Similar in both spirit and intonation

S.A.K. Durga

S.A.K. Durga   | Photo Credit: Photo: R. Shivaji Rao


Music S.A.K.Durga is the only Indian to have chanted the Gregorian chants in the Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School.

An Indian seated cross-legged on the floor chants the Vedas. Elsewhere in the Roman Catholic Church, a priest intones a Gregorian chant. As one listens, a sense of peace and tranquillity prevails. Because both have spiritual quests as their motivating force. But the similarity doesn't end there.Both are melodic and both are monophonic. In short, both have musical similarities. And that's not all. The Gregorian chants bear similarities to the Tevaram too.S.A.K.Durga talks about Gregorian chants, which she studied at Yale University, where she did her post-doctoral research. Earlier, she had done her Ph.D in Ethnomusicology at the Wesleyan University.

Interest for Gregorian chants

Beginning her study of music under Madurai Mani Iyer, Durga continued her lessons under Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer. Her interest in Gregorian chants dates back to the time when she studied Western music, as she worked towards a degree in music. But at that time, she merely had an introduction to the Gregorian chants. It was only when she went to the U.S., to pursue her studies in music, that she became aware of its beauty. In the Vedas and in the Gregorian chants, voice drone is an element, she says. Contrapuntal music is an element in both. Both the Sama Veda and the Gregorian chants are chanted in a descending scale. Any melody, Western or Indian, shows syllabic, neumatic or mellismatic elements. Syllabic singing means singing of one note per letter. The Rig Veda is a syllabic. Neumatic chanting is where two notes per syllable are chanted. The Yajur Veda is chanted in this style. The Sama Veda is mellismatic, that is several notes per syllable are chanted. In fact the concept of singing sangatis comes from the Sama Veda, Durga says. All three styles are seen in Gregorian chants.The Alleluia of the Gregorian chants is mellismatic. The Tevaram hymns are mellismatic. Durga sings the Tevaram verse "Maadar Pirai Kanni" and explains that it is in the pann Gandharam. She has especially studied this hymn in relation to the Gregorian chants. She says there is a similarity between the Gregorian pattern of chanting and this particular Tevaram, except that in the former, gamaka is lacking.The Gregorian chants, like the Vedic chants and the Tevaram and Divya Prabandham, are offerings to God. Gregorian chants are more like an alapanai. But in the case of the Tevaram, we have the concept of talam. In Divya Prabandham, the talams are mentioned. The Divya Prabandham has ragas like Mudirnda Kurinji, not seen in the Tevaram.Gregorian chant is called Roman chant or plainsong, and is chanted in eight modes. In Sama Veda there is only one mode — Kharaharapriya. There is another school of Sama Veda, which has Sankarabharanam. The Church modes are much closer to the Tevaram, which has ragas like Harikhambodi and Sankarabharanam.

The Mixolydian mode

The Phrygian mode has its equivalent in Kharaharapriya. The Carnatic equivalent of the Lydian mode is Kalyani, which one does not find in the Tevaram. The most frequently used mode in the Tevaram isthe Mixolydian mode that is Harikambhoji.Gregorian chanting is slower in tempo than the Vedic one. Durga studied Gregorian chanting at Yale Divinity School, where classes for the chants are held in the Marquand Chapel. Voice training is of utmost importance in the Gregorian chanting. One has to use one's voice with continuity. Students are, therefore, taught breath control. This is where Durga's training under Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer came in handy. Maharajapuram had tremendous breath control, which made it possible for him to glide from one sangati to another. Students attempting Gregorian chanting are taught smooth transition of vowels in singing. This kind of transition can be likened to gliding sangatis.One reason for the insistence on breath control could be because it helps in concentration. This is a concept Indians are familiar with, for yoga also requires breath control, a prerequisite for dhyana.Durga is the only Indian to have chanted the Gregorian chants in the Marquand Chapel. She also chanted at St. John's Church in New York.As Durga chants Gregorian chants and then follows this up with a Vedic one, this writer glimpses an austere beauty, one that does not excite, but calms, comforts, assuages, soothes and mesmerises.

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