Chelliah dreams of a global spread of Carnatic music, whereby its greatness and uniqueness reach all parts of the world.
After the mass, everyone in the church wanted to shake hands with me and thrust money into my hands
SFN Chelliah, retired Professor of English from Loyola College, is an intellectual who has not yielded to any formula. He holds his own – no straitjacket - and thus eludes description. He has delved deep into and even liberated church music from its restricted vision and version –— Gregorian chant and Four Main (thai) ragas — to embrace the many subtleties of Carnatic Music.
His work, Karpom Karnataka Isai (Let us Learn Carnatic Music) in two parts, presents Carnatic music from its most rudimentary level to the varnam and kirtana stage. Well-sorted and neatly classified, these would put even the uninitiated learner at ease. Christian lyrics may form the content, but the essence of the original has been grasped, nurtured and is seen to reside faithfully in these books and the accompanying cassettes and CDs. Eminently self-taught he had been inspired by his maternal uncle who has sung along with MKT and Chinnappa.
Chelliah is also a vaggeyakara in the true sense of the word and has in his bag nearly 400 compositions in Sindubhairavi, Natakapriya, Vachaspathi, Madhuvanthi, Lathangi and Kanakangi, ragas hitherto untouched by composers of Christian songs. A conversation with him reveals his personality — his open-mindedness and eclectic outlook, his erudition and his deep sense of commitment to holistic music (music without barriers/divisions).
He talks about his performance in Austria. “It was held in Innsbruck, a place as important as Vienna itself. I had been there to take part in an International Congress of Religions with participants from the world over.
“The audience comprised Germans and Austrians and I sang for the first time in several ragas (Mohanam, Bagesri, Sunadavinodini, Thilang, Maand, Saaranga and Shanmukhapriya) and this was broadcast directly – first performance of an Indian to be broadcast live. There was no mike and the hall was acoustically built for special reproduction of sound. After the mass, everyone in the church wanted to shake hands with me and thrust money into my hands by way of recognition and appreciation. They repeatedly used the word ‘heavenly’ and this was one of the greatest experiences, not merely at a personal level but as an Ambassador of Indian Music.”
“A God-given-role, without an iota of doubt,” he continues, “I was also interviewed by BBC Radio. It was only for four minutes but I still made my point. The question, in short, was — what was the relevance of Indian Music (to me this means Carnatic music) to the world and will the European audience understand this music at all. I replied saying that music was not understood but was relished and what was expected and obtained was an emotional response. Anyone, therefore, could respond to any music in the world.”
He observes that Carnatic music is in the hands of people who are not universally exposed and he wants this to change. He wants to see attempts being made for a global spread of our music, whereby its greatness and uniqueness is explained to the world. He cites an example. The violin has been drawn from the Western world of music and it has bowed to our needs. It is played in the sitting posture, unthinkable and unimaginable to the Westerner and to top it all we have innovatively incorporated the gamaka, which is the real stamp of our music. These days you can rarely think of a Carnatic music concert without a violin. Other examples are the clarionet, the guitar, the saxophone and the mandolin.
Open out and Carnatic music will immensely benefit — that is his prescription.