Jon Higgins, the bhagavatar

Jon Higgins. Photo: The Hindu Archives  

Foreigners taking an interest in Carnatic music began with the British Raj. Most of them were interested in studying the art and not becoming artists. Harold Powers was the first to perform at the Tyagaraja Aradhana in Tiruvayyaru, but he later focusSed on academics.

Jon Higgins, who combined research with a performer's career, was therefore something of a wonder. His singing and his pronunciation, as though he had spent a whole lifetime soaking in Carnatic music, amazed everyone. After all, as Higgins humorously observed in an article written for The Indian Fine Arts Society's souvenir in 1967-68, “is it not an obvious prerequisite that one must be born on the banks of the Cauvery” to be able to appreciate, let alone sing Carnatic music?

The Hindu, over the years followed him with interest. On September 17, 1966, the Delhi correspondent wrote in a column titled Random Notes from The Capital that “lovers of Carnatic music in the capital had a rare treat when they listened for two hours to an American render Tyagaraja and Dikshitar kritis with the ease of a professional. A large gathering had turned up at the Fullbright House out of curiosity to see a foreigner try his hand at the intricacies of Carnatic music, which soon turned into astonishment and admiration. Till he concluded the programme, Jon Higgins showed himself as more than an amateur student. He had indeed imbibed the concert tradition so well that he did not forget to give at appropriate places a ‘Bhale!' to the mridangam player and a ‘Sabash' to the violinist.”

Traditional touch

A month later, Higgins performed at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Madras, with brothers V. Tyagarajan (violin) and V. Nagarajan (mridangam). The Hindu's review, titled A Connecticut Yankee of Karnataka Sangitam by Aarabhi, appeared on October 9. It noted acidly that barring the fact that the singer was “a Connecticut Yankee Sri Jon B Higgins,” the performance had all the usual elements of a kutcheri -- “The late start, the intrusive photographers, the speeches in the middle…”. Aarabhi wrote that while the singer wore spotless white, his guru, T. Viswanathan was “clad in impeccable Western style.”

Like the Delhi correspondent, Aarabhi expressed astonishment at Higgins' “remarkable empathy for the grammar and idiom of Karnataka sangitam.” Speaking on the occasion, Justice K.S. Venkataraman attributed it all to Higgins' purva janma (previous birth).

As though in answer to such patronising attitudes, Higgins' IFAS article was titled “Purva janma ….. Or the here and now?” While he “was not interested in challenging the Hindu tradition of reincarnation”, he wished to emphasise that he had a very fine master in his present life. He also suggested “that all speculation about purva janma is unrelated to the particular 20{+t}{+h} century phenomenon of a musical commerce between cultures”. As though in agreement, Aarabhi noted that his faultless rendering of ‘Endaro Mahanubhavulu' “made the audience sit up and notice that no favours need be shown to Higgins merely because he was a stranger to us, our culture and our arts, especially our cherished music. Nattakuranji was the main raga and only the best of our vocalists could have done better.” Higgins soon became well-known in Carnatic music circles. In 1981, Higgins came to Madras. He was the Professor of Music and Director of the Centre for the Arts at the Wesleyan University. “DA”, in an article in The Hindu dated 20{+t}{+h} February 1982 noted that “he used to be a familiar figure, about twenty years ago, loquacious, lean and dhoti-clad cycling furiously along Santhome High Road. Now he seemed a little too formal and reserved, as well as filled out and prosperous.”

Carnatic audiences took Higgins to their hearts. Even The Hindu's difficult-to-please NMN, while panning Higgins' raga rendition and his singing of ‘Sri Kamalambayahparam,' noted that “uncommon command characterised his swara singing” and his “bhava laden ‘Vazhimaraitirukkude' in Natakuranji provided the great experience of the evening” ( The Hindu, 14th May,1982). There were a few other Higgins hits as well – ‘Siva Siva Siva Enarada' and ‘Tyagaraja Yoga Vaibhavam' being but two. In 1983, Higgins returned to the Wesleyan University and The Hindu reported his having organised Navaratri celebrations there, complete with the worship of study materials on Saraswati puja day. It was therefore with great sorrow that the paper also reported his death, following an accident on December 8, 1984. The obituary, dated December 10, said that he had “enthralled Indian and Western audiences with his masterly rendering of Carnatic music.” A number of letters to the Editor were published, all echoing the same sentiment. One of them wrote aptly that Higgin's success owed everything to his “devotion to the art” and “his sense of dedication and purpose.”

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