independence. There is real disgust at the treatment of Hindu religious leaders (whom mainstream media seeks to disparage and paint with a broad brush even if the wrong-doers among them do not form a percentage any bigger than that amongst other religions), denigration of Hindu symbols and practices, and the appeasement of certain minority groups by political parties. Secularism is perceived as the eternal burden of only the Indic religionists, because the mutual respect that we want to accord others is not reciprocated. This is not to paint all Christians and Muslims with the same brush; I do believe there is a good number of them who genuinely believe in pluralism and mutual respect, and are least interested in the agenda of converting the nation into their faith. But denying that there are mischievous agencies with political and institutional patronage that pursue undesirable agendas and use dishonest and disguised means would amount to falsehood and brushing problems under the carpet.

These are real concerns on the ground, not some made-up and exaggerated fantasies. The victory of the BJP in 2014 was a fallout of this ground reality. I am in utter disagreement with the self-proclaimed champion of secularism, the left-liberal camp, that seeks to put the cart before the horse in claiming that it is the victory of the BJP that has led to fear-mongering in the Hindu community and thereby has fuelled fanaticism and fundamentalism (or, as some misguided figures like to take the liberty of saying, saffron extremism or saffron terrorism). Is it too far-fetched to conclude the BJP and RSS are probably giving voice to a majority whose concerns have been long ignored and side-stepped across the political spectrum? They may well have flaws; but in the absence of a better alternative, why will people not vote for them?

Let’s face it: fringe elements, abusive trolls and over-the-top reactions will always be there in every camp. Particularly in today’s digital age where everything is out in the open, and where most “posts and shares” are heat-of-the-moment reactions to a particular incident or comment, in a certain context, and do not by any measure reflect the sum total of a person’s or a community’s outlook. And the internet makes it possible for something happening in one corner of the globe, or one person’s post, to spread like wildfire in no time – what with thousands of people itching to post a reaction as soon as they receive something. It takes maturity to hold back and respond after due consideration, but alas, in today’s fast-paced world that maturity is hard to find across the board. Likewise, it takes some effort and maturity to dig beyond the surface and understand nuance, rather than painting the world black and white. This is where I wish TMK would look beyond the “vile comments and threats” (which are certainly deplorable) and attempt to address the meat of the problem in a non-confrontational way. Someone of his stature as a musician and intellectual need not dignify the fringe by reacting to it. If someone incites or threatens violence, the police must be informed and the law must take its course.

Like pretty much every classical art form in India, Carnatic Music – like it or not – has been seen not merely as an art form but also a spiritual sAdhanA in itself – and this has been so for centuries. The great compositions of CM are not only rich in musical ideas, but are also suffused with bhakti. On account of this, it is but natural that a large portion of CM rasika-s associate CM with a certain dhArmik tradition; even rAga AlApanA, which is the melodic exploration of a rAga and is bereft of lyrics (sAhitya), is often identified with the various rasa-s or moods that accentuate a bhakta-s relationship with the Divine. Understandably, they find it difficult to strip CM of its divinity and Hindu roots. Those who think CM should be secularized and lend itself to a wider canvas are certainly entitled to their views and are free to put in efforts in that direction, but at the very least they should empathize with and respect differing opinions, rather than brand them as fanatical and results of BJP/RSS-driven indoctrination! So much for freedom of expression!

If a Christian or Muslim genuinely attracted to Carnatic Music desires to compose and sing songs based on the Carnatic idiom in praise of his/her object of worship, there is absolutely no problem with it. But when a popular Carnatic musician (say XYZ) is sought to be roped in, and the publicity poster for the event announces “Might of Jesus, featuring XYZ”, it does touch a raw nerve when placed in the prevailing context of Hindu concern. Maybe the organizers’ intentions are completely honourable, but the average Hindu cannot be faulted for suspecting, in a corner of his or her mind, that CDs of the event might be used for proselytization activities. Yes, the peerless KJ Yesudas and Sheikh Chinnamoulana did perform traditional Carnatic kriti-s composed in praise of Hindu deities. But none of their concerts or cassettes or CDs were labelled “The Might of Krishna” or “The Greatness of Hinduism” featuring KJ Yesudas or Chinnamoulana. No Hindu went about, or even remotely thought about, trying to persuade Christians or Muslims that because your guy is singing in praise of Rama and Krishna, Hinduism is better than your faith and you should consider converting.

In conclusion, I hope we can have a nuanced debate on this instead of indulging in simplistic binary delineations and portraying this is a “liberal versus fanatic” issue. It is not. In every free society, there will be a left camp and a right camp – that is the very nature of humanity. Unfortunately, the fringe elements on either side dominate public discourse today. It is high time the moderate elements in both camps isolate the fringe, and instead talk to each other in a cordial, empathetic and mutually respectful manner on these and other matters. And at the end of the day, it is perfectly alright – and civilized – to agree to disagree.

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