Music

Timeless songs of devotion

Father John Samuel

Father John Samuel   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Father John Samuel is on a mission to keep Sadhu Kochukunju Upadesi’s devotional songs alive

There are songs and then, there are Songs; those that stand the test of time. Sadhu Sopanam, a musical extravaganza celebrating hymns written by Muthampackal Itty Varughese, better known as Sadhu Kochukunju Upadesi, saw the venue in the capital city jam-packed. The crowd was a mix of young and old, many singing along to Kochukunju Upadesi’s hymns, which are still popular, 72 years after he passed away.

“It’s hard to say why Kochukunju Upadesi’s songs are timeless. It could either be because the tunes are easy to the ear or that the lyrics come straight from the heart. I think it’s a fine mix of both,” says Father John Samuel, who conceptualised and orchestrated Sadhu Sopanam.

Father Samuel recalls always being fascinated by Kochukunju Upadesi’s compositions. “My father used to sing Upadesi’s hymns daily. During my childhood, I was captivated by the melody of his songs. Although Upadesi was not trained in music, his tunes followed the rhythm, metre and forms of various ragas. For instance, Ente Daivam Swarga Simhasanam, which follows Sindhu Bhairavi. The powerful words behind his tunes hold my attention even now. The hymns in his book Aaswaasa Geethangal continue to provide solace to those in search of comfort.”

Father John Samuel

Father John Samuel   | Photo Credit: Liza George

Holding a concert in honour of Upadesi has long been Father Samuel’s dream. So, when Slomo Trust, a Thiruvalla-based charitable trust, asked him for suggestions on how best to launch the formation of their organisation, he suggested Sadhu Sopanam. Working on the concert took almost a year.

“Although Upadesi’s songs are rendered in most Christian households, some in the younger generation are not familiar with his tunes. As Gen Now might find his melodies outdated, I have polished it with a 100-member choir accompanied by a 50-member symphony orchestra in philharmonic style. Sadhu Sopanam is my way of keeping Kochukunju Upadesi’s songs alive; his songs are soulful and need to be preserved.”

To find the right voices for his venture, Father Samuel held an audition for choir members. “All Christians irrespective of their differences in creed use Upadesi’s hymns in their prayers and worship books and so we have members from the Orthodox, Mar Thoma, Believers and Catholic churches from Thiruvananthapuram, Adoor and Thiruvalla in our choir. As we were short of strength, choir members from Catholicate College, Pathanamthitta were roped in too. We have members as young as 12 and as old as 70 in our choir. It is perhaps for the first time that members from so many different denominations have gathered for one performance,” says the 44-year-old Orthodox priest, an inmate of the Mar Kuriakose Orthodox Monastery at Mylapra in Pathanamthitta. The 50-member symphony orchestra is from Kochi, Kottayam and Mumbai.

Practice session

Practice session   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Before he started work on Sadhu Sopanam, Father Samuel visited Upadesi’s home in Edayaranmula. “I returned humbled. Upadesi had led an ascetic life. He dressed, ate and lived in a simple way. He was a man who was truly devoted to God. I have written several songs but none hold a candle to Upadesi’s; his songs are a manifestation of his deep spiritual life and experiences.”

Father Samuel admits that it was tough picking songs from amongst Upadesi’s 400-odd compositions. He finally decided on a blend of familiar and rarely-heard hymns. Training sessions for the event, he says, started four months ago after he completed the orchestration of the songs. “I was constantly travelling for the choir sessions. Sundays would be in Thiruvananthapuram, Tuesdays in Thiruvalla and Fridays in Pathanamthitta. I also had to travel for the meet-ups with the orchestra members,” says Father Samuel, who has done various liturgical works of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.

Although the programme is over, Father Samuel plans to continue training the choir members. “There are so many more of Upadesi’s songs to learn and explore. However, right now, I plan to give everyone a month-long-break; they deserve it as they had trained really hard. By the way, we received an invite to perform Sadhu Sopanam in the US. That will probably be our next concert; our next step in popularising Upadesi’s songs.”

Life and times of an ascetic

Sadhu Kochukunju Upadesi was born in Edayaranmula in 1883. His parents, Itty and Mariamma, were devout Christians. His sisters took charge of raising him when his parents passed away. He started gospel work at the age of 17. For almost 40 years, he preached the Bible all over South India. Upadesi, who practised and lived the life of an ascetic, wrote more than 400 hymns, many of them are printed in worship books across denominations even today. One of his famous songs, Dukhathinte Paana Paathram, was penned when his son, Samuel, died at the age of nine. Upadesi passed away on November 30, 1945.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 2:03:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/father-john-samuel-hopes-to-keep-sadhu-kochukunju-upadesis-devotional-songs-alive/article22606939.ece

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