Music is supposed to unite, not divide. Yet Carnatic music, which has created harmony between people and communities no less than any other top system in the world, has been targeted by certain people with feigned or genuine concerns to churn up religious or communal disharmony in recent times. The latest is the vitriol hurled at certain artists for singing songs on Jesus Christ without a shred of evidence that even a single artist was guilty of malicious intent towards any individual or community. The last time a few top Carnatic vocal stars faced such a situation was from Kannada fanatics in Bangalore and elsewhere in the 1980s.
Predictably, the issue has fast metamorphosed into a launching pad for hate-mongers and headline-hunters. Some have spewed venom online while others have issued verbal threats over phone with scant knowledge of or regard for facts. While I am no legal eagle, the fact that such phone calls were recorded and shared online reeks of willful intent to slander and cause mental anguish to the concerned artists in the name of protecting cultural integrity.
That said, legitimate concerns of conversion ought to be analysed and addressed clearly in a country of one billion plus where the Christian percentage has gone up from 2% to a formidable 6% in a few decades (more according to claims by evangelists). Where, overall, non-Hindu percentage has gone up from about 10% to 20%, there is going to be a concern about any moves that seem to catalyse more such conversions. Armchair analysts and idealists may be tempted to retaliate that most conversions happen because of the way Hindus have treated other Hindus, and have only themselves to blame for it. The internal reasons of unsavoriness within the country is an altogether different issue which needs to be addressed and improved upon. But external forces exploiting these chinks to their advantage and converting apparently marginalized people cannot be ignored, certainly not condoned, and definitely not glorified.
Organic vs forced conversions
I am unequivocally vocally against organized religious conversions – forced or incentivised! But conversions are an everyday reality across our planet. Surely we know that several thousands from other religions from various countries have converted to Hinduism and its values are flourishing even in countries like Slovenia, Brazil, Hungary and Croatia. A Hindu can be proud that the majority of these have not happened because of force or finance. They are organic conversions by the power of sanatana dharmic values (though it may have been a different story when India was more the conqueror than the conquered).
But the Carnatic-Christian-Controversy has been spinning too fast for its own good. And it is partly due to the paucity of perspectives and partly due to misinformation and disinformation.
Issue 1: (Mis)using Carnatic music to promote religious conversions:
Can an occasional Christ-centric song, concert or an album even by popular stars be classified as betrayal of their own religion? Or as attempts to convert thousands of people? One may argue that it has to be nipped in the bud but regressive reactions only end up provoking extreme actions (as it already has in some quarters). More so when the accusers blur lines between an artist’s professional or artistic freedom and his or her perceived religious responsibilities.
Consider for a minute the Hindustani icon, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan who had zero issues attempting to sing ‘Rama nee samanamevaru’ of Tyagaraja or other “Hindu” songs even in the early 1900s.
Does this pigeon-hole him as a traitor of his own religion? Likewise, John Higgins and a host of others from various religions who have taken to core Carnatic classical?
From all I have seen so far, everyone concerned in this saga has spoken of taking Carnatic to Christians and not about bringing Christ to Carnatic listeners, which are two vastly different things. Obviously, listeners always have a choice of not listening to such concerts or albums.
On a personal note, one of my missions has been to share our music and composers with major orchestras and artists across the world. In a recent collaboration with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, about 45 Christian/Jewish artists enthralled over 45,000 listeners of diverse religions too with songs on Shiva & Parvati.
It can be argued that there was no question of even religious connotations in the above examples, leave alone organized conversions whereas these recent albums or concerts have clear agendas contrary to Hindu interests. The counter perspective is that if Carnatic music helps other religions it’s a triumph of music over words.
Over the next few years, thanks to such artists, 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 has escaped notice is the actual likely benefit in this. Over the next few years, thanks to such artists, 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!!
Issue 2: Plagiarizing compositions of master composers
Plagiarism or twisting of great masters’ works is certainly a cultural crime, more so if it is done completely against the religious or spiritual intent of the composer – had it happened. From everything I have seen so far, this is a Trumped (pun intended) up charge and completely baseless. Tyagaraja’s Rama nee samanamevaru was quoted as the ‘victim’ in many circles but there is not a single song in the Christian repertoire cited here that has even a remote resemblance to this piece.
Arunagirinather & Dikshitar
Screaming plagiarism because a stray word reminds someone of something reeks of both incompetence and inconsistency. How would one categorize the use of the word “salaam” by one of the greatest Hindu poets Arunagirinather in his Tiruppuhazh, Avamaruvina vasudhai?
surAdhipati mAl ayanum mAloDu salAmiDu
suvAmimalai vAzhum perumALE
To put things in context, a bunch of stray words seen in a few Carnatic Christian songs is nothing when compared with, for instance, Muttuswami Dikshitar’s venture of wholly adopting several popular Western songs and ‘re-creating’ them with Hindu Sanskrit lyrics.
The majority of musicians simply revel in their ability to entertain and enrich the lives of their listeners. The last thing on most of their minds is to whip up mass hate against themselves or their art as the risk of this backfiring on them substantially outweighs the rewards of short-term publicity. Every citizen must be sensitive to this important fact and not ascribe motives where none exist.
Hindu culture and religion are far more solid at the core which is how it has been able to withstand far greater threats to its identity from various quarters for over a 1,000 years than an odd concert or album promoting other religions or cultures. Hindus have an unbreakable, even if not unshakable identity. If we do not lose it ourselves, no one can take it away from us in the long run, notwithstanding a very small percentage of the population falling for propaganda or money and converting. But the percentages of such conversions can be kept under minimal limits if a culture is intrinsically strong. If not, internal reasons would be more to be blamed than external. What would be truly abhorrent is attacking the symptoms rather than analyzing the causes.