On Mosa Valsalam Sasthriar, who composed Carnatic songs in praise of Jesus

T.M. Krishna performs at Christ the King Church inside Loyola College campus in Chennai

T.M. Krishna performs at Christ the King Church inside Loyola College campus in Chennai   | Photo Credit: R Ragu


Poet and missionary Mosa Valsalam Sasthriar (1847-1916) enriched the treasure trove of Carnatic music with original compositions in Sanskrit and Malayalam, all of which were in praise of Jesus

Raga Vakulabharanam in Carnatic music is a rare raga. There is only one popular composition, that of Saint Tyagaraja’s ‘Eraamuni Nammithino’. Recently, a composition of Swathi Thirunal has been retuned in this raga from its original in Thodi – ‘Sadhu Thada Nija’, and it has become a hit. I never had a hang of the raga until, on a magical evening, I spoke to music director M Jayachandran. When I requested him to enlighten me on Vakulabharanam, he said I only needed to listen to a verse from the Koran, which had been recorded from West Asia. He reproduced it for me with phrases that were intricate and had a long chain of vibratos in it. Suddenly, Vakulabharanam penetrated deep into my soul. I have never heard anything more profound in Vakulabharanam, till date. That it came from an alien land and culture did not occur to me at all.

Muthuswamy Dikshitar, one of the Carnatic Music Trinity, was famous for being curious about Western music. After listening to some forms of it in Fort St George [Chennai], Dikshitar went on to compose about 40 pieces in the same vein, all in praise of gods of the Hindu pantheon. These pieces are popular choices for the post-taniavarthanam slot in Carnatic concerts. Tyagaraja himself gives glimpses of his fascination with Western music, in compositions such as ‘Vara Leela Gana Lola’ and ‘Raminchuva evarura’.

The case of Swathi Thirunal is even more curious, but not widely known. He was famous for the presence of musicians from many places in the Indian subcontinent in his court — Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Lahore, Maharashtra and Bengal. He took a fancy to raga Behag, alien to Carnatic music at that time, and composed some gems in it. What is not well known is his adoption of Western music for composing some of his kritis.

Parvathy Hadley, a musicologist who is at ease with both Carnatic and Western music, points out that Swathi Thirunal had paid tribute to Beethoven, one of the maestros of Western music. She shares her experience in listening to a violin Beethoven concerto by Nigel Kennedy, Anne-Sophie Mutter and others. An excerpt from an article of hers says: “As I listened to the beginning of the solo, I would feel that I had heard that tune somewhere. And then it dawned on me. For the violin, D is the tonic or ‘Sa’. The first 8 notes have ‘picks’ of the same frequency, an octave below, and read P N R M P N R M... (a very high note), G R S R N M... G R S R N M G R S – then starts the sequence R N S D N P D M P G M R G S, then going down again, R N S D N P D M P G M R G S, again R N S D N P D. At that point, he introduces a G#. As everyone who has learnt ‘Chalamela’ can see, the above is the second line of Swati’s Varnam. Obviously, our average 2-octave voices cannot span the range of notes that a violin can, so Swati has put in R N S D N P D M P G M R G S in the second line, and R N S D N P D in his last Charanam. (I am using D and G in both western and Carnatic contexts; I hope this is not confusing). Thus we can see a pattern. Ata Tala has 14 beats, or 56 quarter beats. In the first line he puts 14 from ‘Joy to the World’, blended with 42 quarter notes of his own. In the second line he puts 14 of Beethoven followed by 42 of his own. In the last Charanam he places 7 of Beethoven.”

The beginning of the solo in Beethoven’s violin concerto by Nigel Kennedy, Anne-Sophie Mutter and so on reverberates in Swathi Thirunal’s Sankarabharanam varnam.

The examples cited above prove that great saints and masters of Carnatic music have never shied away from other forms of music and have adopted it to sing in praise of the gods they worshipped. Would it be then objectionable if churches start adopting Carnatic music to sing songs in praise of Jesus?

I pen these lines in the wake of a recent controversy that has erupted in Chennai Carnatic music circles regarding Carnatic musicians performing in churches and singing songs in praise of Jesus. There has been a move to boycott the singers and some sabhas have been pressured into not allotting slots for them. While it is fair enough for rasikas to not listen to what they dislike, for whatever reasons, it is a shame that threats have been allegedly received by some of the artists. O S Arun is one of the musicians at the centre of the controversy. T M Krishna, musician par excellence (and a music activist, in my opinion), lost no time in pledging support to O S Arun.

He also has announced that he intends to release two songs each month on Jesus and Allah.

One of the allegations raised is that words in Tyagaraja’s compositions have been altered to sing songs in praise of Jesus. Here the controversy takes a different hue. There was no need to make such a transformation of great compositions that have stood the test of time.

In Kerala, Valsala Sasthriar ( 1847-1916), known more as a social reformer, missionary and poet, has composed songs in Sanskrit and Malayalam in praise of Jesus. Some of these songs might fit in so well in a concert without even people noticing that the deity addressed is Jesus. Sasthriar refers to Jesus as Parameswaran. The composer’s actual name was Mosa Valsalam. He was christened ‘Valsala Shasthri’ by the Metropolitan of Malabar in 1883 after listening to his music and discourse. He has to his credit a large number of literary and musical works. A few of them were published during his life time itself. They include Gitamanjari-Garland of Songs (1903) and Dhyanamalika-Meditation Songs (1916).

The collected works of Valsala Shasthriar was brought out by J John, his grandson, in 1958. The famous Oriental Research Institute and Manuscripts Library in Thiruvananthapuram has rare manuscripts of Sasthriar’s compositions.

I recall visiting the grand-daughter of Shasthriar in Kuzhithurai, Tamil Nadu, along with Pushpitha John, former Professor of Education in the University of Kerala in the early Eighties. The grand old lady readily took out her veena and played some of Sasthriar’s compositions for me. Some of the compositions in Gita Manjari have chitta swaras attached to them. Cholkettu, like those in the compositions of Dikshitar and Swathi Thirunal, have been attempted in some compositions. ‘Kaithukki Parane’ in Saveri-Roopakam, ‘Ananda Kirtaname’ in Shankarabharanam-Roopakam have been enriched with cholkottu.

The first composition in the book is presented as a ‘Chithrapadyam’, a matrix of letters arranged meticulously to generate the poem Neethithakaya in Thodi. In some compositions, the raga is specified as ‘English’. Perhaps, those are meant to be sung in the western style. A few of the songs that are being rendered in churches now do not necessarily follow the original form that was probably envisaged by the composer.

One hears that progressive thinkers are organising ‘protest concerts’. I beg to differ. I would rather have concerts in which compositions on all gods are sung, not to protest, but to help change the mind of hardline critics. Music, I believe, can melt the tough mindset of the critics. If not, let us all make music harmonious and cut out the cacophony.

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Printable version | Dec 11, 2019 10:11:52 PM |

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