Father-daughter duo, Victor and Sheela, are trying to bring back Tamil isai to the Church, writes Soma Basu

With Christmas round the corner when many youngsters are perhaps planning their parties and celebrations, Sheela Titus’s calendar is filled with stage performances of Tamil Christian keerthanaigal. At 30, she is acknowledged in Tamil isai circles as Madurai’s most sought after singer of Tamil hymns, which include several forgotten lyrics.

Till the run-up to Christmas and later, her diary is packed with appointments with HIV-affected children, senior citizens, orphans and destitute women besides performances in colleges, marriages, conventions and church services.

“It is very difficult to describe the power of music. The Tamil isai keerthanai is a rich, vibrant body of music. I love the lyrics, the ragas. When I sing, I feel I am in communion with the God,” she says.

Over the last 12 years, Sheela has given more than 1,000 stage performances and released five audio albums in an attempt to revive Tamil music in Church. Along with her father C.Victor, she is working on a project to mainstream at least 200 old Tamil Christian songs. “So far we have put together 100, of which 50 are out in the market,” she says, adding, the other singers of the genre belt out the same 10 or 15 songs. “We want to expand.”

After her M.Phil in Social Work, Sheela briefly worked in the Indian Council of Medical Research. She put her career on hold as she found a delight in sharing Tamil isai and enthusiasm led by her father, who established “Exodus” Music Ministries in the year 2000 to help people realise the importance of Tamil music in Christianity.

Victor felt Tamil isai may slip into oblivion given peoples’ “lack of sentimentality and valuation of history.” “The loss of its simple beauty, spiritual message that connects us with God and the sheer joy of and enlightenment in singing it, would be a tragedy,” he says.

The mission of the Exodus Tamil isai Project is to catalogue and reintroduce this music into the Church. Before every performance, Victor shares a bit of history as to how Tamil classical music was followed by many missionaries who came to Tamil Nadu to spread Christianity. Among them were William Carey, Bartholomew Ziegenbalg and Philip Fabricius who modified the worshipping style and the lyrics but not the music. The influence of Western roots music remained till 250 years ago when Vedanayagam Shastriyar composed several lyrics on Jesus in Tamil isai. Later many more poems and songs were written and it is believed there are more than 3,000 such compositions. But what continued to influence was the integration of light, Western or fusion music in delivering these songs.

Victor saw his daughter’s potential early and started training her in Carnatic music when she was eight. It worked like magic as Sheela showed an innate ability to breathe fresh life into the forgotten lyrics and music. Today, she is appreciated for her impeccable soulful rendition that captivates audiences and makes them surrender to Tamil isai. She is admired by contemporaries and fans of all ages alike.

Says her father, “When Sheela starts singing, people become emotional, they cry and later come on the stage to bless her or gift her something.”

Sheela gave her first stage performance at the age of 10 and ever since has made guest appearances on television and radio too. When her father set up the Exodus 12 years ago, it marked the beginning of a long and valued relationship to divine music and helped her establish across the globe. Her CDs sell in UK and USA and people are already enquiring when the next volume will be released, she says. South Indians settled abroad seek online music training from her. In Madurai, she conducts summer camps and classes for CSI Nursing college students and children from various churches to teach keerthanaigal.

Sheela has turned down several offers to sing in films. “Tamil isai means a lot to me. It helps me to remain humble and gives me the peace of mind. I cannot quit this for anything else.”

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to somabasu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)