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Carnatic and bhajan singer O S Arun pulled out of the music programme “Aesuvin Sangame Sangeetham”, based on Carnatic ragas for Christian devotional songs on Christ, following threats from Hindu right-wing organizations which had hit out at Carnatic musicians for “betraying” Hindu religion and music. The music director of the programme, Shyam Joseph, a veteran film music composer in Tamil and Malayalam, who has also released several Christian devotional albums, says he is disappointed with the cancellation, and said music is universal and divine, and it should not be viewed from the prism of religion.

In an exclusive interview to, Shyam explained the concept behind the programme, saying that the controversy generated by some sections was unnecessary and unseemly as the motive was not to denigrate Carnatic music. “Far from it, the ragams in Carnatic music have been sought to be given an elevated place,” said Shyam.

“Music is universal. It contains seven notes or seven swaras as given by God. Composing Christian devotional songs with the base of classical music including the Thevaram songs is not new,” said Shyam.

Pointing out that Vedanayagam Sastriar (1774 -1864), a contemporary of Tyagaraja, had composed over 500 Christian devotional songs using various melody formats including Carnatic ragas, and these were sung in Serfoji’s court and by people outside more than two centuries ago. “We had planned to sing some of these songs in Carnatic ragas as performed for a long time merely to remind the people of today of the excellent compositions that were made over 200 years ago in Tamil Nadu,” explained Shyam.

Similarly, Tamil songs of John Palmer, Marian Upadesiyar, Henry Alfred Krishna Pillai and Samuel were to be sung as composed by them a long time ago. “We opted for an experienced Carnatic singer like O S Arun to render these songs as they were largely based on Carnatic songs. Only Carnatic singers could render justice to the songs as they were used to singing the gamakams which were an intricate and integral part of Carnatic music,” said Shyam.

“The organizers of the programme were merely trying to recreate the notations so that they would continue to be available to music lovers,” Shyam said

The songs were to be sung in ragas like Sankarabharanam, Mohanam, Todi, Kalyani, Gambiranaattai, Bilahari, besides some tillanas, said Shyam. He pointed out that that though the lyrics for the songs of over 150 to 200 years were available, the notations were lost or ravaged due to time. “The organizers of the programme were merely trying to recreate the notations so that they would continue to be available to music lovers,” Shyam said.

About the O S Arun programme, Shyam said it would be like a regular Carnatic music programme with traditional accompaniments like violin, mridangam, kanjira etc. Carnatic music would in no way be demeaned or denigrated or misused, added Shyam. The greatness of Carnatic music would be taken to a wider audience, he said.

Shyam pointed out that history was replete with instances of Christian musicians singing Hindu devotional songs and Carnatic music, like John Higgins who rendered regular Carnatic kutcheris. “There were also Hindu musicians singing Christian devotional songs for albums and even for films. The film Gnanasoundari had music by S V Venkataraman and was a musical hit,” said Shyam.

Christian devotional
Gnanasoundari was adapted from a stage play conducted by Nawab Rajamanickam which itself was adapted from a Christian folk tale. It proved to be a big hit, and one of the main reasons was its music composed by S V Venkataraman, who was renowned for his musical scores in Hindu mythological films. The songs by P A Periyanayaki for M V Rajamma were melodious. “Arul Thaarum Deva Mathaavey” (in praise of the Virgin Mary) sung by Periyanayaki and young Jikki became a super hit and is remembered even today.

Asked about songs sung by T M Sounderarajan, P Susheela, PB Sreenivas and S Janaki for a number of Christian devotional films and Christian film songs, Shyam said, “Of course, they sang for a number of such Christian albums and they were popular too. No one raised their voice against them. Music was always considered universal and divine, and no one in the past worried whether it was about language or religion”, Shyam said.

He recalled that M S Viswanathan had even sung in his musical album Malai Prasangar (we sang a song together), and “we enjoyed the experience”.


Asked about the work of musicians like Handel Manuel and Joseph Krishna with Viswanathan Ramamurthy, and Vijay Manuel with Ilayaraja, not to forget Sebastian with Shankar Jaikishen in the Hindi film industry, and whether it was not a fact that these Christian musicians were largely responsible for the excellent orchestra arrangements and Western style instrumentation in film background scores, Shyam said, “That is true. It was not a question of religion at all. The musicians played for Hindu, Christian or Islamic devotional songs with equal professionalism and fervour. Yes, the Goan musicians were largely Christians and formed the backbone of orchestra in Hindi film music for a number of legendary music directors”.

“Music is a matter of give and take. One should not fight for music. What has happened in the case of O S Arun is unfortunate. He is being criticized for participating in a music programme. Music is for unity and to create harmony”, said a sorrowful Shyam.

Asked if he would go ahead with the programme on another day, Shyam said, “It is likely as we don’t want the programme to suffer. But maybe with a different set of musicians, may not be Carnatic musicians if there will be a controversy over that”.

Lourde-Mary in LR Eswari
Was Yesudas right in performing Carnatic kutcheris? Was Muthuswami Dikshitar wrong in composing Western tunes including from Christian devotional numbers for Tamil songs? As I left the residence of Shyam and reached Kodambakkam, the songs of L R Eswari were being played over loudspeakers by organizers of Amman festivals at several Hindu temples. Maariamma, Muthu Maariamma, Chellaathaa, Karpoora Naayagi, were being belted out to the delight of Hindu devotees. Thousands of CDs of these Hindu devotional albums have been sold for years. Few know that her real name is Lourde-Mary Rajeswari Eswari, a Christian, but without whose songs Hindu Amman and Kali temples across Tamil Nadu will feel lost.

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