Music knows no boundaries

Unusual passion: Sister Margaret Bastin

Unusual passion: Sister Margaret Bastin  


Sister Margaret Bastin slowly got addicted to Carnatic music which she took up as the main subject with diffidence.

Carnatic music moves me. Many songs bring tears to my eyes.

It is an unusual sight. A nun is seated on the dais, giving a Carnatic music concert. “Carnatic music doesn’t belong to one religion,” says Sister Margaret Bastin.

She came to Carnatic music quite by chance. After her twelfth standard, she was totally clueless about the course of study to take up in college. That is when Father Ignatius Irudayam of Aikkiya Aalayam in Santhome, exhorted her to take up Carnatic music.

It was with diffidence and tepidity that she enrolled for the B.A Music course in Queen Mary’s College, for although she had been told that she had a sweet voice, she knew nothing about classical music. She stayed in Aikkiya Aalayam till she finished the course.

When she returned from college, she would study the paasurams of the Azhwars, Thevaram, Tiruppugazh, Kural, Vallalar, Thayumanavar and Pattinathar, many of which had been compiled by Father Irudayam in a book titled ‘Endaiyar Iraivan.’ Father Dhanraj, a Tamil scholar, Father Jayaraj, a good singer, and Father Irudayam moulded her musically and spiritually.

Veena lessons

With their encouragement, she went on to do her M.A., M Phil, and Ph.D. in music. While doing her Ph.D., she also taught at the Adyar Music College. Suguna Varadachari was her guru at the University of Madras. She also learnt veena from Karaikudi Subramaniam. She still continues veena lessons under a student of Rajeshwari Padmanabhan. Sister learnt Bharatanatyam for four years from Syamala, Balasaraswathi’s student.

Her M.Phil. thesis was on the Vattapalai. “Research in this area had been carried out by S.Ramanathan and V.P.K.Sundaram. My thesis was an attempt to answer questions they had left unanswered. My views on the subject have been included as part of the syllabus for the M.A. Music course in Madras University,” says Sister Margaret. Her Ph.D. thesis was on Vipulaananda Adigal’s ‘Yaazh Nool.’

“Initially Seetha was my guide. Later it was N.Ramanathan, a man his students were very fond of. Each of us would lay claim to him as ‘En Ramanathan,’” she chuckles.

Her arangetram was in 1991, when she sang at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mylapore. “I began with the Sahana varnam, ‘Karunimpu.’ My main piece was Swati Tirunal’s Navaratri kriti in Sankarabharanam, ‘Devi Jagat Janani,” she recalls.

After a two year teaching stint at Queen Mary’s college, and another four years at Mother Teresa Women’s University, Sister Margaret was asked by the Bishop to take charge of the Kalai Kaviri college of Fine Arts, run by the Catholic Diocese of Tiruchi. “The Catholic church wanted to make Indian fine arts a part of Church life. The Kalai Kaviri college is an instrument in achieving this,” adds Sister.

The college offers Bachelors and Masters programmes in music and dance, and a Ph.D. programme in dance. It is affiliated to Bharatidasan University.

The college has been a blessing to marginalised students.

“Most of the students are unable to pay even the hostel fees. But we show them concessions. How else will children from poor fishermen’s families have access to the fine arts?”

The college has its own dance troupe that has done thematic programmes in many countries.

“The parents of students in this troupe are delighted that their children have had access to what are considered elitist arts- like Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam,” Sister points out.

The lyrics they use for their dance programmes merely speak of God, without mentioning the name of any particular God. So the same lyrics are used whether the students perform in Church or in temple. “And our dances have drawn appreciation both from the Diocese and from temple authorities,” Sister says proudly.

But how can marginalised students buy dance costumes? “They don’t have to. Our college provides everything. External examiners from Kalakshetra have marvelled at the hard work put in by our students and faculty.”

The titles

Sister has been conferred the title ‘Pann Isai Arasi’ by the Tiruvaiyaru Tamizh Isai Mandram, and the title ‘Perumpaana Nangai” by Lalgudi Kudandai Pa. Sundaresaranar Trust.

She has brought out a cassette of religious bhajans in Carnatic ragams, again not on any particular God, titled ‘Neere Jeevan.’

“When someone dies, a Mass is held. I came out with a cassette of songs to be used on such occasions. I’ve named it ‘Mudivilla Aarambam.’ I’ve written the lyrics, and Natarajan, who teaches in our college, and I have set the songs to tune in classical ragams.”

“Carnatic music moves me. Many songs bring tears to my eyes. I cannot even think of ‘Kurai Ondrum Illai’ without crying,” she says. There is a catch in her voice, and she takes a minute to compose herself and continue.

In 2000 she spoke at the Music Academy about Karaikkal Ammaiyar.

In 2001 she presented a paper at the International Archaeological Symposium in Berlin.

She has given 30 lec-dems, and is a regular at the Isai Vizha held every year in Avinasilingam College, Coimbatore. She has set 10 verses of Thembavani to tune.

Sister Margaret’s musical plans are ambitious, but given her determination and hard work, they will not remain unfulfilled for long.

Recommended for you