Readers Write In #47: When Left Met Right: Let’s talk about Communalizing Carnatic Music

Posted on August 24, 2018


As the nation celebrates its 72nd Independence Day, we need to have a dialogue between those who read India right and left.

Before I venture further, I must admit this. I have never been too fond of labels which are, more often, borrowed constructs placed out of context. So, I am going to use the words, “Left” and “Right” reluctantly. This could be a conversation between “Modern” and “Traditional” way to read India as well.

This conversation is based on real, intense dialogues that have been happening inside my close circles, ever since this controversy broke out.

Left: I can’t believe we have come to this ghastly state of affairs when we’ve begun communalizing Carnatic Music. Haven’t these enraged “rasikas” ever listened to Abraham Pandithar or Samuel Vedanayakkam Pillai or if nothing else, atleast heard NagooreHanifa’s “IraivanidamKaiyendungal” sung by Vittal Das?

Right: Like always, you are missing the forest for the trees. Inculturation is at the heart of the matter here. In case the word is unfamiliar, here is the definition from wikipedia

“In Christianityinculturation is the adaptation of the way Church teachings are presented to non-Christian cultures and, in turn, the influence of those cultures on the evolution of these teachings. This is a term that is generally used by Roman Catholics, the World Council of Churches and some Protestants, other Protestants prefer to use the term “contextual theology

Left: What is wrong in this? Have you ever been to a Syrian Christian wedding in Kerala where Dwajasthambas are a common sight in Churches, where families get together to prepare the mangalsutra on the eve of the wedding night? What is wrong in using one set of cultural symbols to talk about a different faith? Isn’t that the essence of who we are?

When a wise man (whom I shall not name here for obvious reasons) once called India, “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”, wasn’t this the whole point?

Right: Now, Come on! Stop indulging in romantic notions. You can’t brush under the carpet, bloodied centuries of history, colonization and all its hydra-headed reverberations with an all-too-pleasing image of a “palimpsest”. The devil lies in the details. Let’s talk in specific terms.

There is nothing wrong in this appropriation, except when Abrahamic faiths claim itself to be the ONE and only, and rightly, not one among the many. How can one faith claiming false monopoly appropriate symbols from another faith which doesn’t claim itself to be a monopoly? Do you see the asymmetry which thaws the heart?

Left: Yes, I hear your anguish. If you are willing, why don’t you understand its context, its origins to appreciate how it came that way? Each faith, whether we like it or not, is a product of its historical circumstances. In such case, why is it so hard to understand, and dare I say, empathize with its original geographical context, set in conflicted and deserted regions, amidst warring tribals?

Right: It’s funny when you talk about empathizing the “other”, when the truth is, and I am sorry to say this, you hold your own culture and tradition in shame and self-hatred. Why do you hold so much disgust towards your own culture, your own dharma? Why do you dismiss your own heritage and culture in one swoop of dogma and superstition?

In all these years, have you ever, even for a brief moment, felt pride over your roots and heritage? Or are you too colonized to even entertain such a notion? Why do you choose to selectively disown the entire story of this civilization, and only acknowledge that one segment of the story which started seventy two years ago, with the birth of the Indian constitution?

Think about it. When you talk about communalizing carnatic music, the real question is this: Let us say, if you are a Hindu and a Brahmin(and I completely hear your anguish that today majority of the Carnatic musicians are mostly upper-class, Hindu and Brahmin. Let us work towards making music more inclusive), when you are presenting Carnatic music for a Christian audience, would you feel comfortable wearing the markers of your own heritage, say vibhuti or thiruman? Think about it.

Left: This conversation, like I expected, is going in all directions. I am going to stick to the core theme of this discussion and I can only tell you this. When I was studying in a salesian school in Chennai, for many years, I used to recite “Our Father in Heaven” prayer in my school assembly stage, wearing vibhutiin my forehead and a rudraksha in my neckI don’t recollect a single day when I felt out of place reciting myprayers in my school.

Right: That’s beautiful to hear that. But, you haven’t addressed the crux of the point. You are selectively quoting your own life story to evade talking about extremely uncomfortable issues.

Left: By all means, let’s keep the conversation going. I can’t believe we’ve even started to talk. We need totalk.

This post was written by Venky